Before my daughter, Annabelle, even drops her backpack, she bursts into tears.
"Today she told me I was ugly and said that no matter how cute my outfit is, I'm still ugly," Annabelle cries.
The name-calling has been relentless. One ringleader and a rotating sidekick have been tormenting Annabelle for weeks now. The worst part? These aren't middle-school kids. The perps and the victim are in kindergarten. This bully, in her twirly skirt and glittery shoes, is 5 years old.
I pull Annabelle onto my lap and hug her good and tight, mentally trying to figure out my next step. I've already talked to the teacher, who pronounced the girls' behavior unacceptable. After she lectured the class about the importance of being nice, Annabelle got a reprieve of a whole day.
The next time she came home crying -- the girls had pulled on her beloved stuffed animal, Piggy, hard enough to make some of his stuffing fall out -- I took it upon myself to talk to the child myself. She was sitting on another girl's lap, getting her hair braided. The bright colors of the classroom, the oversize puzzle pieces, and fat crayons littering the table reminded me that these were little kids. So little that they don't even use pens yet. They still take a nap every afternoon and keep spare clothes in their cubby in case of potty accidents. How can kids this little be so mean? I wondered as I kneeled in front of Annabelle's torturer.
"You have to stop being mean to Annabelle," I told her. "You are making her feel really bad. You have to be nice to her. To everybody."
She looked in my eyes. And laughed.
It is hard not to think back to my own childhood when, for two terrible years, I was made miserable by three girls: Michelle, Sandy, and Susan. It started in second grade, for no reason at all except that, like Annabelle, I was an introvert who liked to draw, look at books, and daydream.
I did not get invited to birthday parties or sleepovers. I was not picked for recess kickball teams or jump-rope competitions. "This will make you a stronger adult," my mother used to tell me. "You're more independent and learning ways to entertain yourself." But all I wanted was for Michelle to turn her big blue eyes on me and ask me to her house after school or to play jacks with her. Just once.
For my eighth birthday, my mother decided to throw me a party and invite my tormenters. To my surprise, they accepted. On a December Saturday, my snowman cake with its licorice grin on the table, we waited for them to arrive. And we waited. And we waited. After an hour, my mother called each of the girls' mothers, only to be told they didn't even know there was a party.
Michelle moved away that summer, and without her leadership the others disbanded. I became unimportant, I suppose. Whatever the reason, I was left alone and soon enough went to middle school, where I immediately made friends. Before I knew it, I was practically popular. I walked up and down the mall every Saturday with a gaggle of girls. I had boys calling me. But I admit now that the sting never left me. It is with me still.
I want to spare Annabelle so many things. I don't want her to fail. I want her poems to be read aloud by the teacher and for her to be selected to dance in The Nutcracker. I don't want a boy to break her heart. Even though I know these things will happen and that she will recover, I don't want to ever see her disappointed or wounded or sad. That is every parent's wish. Those things, the hardships of life, come soon enough, even with a mother's love trying to keep them at bay. But to have them arrive in kindergarten seems especially cruel.
Of course I wonder where a 5-year-old gets the urge to bully another child. I wonder what joy this little girl gets in taunting Annabelle. "You're a baby," the girl tells Annabelle one sunny afternoon. They are in the playground, swinging on swings and running through new grass. "You should be put back in nursery school with the babies."
I find the bully's mother's e-mail address in the class directory and I write her. You have to make your child stop. I say it clearly and without blame. Just the facts. Then I climb into bed with Annabelle to read to her. I kiss the top of her tangled hair. My heart is full of all the desires and hurts of a mature woman. My heart is so full of love that I almost cannot contain it. I will battle anyone for this child. I will take on the bullies, their mothers, their sidekicks, all the boys who will break her heart someday, and all the people who will not choose her to act or dance or join in a game.
The phone rings and my 17-year-old son, Sam, appears in the doorway, holding it out to me. But I wave him away, not wanting to let go of Annabelle quite yet. However, when he mouths who is on the other end, I ease myself off the bed to take the call. It's the bully's mother, and in the few seconds it takes me to reach for the receiver all kinds of things run through my mind. I know her from the classroom drop-offs and pick-ups, and local kid events. Although she has always seemed reasonable and nice, I find myself wondering if the bully's mother is mean or about to bully me in order to protect her daughter just as I am struggling to protect mine.
As soon as I hear her voice though, I know she has called to help fix this. "Oh, Ann," she says, "I read your e-mail and felt sick. I can't believe my daughter is the mean kid." Filled with relief, we talk about how to make it stop. She and her husband will talk to their daughter immediately. We'll all stay in touch with each other and the teacher. When we hang up, I almost feel hopeful. But a cynical, wounded part of me makes me hold my breath and see. For the next few days, Annabelle comes home happy. Nothing has happened. One day the ex-bully tells her she likes her dress. Another day they sit next to each other at lunch. A week passes. The mom e-mails me to make sure that everything is okay. When I tell her it is, she e-mails back and asks: Maybe we should have a playdate? At last, I exhale. That's a good idea, I write back.
It feels appropriate to fight Annabelle's battles for her now. But soon enough she will have to do it on her own. I know I did. A mother can't prevent the bullies from bullying or our children's hearts from breaking. After that failed birthday party, my mother filled my shelves with Nancy Drew books to fend off the loneliness. Despite the pained look that crossed her face whenever the bullies' names were mentioned, she had to step back and send me off alone, armed with the things she gave me: confidence in myself and confidence in her love.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Parents magazine.