When school gets out, X invariably greets his parents by showing off his newest work of art. We receive these projects half-heartedly because we know that most of them are not commissioned works, but rather the side projects of a creative child who hasn’t yet learned to work with the group. But the teachers reassure us that he’s getting better at following instructions; he just rushes through them, so he’ll have time for his own stuff. I can relate.
On Monday, X’s proudly touted artwork was a paper towel spotted with his own blood. We responded to it in all the wrong ways. The blood came from a split lip. The teacher having ducked away, we questioned X directly, but he said “I can’t tell you what happened.” With agonizing slowness, over the course of the evening, we pried the story out of him – a typical five-year-old narrative, pitted with vagueness and contradictions.
X was in the schoolyard/X didn’t have to go out for recess today. X was playing/fighting with three/four/five other boys. X was on board with the game/X told them to stop. One of them pushed X into a planter/fence and he hit his lip. No teachers saw the incident.
Cue a very long night of fretting, alternating half-hearted reassurances, and frantic internet research. X worried more about our reactions than about the encounter itself – but in a way, that made it even worse, because it implied that five-against-one violence was already normal in his mind. S speculated it was just “rough play,” which was why no teachers informed us about it. I countered that, if he (and another kid, he revealed) had been kept indoors during the second recess, that meant they knew something serious had gone down.
When your child is/might be getting bullied, all kinds of grim parental urges take hold. Vigilante justice against five year olds is frowned upon in any culture; as luck would have it, I got the chance to do some undercover investigating instead. Tuesday morning, X’s class had a field trip to a local cinema; I had already volunteered to help escort them.
Early morning French is not my forte. The maîtresse spoke fast and at length about yesterday’s scrap, whilst all around us kids were whooping and chattering. The gist: she thinks it’s probably a good thing that X is being more sociable at recess. “But five against one,” I countered. “Yes, he is a very different child,” she admitted, “other children will use that.”
It’s easy to cast your child as the victim; it’s harder to accept that they might be just as much at fault. One mother dropped off her girl, but lingered when she heard that X’s father was in the classroom. She showed me the latest sample of X’s darker artwork: two long scratch marks across her daughter’s forehead. “Next time, he will scratch her eye out!” She railed. I looked at the scarred yet serene little girl. Could she be one of the five bullies? Or had X taken out his victimhood on her? I began to apologize, but the maîtresse jumped in to defend X, or at least explain why he was such a volatile ingredient in the classroom recipe.
I looked around again. This classroom recipe belonged in The Anarchist’s Cookbook. They were like wolf cubs. One boy greeted X, wandered away, then came back to deliver a light cuff to X’s neck. X batted him away and kept on building Lego. At roll call, I caught a glimpse of K, the boy from the posse whom X had named as ringleader. He was stocky, with long unkempt hair. I could take him.
The kids donned neon safety vests and were herded, two by two, down the narrow sidewalks of Vieux-Lille. I was impressed by the teachers for safely navigating past so many distractions and threats. X insisted on climbing up every set of stairs we passed; he fell once on a curb, and another time he walked straight into a building. I began to see that, whenever a maîtresse defended him, it was in spite of the enormously disruptive influence he has upon her world. Still, I wanted more from them. I wanted them to fix my kid.
We watched a half-decent animated French film. I snuck X half a snack bar in the darkened theatre. After the show, the kids paired up again, and X got stuck with K, his nemesis. Neither kid wanted to hold hands, so I stepped in and held them both. I spent the return journey embroiled in internal debate over the owner of the tiny, sweaty hand clutching mine. Should I say something to K? This might be my only chance to defuse the situation. Or would I make it worse?
Finally, outside the school gates, I couldn’t hold back. I crouched to K’s level and introduced myself, trying to sound calm and reasonable. “Do you play with X sometimes, in the playground?” I asked him, in slow, clear French. He shook his head. “Do you fight with him?” Another silent head-shake. “Did you see him get hurt yesterday?” Head-shake. “You know that fighting is not allowed, yes? And five against one is not fair.” He stared dumbly, terror and confusion in his eyes.
The gates opened and K sped away. I spent the next ten minutes trying to disentangle myself from X, who was convinced that my presence at the film meant he got to go home early. I lied about having work to do; my plan had been to relax in a café and daydream about writing novels, but now I felt incalculably guilty about abandoning him to the wolf pen, even for half a day. My new agenda was to search for other school options in Lille – bilingual schools, Catholic schools, Montessori schools, anything but this.
X wouldn’t let me go, so finally a teacher grabbed his arm and hauled him away. I watched his blond head bobbing through the sea of children. I wondered if this moment would be the inspiration for his next masterpiece. Today’s trauma, tomorrow’s art.