She was a terrific kid.
As one of my third grade students that year, Kelly contibuted a lot to our class. She loved to sing, could throw a baseball like Tim Lincecum and painted beautiful pictures. She always completed her homework, no matter how long it took her, and tried as hard as any student I have taught before or since.
But, despite that, Kelly was not like the other kids. She was a special education student with a disability, a cognitive impairment that would never go away, no matter how hard she tried. She was different, and the other kids knew it.
And one day at recess, they let her know they knew it. A group of kids surrounded her and teased her with ugly, cruel words. And when Kelly returned from recess crying, I was appalled.
I think I was more upset than Kelly. Class discussions were held, parents were called. One dad shrugged it off with "Kids will be kids, and they will always tease each other. It's part of everyone's school experience. Everyone's been teased."
And, he had a point. Everyone has been teased. I know, because whenever I tell someone Kelly's story, they have a story for me. Too tall, too fat, funny accent, too black, too gay… I can still see fresh pain on people's faces when they recount hateful stories from high school 30 years ago.
And it has to stop.
Today, what that dad dismissed as "teasing" has a new word. It's called bullying. And it's all over the place, from the schoolyard to the Internet. But in a movement that makes me proud to be a teacher, educators are taking a stand against bullying. In programs like "It Gets Better," students are learning that their classmates are so much more than just their weight, or their skin tone, or their disability. They're learning words hurt, that bullying can produce scars that last a lifetime, can even drive others to suicide.
October is National Bullying Prevention month.
That didn't exist when I taught Kelly all those years ago. But this October, I'm making sure my students learn that our school is a bully-free zone. Because school should be a safe place for Kelly — and for everyone.
With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.
Richard Swerdlow teaches at Robert Louis Stevenson School in San Francisco.