Standing Up as an Upstander

As a parent, one thing I was underprepared for, (of the many), was how my husband and I would have strong and sometimes passionately different ideas about the values and learned behaviors that were most important for MacKenzie to learn. I’m a vegetarian and Scott is a carnivore. Early on in our pregnancy, we discussed this and both felt it was best to let MacKenzie decide what she likes and choose whether or not to eat meat just as I had. As with most babies, she wasn’t particularly interested in eating meat when she was first being introduced to solid foods. However, both my dad and Scott’s mom and dad were excited to see if she would enjoy meat. One day someone shared bacon with her and her choice was easily made. She is definitely not a vegetarian. Even in these early days she was starting to demonstrate her independence and decisiveness.

My husband Scott stays home with MacKenzie and thinks a lot about how that time at home can help to shape her into a successful adult. He very much values bravery and works to instill a sense of fearlessness in her. They’ve climbed to the tops of mountains. He encourages her to push beyond her comfort zone on hikes. He invites her to try new adventures and explore activities outside of her routine. I am not fearless. I am a worrier and a planner. 

On my best days I think, “heck, only the paranoid survive.” On my worst days, I just wish to turn off my brain. I’ve been working with a fantastic coach recently to continue to advance my leadership skills. He’s challenged me to create a worry journal and designate just one time per day as a “worry time.” When worry pops up during other times of the day, I am to remind myself in a good-natured way, “Oh you silly person. This isn’t your time to worry.  Do that later.” It has helped.

At Filene, we use a tool called the “Big Five” to better understand one another, our work preferences and personal styles. As we continue to nurture and grow what is already a very special culture, having language and a deeper understanding of our colleagues has allowed us to improve performance, create stronger as well as more robust interpersonal dynamics have even more fun as we work to create positive impacts for people. One thing I often point out as I’m working with new team members is that on the range of trust, I’m incredibly low. My colleagues that have worked with me for a longer period of time have said, “You are slow to trust, but once you do, it is a deeper trust.”

As I think about nurturing MacKenzie’s fearlessness, I’ve speculated with those that know me best about where all of this trepidation and concern were born.  I think my mom said it best, “The shoe has dropped a number of times in your life and you guardedly await that proverbial shoe dropping again.” One of the times that it dropped the hardest and furthest was my seventh-grade year.

I found myself reflecting upon this year recently as MacKenzie experienced bullying for the first time. As much as we try, standing fearless in the face of bullying is extremely difficult, especially the first time it happens. I was on the road and received a call from my mom who was at our home with my husband and MacKenzie. She’d arrived home from school very upset. We jumped on FaceTime and she relayed the story of a boy on the playground picking on her. She told me, “Mommy I don’t feel safe.” My heart sank. I spent a year of my life feeling unsafe and it was a time that will never fully disconnect from my psyche.

My sixth-grade year was a great one. I had a new best friend who had recently moved to our small town and lived in close proximity to our farm. I felt confident and probably at times overly so. That overconfidence manifested with teasing and sometimes thoughtless comments. I know I wasn’t as kind as I should have been. Those bad choices came back to me many fold.

I’m not sure what day it happened. I don’t remember exactly where I was the first time I heard it, but what I remember vividly was every single day for one full-year being called a derogatory name. One of the girls that I had not been kind to spread a rumor and it stuck. My mom was teaching English at the local high school and she’d drop me at school each morning on her way in. The middle school was just a few blocks away, but this schedule meant I arrived 20-30 minutes before classes began. There were other kids there waiting as well. At least once a week as she would pull away, one of those other waiting kids had taunts and occasionally even things to throw at me. In between classes, at lunch, really during any moment when we weren’t directly with teachers, the taunts were alive.

After weeks, I shared with my parents. They told me to ignore the bullying. They assured me it would end. My friends started to avoid eye contact. They did not want me to sit with them during lunch. Weeks became months. It wasn’t going away. My parents wrestled with pulling me from the school. They were torn between the continued distress and the lesson that you have to face these moments in life when things get difficult and see them through. In an effort to find resolution, my mom took me in to meet with the Assistant Vice Principal.

She was frank with me. She told me, “Tansley, the reason this continues to occur is because you react. You are a perfect kid to bully. You cry, you shut down, you walk away. But, I can help you end this tomorrow.” My heart beat quickly. I thought, “Really? She can help?” She continued, “What you need to do is respond with force. I will have to suspend you, but if the next time anyone starts with the bullying, you punch them, it will be over. They will know you aren’t going to take it anymore.” I looked at her with awe. I looked at my mom who had raised me with my dad in a mantra of, “You never hit anyone under any circumstances, ever. No matter what.” I knew I could never do it.

I didn’t. I continued to be the perfect kid to bully. I had two friends and one very special teacher that stood by me. They would eat with me during lunch. They would talk to me. They never called me any horrible names. They helped me survive. Eventually time passed. By the time eighth grade started, the taunts were not nearly as common and by the time ninth grade arrived, it was only an occasional occurrence. It took me well into adulthood to not cringe anytime I heard the names I was called.

It took time to gain confidence. When things went well, I never took the good times for granted. I knew that they could soon end. I knew that a mistake I made or another situation I didn’t expect could explode. I carry that worry close to my heart. I often joke with my mom when things are going especially well, “I’ll probably get hit by a bus today.” She will laugh and encourage me, “Don’t say such things. Enjoy what is going well, my dear.”

Fortunately, times have changed at schools. They take bullying very seriously. They’ve taught my daughter and her peers to “upstand.” In fact, one of her dear friends immediately ran over to her when she was being bullied and said, “MacKenzie, I’m your friend and I’m standing up for you.” The lesson is such a wonderful one and the impact is so profound. The kids have language to help them do the right thing. They know how to support one another. I’m hopeful the impact of this will not only prevent bullying and reduce the impact of what bullying does occur, but ultimately ensure that fewer kids develop this sense of worry and distrust. While this wasn’t the only thing that shaped my tendency to worry, it certainly played a big role.

In some ways, the worry has served me well. It causes me to plan. I prepare and think ahead to try to avoid unnecessarily bad outcomes. It also at times prevents me from simply enjoying the present. I’m learning ways to the manage the worry and I also allow myself to celebrate how, to a degree, it has helped me to be rigorous in my focus on foresight and planning.

While there is no nirvana in human beings, I actively look to help MacKenzie develop a strong appetite for adventure and maintain the zest for life that she exudes today. I also hope that we can help her develop a well-honed ability for foresight. Without the burden of worry, I believe having the skills to see potential obstacles, challenges and downsides can help her to be more successful in whatever pursuits she eventually chooses. It may be impossible to walk this razor’s edge between two views of the world. She may have to find really good partners and colleagues to balance her tendencies once they form and are firm.

The verb of worrying is one I live frequently. It has led me to become many nouns, some less productive than others. I am a more empathetic mom and a more vigilant and prepared executive. I am so hopeful that the work that school systems are doing today will help to prevent bullying in the future. Despite all I’ve learned from my personal experiences, what I observed recently is that the approach MacKenzie’s school took armed her and her classmates within the schools to end bullying much more quickly and ultimately help us to nurture a brave child who will hopefully grow up without fear combined with the gift of foresight. Time will tell.

In this complicated world, we can all be “upstanders.” We all need someone to stand up with us. As you look around your office today, as you walk to the bus stop, as you amble through your neighborhood, who needs you to stand up? Please act the verb of standing up and be an “upstander.” It could change a life and create a sense of peace for someone who has been struggling or ensure that a little person remains brave.


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