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Jane Ahlin, Published September 14 2013

Ahlin: Little girl says: ‘Hey, Mom, I’m not a downstander’

"I’m not a downstander, Mom,” the girl in elementary school says.

Hearing her story later, I have no idea what a “downstander” is. But we’ll come back to that. Best to begin at the beginning: new school year, new teacher, new classroom of kids, and the excitement and emotional adjustment all that newness includes.

The story is of two girls in the same class. The girl who tells her mom she isn’t a downstander is a child typical to this part of the country – a blond, blue-eyed girl with Scandinavian heritage on both sides of her family. To identify her ancestors who came to America, she has to stretch back to her great-great grandparents born in Norway, Slovenia and Wales and great-great-great-grandparents born in Germany. All with Christian backgrounds, her forebears were Lutheran, Catholic or Methodist.

The other girl has immigrant parents new to America, and like immigrants of every era and generation, they have brought their faith – Islam – with them from the country they left. This girl is dark-skinned and brown-eyed. She wears the hijab, the head scarf that frames her face and drapes across both upper back and chest, a “symbol of modesty, privacy and morality” worn by many Muslim girls and women.

The blond child – like many of her classmates – doesn’t know the name for the head scarf her classmate wears or why she wears it, nor is she particularly curious about it. Her main concern on those first days is how to keep from feeling miserably hungry because lunchtime for her class doesn’t come around until almost 1 o’clock. Still, a few days into the new school year, she notices a game some of the kids in her class are playing.

Here’s how the game works: Out on the playground, one child touches the girl in the hijab, then runs to another child and wipes his or her fingers on that child, as if to transfer the touch. That child wipes off the touch and tries to catch another child to wipe the touch onto, and on and on (an ugly version of tag). No students want the contamination of the girl in the hijab wiped on them.

Pretty soon, a boy who’s been touched wipes his fingers on the blond girl. She gets mad, telling him it’s a mean game and she won’t play. Then she goes to the girl in the hijab and says, “You don’t have to put up with that. You should tell the teacher what’s going on because they’re bullying you.” The two girls talk a bit and finally go to the teacher together.

When the blond girl tells her mother the story, her mother asks many questions. At one point, her mother asks, “Is she your friend?”

The girl shrugs and says, “Not really, but I’d do it for anybody.” That’s when the blond girl adds, “I’m not a downstander, Mom.”

You see, a downstander is somebody who sees somebody else being bullied but does nothing about it; not surprisingly, the opposite of being a downstander is being an upstander. A reasonable guess is that the terms were derived from a combination of “bystander” and “upstanding,” but it’s hard to find information about who coined the terms or how widely they are used. What is clear, however, is that the terms bring home an anti-bullying message in that particular elementary school. Certainly, it did for the blond girl who took it to heart. When she recognized bullying, she acted.

Schools understand bullying better these days. It used to be seen solely as physical intimidation or cruelty. Bullies were the kids who beat up smaller, weaker kids. Today, bullying has a broader definition, one centered on otherness. Kids who are bullied aren’t necessarily beaten up, but they are made to feel they are different and not as good as their peers. They don’t belong. In fact, they are singled out for avoidance and disdain.

How long does a school day become for bullied kids? For those, such as the girl in the hijab, who are ostracized the very first week in the fall, how long is a school year? Like the mom in the story, I’m proud of the blond girl. But here’s what I want to know: After she intervenes, do things get better for the girl in the hijab?

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.