Eight years ago I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, or should say, nearly climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Its summit is the highest point on the African continent at 19,330 feet. I got as far as Gillman’s Point, 678 feet from the summit. Little more than the length of two football fields separated me from my goal.
My Tanzanian guide and I arrived at Gillman’s Point at sunrise on that October morning. The wind chill factor was 25 degrees below zero, winds were howling, the water in my canteen was frozen solid and altitude sickness set in. The guide said safety considerations required we stop climbing. I didn’t argue but descended heartbroken and frustrated.
It later occurred to me this was one of the few times in my life when my personal resources had not been enough. Neither my family nor my friendships, academic degrees nor credit score, not my resume or my spiritual beliefs or job record…none of it could be exchanged that day for what I wanted, at that moment, to accomplish.
I remembered that feeling of helplessness one recent sleepless night. A Cheyenne mother had just sent me a plea for help. Her young son, she explained, has been too long the victim of schoolhouse bullies. Frequently, readers send requests to write about issues that matter to them. This one was different. It was laced with the emotion only a heartbroken mother at the end of her resources could express.
“I am begging you to please write an article about bullying,” she wrote. “My son has been emotionally bullied every day for more than 7 years.” She believed this column could do something “to bring hope and change to so many kids (and their families) who wake up each morning wondering if "today will be a bad day or an okay day.”
This wasn’t the first plea received from a parent of a bullied child. Yet there was something especially striking about its rawness. This mother had reached her “Gillman’s Point.” She had done what she had been told to do. She advocated for her child with teachers and a principal. Regardless of their response, her son was still being victimized.
As much as I want to write something that will change things for her son, I can’t. I’m not going to point fingers and blame schools, teachers and principals. Neither am I going to blame parents of the bullies. Yet the experience of trying to protect your child and being left feeling helpless reasonably leads to us to ask whether a solution to this ubiquitous problem can be found without blaming someone.
Blaming is an emotional exercise. Watching your child suffer is no less emotional. But how is it that our community allows children (bullies and the bullied), parents and educators, to reach that point beyond which none of their personal resources can solve the problem? How can it be when all the caring skills of parents and teachers are combined with the resources of the community that a parent becomes so desperate that her last alternative is to reach out to a local newspaper columnist for help?
As director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services, I learned communities have a hard time seeing “those” children as their own. I grew up in Cheyenne in the 50s. It was then a place where, whether you were in school, church or the neighborhood, families looked out after one another. The next-door neighbor, a teacher or a church leader played a role in our lives. When the family reached the end of its resources, another caring adult was there.
Surveys of school children in Wyoming today show an alarming number believe they do not have a meaningful connection with even one adult other than a parent. That’s the reason parents too often reach a point where they feel they have no more resources, no one else who cares enough to help their child through the crisis. There should be no “Gillman’s Point” in a community like ours.