Zoe’s legacy: The friendship seat and a hope for an end to bullying

Today is Pink Shirt Day, an international initiative aimed at ending bullying. Here, Kiri Speirs shares her daughter Zoe’s story.

It still haunts me to know that being bullied was a feature of the last few months of my daughter’s life, that in the beginning it wasn’t handled very well and that I failed her in this.

Early in her second year at school, around the time that she turned six, Zoe told me that some older girls were seeking her out every day at lunchtime to tease her, particularly about the way she spoke. Zoe had some speech issues relating to nerve damage either from her cancer or the radiation treatment. She had undergone surgery to her palate before the school year started and, along with speech therapy, it was greatly improving the situation. But it was enough to single her out as a victim in the eyes of these girls (I want to call them bullies, but that label seems to make them less human than they really are).

I took her in to school early one morning to catch her teacher before others started arriving and explained to the teacher what had been happening. Her teacher’s first response was “Well, I hate to tell you, Zoe, but some people just aren’t very nice.” She went on to say that the next time it happened, Zoe should find the teacher on duty and point out who the girls were. While I was a little shocked at the comment, I felt there was a plan of action. And as a busy working solo mum, I didn’t want to rock the boat and be “one of those” parents. I assumed the school had its way of dealing with these things.

Looking back, although I am certain it was not the teacher’s intention, I can see now how the response turned over the responsibility to a six year old to take action and stop the bullying, instead of the teachers having an active plan to make sure it was stopped. Perhaps when you work with these little people all day, it’s easy to forget how tiny and vulnerable they really are. I also see in hindsight that the comment, “some people just aren’t very nice”, simply made Zoe feel that there was nothing to be done, that she was not heard, and that we must accept the behaviour of those who “just aren’t very nice.”

And so, when it kept happening, she didn’t speak up again and I thought it was resolved. The next warning sign was a few months later when at the end of a school day she sobbed in the car on the way home that she “didn’t want to be in life anymore.” The spectre of Zoe not being in life anymore had hung over us for the nine months of her cancer treatment and beyond, so the horror this sent through me was painful. I couldn’t get to the bottom of what caused this outburst at the time. She was unable or unwilling to explain it. But a few weeks later, we had our answer.

Zoe and I had a discussion one evening about the difference between tattling about unimportant things and reporting things, prompted by this pin.

Her response wasn’t immediate but she must have been mulling it over, and one morning, a couple of days later, out came the story of how three older girls had bailed her up – two had kept watch while the other took her into the toilets – pulled her shirt off and forced her arm down a toilet (full of urine and toilet paper).

It was the same girls who had been teasing her all year.

This time I raised the concern in writing and it was promptly passed on to the school principal. Action was immediate. Zoe and I went to the principal’s office and she identified the girls who had done this from class photographs. Although Zoe didn’t really know them, the names and nicknames they used matched the names on the photos. Zoe was in year two, six years old, they were in year five, a full three years older. There were immediate consequences for the girls and a plan put in place to protect Zoe.

The physical force used in this incident by children under ten still shocks me. There didn’t seem to be any underlying issues in the girls’ lives that prompted it. They simply chose a victim and acted, almost grooming her to accept it with the constant teasing.

Relieved the school was dealing with it, we moved on and Zoe became much happier. There had been pants wetting incidents that disappeared once it was resolved.

But then a few short weeks later, Zoe’s cancer relapsed and we knew it was terminal. One of the first things I said in communication to the school was that they should tell the girls involved that their actions in no way had anything to do with Zoe’s cancer returning. I know something about how irrational guilt can be, what you know about cause and effect doesn’t always match your gut feeling.

This could just be the end of a very sad story, and when I started writing this, it was. I wasn’t sure I had anything to say. But then I realised that what happened six months later was the answer.

Zoe.

In the April following her death, a few days after her birthday, Zoe’s school dedicated a friendship seat to her. The friendship seat is a touchstone for the children. If they are feeling sad or lonely, they can go to the friendship seat. It’s a sign that they are in need of some kindness and other children are encouraged to go and sit with them and reach out to them.

I spoke to a group of children when they had a little dedication ceremony. I can’t really remember what I said, but I did mention that Zoe was sometimes kind and sometimes in need of kindness. I read this quote from Audrey Hepburn: “For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others. For beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness. And for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”

The plaque too, with its quote from AA Milne is, I hope, an encouragement both to children in need of kindness and to those who might offer it. “There is something you must always remember: You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think”.

So this really is a story of how Zoe and the school built something from bullying, something lasting, that I hope continues to help children connect with each other in kindness and compassion.

Kiri Speirs is a bereaved mum who lives in Auckland and works in marketing. She blogs about grief, loss and healing at retrogirlandthechemokid.com.

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