Bullying, Broken Hearts, and the Banana Splits: How Teachers Mend What's Been Broken

Shannon Grimm of Willis ISD and her student Priscilla

Shannon Grimm of Willis ISD and her student Priscilla

I have a couple of stories to tell you about bullying and broken hearts, and the teachers who know how to mend them. But I'll start by saying bravo to Kindergarten teacher Shannon Grimm of Willis ISD in Texas, who adopted a new hairstyle in order to express solidarity with one of her students — a little girl whose cute 'do and bows had drawn teasing and bullying from her peers.

This story is both a day-brightener and a bit of head-scratcher. So you can see what I'm talking about, here's a link to the full article:

MSN: "Kindergarten teacher gets same haircut as bullied student: 'I'm here for her'"

… Now, I'm not here to condemn kindergarteners who woke up on the wrong side of the bunk bed. Kids that age are still learning their very first lessons about kindness and cruelty, and what it's like to be on one side or the other of that dynamic. But I'm nonetheless a little confused about why this five-year-old's adorable hairstyle and accompanying ribbons would trigger anything other than smiles and maybe a new fad for colorful hair bows.

It's probably fair to say there's no one, except maybe Mr. Rogers or the Dalai Lama, who hasn't partaken in some early-childhood version of hens in the chicken coop establishing their pecking order, based on some shaky sense of what is or isn't normal or acceptable. In this case, apparently short hair with bows was put under the microscope and didn't pass muster with this group of kids.

But instead of pulling out her own hair over the bullying, Ms. Grimm had the inspired idea to just get it cut and add some bows of her own, in order to support and celebrate one of her students who needed a lift. Rather brilliant and viral-worthy, if you ask me. Lately I'm in favor of sharing stories about kindness far and wide, as a tonic for our times.

Some of you may know that I'm the father of a third-grader. What you don't know, because I haven't told this story here yet, is that my daughter had her own run-in with the harsh vicissitudes of the henhouse.

One night after I finished reading her a bedtime story (which I promise wasn't Lord of the Flies), my daughter offered this: "I think secrets are for friends, but not school friends."

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OK, I was hooked. And she proceeded to tell me about a hard-learned lesson — not from third grade but from second. I had a faint recollection of her sharing a tiny scrap of this story a year ago, something like: "Dad, I had a secret and I told them not to tell, but they did." And I didn't give it much weight at the time, because I didn't realize second grade cliques were already beta-testing chicken-coop nastiness at that age.

I do remember offering something like, "Sweetie, the tooth fairy is real but there are no secrets. None. Someday you'll learn about Watergate and this will start to make sense ... "

But now it's a year later, and the same story is coming out in a more more detailed and articulate way. With the benefit of an additional year of school and language skills under her belt, and mounds of life experiences, she finally felt ready to reassemble all the parts of this saga and examine it in greater depth.

As you've probably already guessed, the incident in question involved an undisclosed and uncertain love, a secret shared, quick playground betrayals, and the ensuing taunts and chants that all too often follow. Group ridicule packs a unique punch, as the jeers and jabs are multiplied by the force of many against one. Piling on never ends well. I remember my own experiences with it, from both sides — piled on and also piling on. Shame.

I'm realizing as the story goes on that she's carried this little pocket of shame and confusion for a full year. I could tell her heart had been humiliated, her trust broken, and the damaged concept of friendship itself was being laid in my hands. Like taking your dropped smartphone in to the shop for diagnosis and repair. She's wondering: Can this thing still be saved? Is it worth the effort and the cost?

As an older parent I'm aware that these moments are precious and shouldn't be squandered. So I took a deep breath and said, "Listen, hon, the really important secrets are for locked diaries only ... unless and until the day arrives that you have so much humiliating dirt on all your girlfriends that you can completely destroy every single one of them if you need to."

... I'm kidding, of course. I don't really go around starting K-8 cold wars by advocating Mutual Assured Destruction policies to the Disney Princess demographic. (Although I'll admit the thought briefly went through my mind.)

Instead, I gently reinforced the new understanding that she was already developing: Friends are wonderful and trust is important, but once you tell a secret it's never really under your control any more. So you have to be very careful about who you choose to trust. And sometimes it takes years to really figure that out. In the meantime, some secrets aren't for school.

But of course the antidote to the world's cruelty is always kindness. Shannon Grimm understood that, and did a brilliant job of embodying it for her students. It made me think of my own kindergarten teacher, Ms. Marcum, who once picked me up and dusted me off in a way that's never left me.

The Banana Splits: Bingo, Drooper, Fleegle, and Snorky

The Banana Splits: Bingo, Drooper, Fleegle, and Snorky

It happened during Show and Tell. I was about to pull off a grand reveal of Bingo, Drooper, Fleegle, and Snorky, with a giant life-size poster of my comedy heroes The Banana Splits. And I had a plan all worked out. I remember thinking that first I'd wow the class with one of The Banana Splits' world-class jokes, and then I'd dramatically pull the big poster from the tube, letting it unfurl in all of its colorful Bingo and Fleegleness.

"Why don't bananas snore?" I asked the class. Gleeful pause. And then I served up the triumphant punchline: "Because they don't want to wake up the rest of the bunch!"

I'm happy to say that the joke killed, but what happened next killed my act. During my hasty reveal of the poster, it got caught on the edge of the tube, instantly splitting up the Banana Splits as my poster got torn in half. The result for me was shock, horror, and yes, public humiliation as big tears flowed. I was about ready to split myself. Suddenly, Kindergarten no longer seemed like a viable option.

But before I could bolt from the room and end my first year of half-day schooling, the real hero of the hour came to my rescue. Ms. Marcum dashed for the dispenser on her desk, and as fast as she could say the words "Tape! TAPE! Tape fixes EVERYTHING!" she had already begun surgery.

While she was mending the poster, she asked me if perhaps I knew another one of those jokes.

One? One joke? "No," I said, "I don't." And her face fell. But I wasn't done: " ... I have TEN jokes."

And so, with patience and a bumper crop of banana puns, both the poster and the moment were saved — as Fleegle and Snorky were lovingly pieced back together along with my comedy act.

Posters heal faster than hearts do, but we all heal in time, with love and kindness. The best kindergarten teachers know this, and it's their first and best tool, before they even reach for the scissors and glue.

Thanks, Shannon Grimm, for giving us all a lift. Love your new look, and if you can't bring bows back into fashion, I don't know who can.

I'll end with a quote from another great hero and teacher:

“The only thing that really changes the world is when somebody gets the idea that love can abound and can be shared.” — Fred Rogers

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In addition to appearing as an education keynote speaker, Tim Clue is available as a healthcare keynote speaker as well as a motivational speaker for business events of all kinds.