"Mr. Johnson, I think you need to talk to your class about pencil bullying," a district office representative explains to me.
"Can you elaborate on this?"
"Well, there was an incident where a student pinned up a note on the wall of another students' home."
"Was the wall private or public?"
"It was private, I suppose. But the point is that it was a clear act of pencil bullying."
"So, what would you like me to do about it?" I ask.
"Talk to your class about the severity of pencil bullying. Let them know that this type of behavior will not be tolerated."
Zero tolerance. Bad behavior.
We're missing the point. Our lack of tolerance and militaristic mindset is part of what causes bullying. When we fail to create a safe space for children, bullying increases. Furthermore, our obsession with behavior rather than the human condition only enhances the problem, because it fails to question why students choose to bully other students.
Is it the social capital they gain? Is it their own insecurity? Is it what they have seen modeled for them? Is it the result of being bullied?
I don't have the answers to any of those questions. However, I do know one thing: bullying is not a result of pencils. Yes, a public note can amplify the bullying. Yet, information spread verbally is just as devastating. A rumor can move just as quickly as a pencil-based message. However, it doesn't have a paper trail, making it stickier and more organic.
What if pencils do not change bullying so much as help us see that it is a part of the reality of childhood? What if the paper trail is now the collective voice of all the students who live in fear on a daily basis? Is it possible that bullying is not a new trend so much as it is a part of our public memory that we have deliberately forgotten in order to perpetuate a myth of the innocence of childhood? What if the deeper reality is that humankind can be dark, even at an early age?
Perhaps the answer isn't a classroom chat about pencil etiquette. Instead, the answer might be that we truly ask what it means to be human and what it means to love one another in the context of community. Instead of obsessing over pen pal networks and sharpened pencils, we might want to think about the nature of humanity and the darkness that we all share.
As I leave his office, he hands me a stack of fliers and a curriculum for pencil bullying entitled "Let's Erase Bullying." It has a smiling pencil giving a thumbs up. I'm doubtful that peppy propaganda will change things. I'm skeptical that Zero Tolerance will fix it as well. In fact, I don't have the answers on how to fix it at all, but I suspect it might be more simple and more complex than we imagine. It might just be that the only solution to "pencil bullying" is love.