Laurie and Debbie say:
First, Debbie is going out of town for ten days starting tomorrow, so Laurie will be blogging alone (and with guest bloggers) during that time.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled blog entry.
It’s easy to read this story as just another sad story about how kids treat each other and how adults so frequently fail to protect kids from bullying.
“There was a group of five girls … and they decided they didn’t want me sitting at their lunch table anymore,” said [14-year-old Sarah] VanEssendelft. To get her to leave, they all brought in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
A few days later, a boy in the back of her class opened up a peanut butter cup. The smell was enough to trigger VanEssendelft’s peanut allergy and send her to the emergency room with breathing problems.
“My throat felt tight and my lips were getting really swollen, really fast,” said VanEssendelft. “I looked like Angelina Jolie.”
On the one hand, mean tricks or sneaking candy looks like mild behavioral problems to school administrators. On the other hand, given VanEssendelft’s serious peanut allergy, those sandwiches might very well have been weapons.
And it sure sounds like bullying. (Public service announcement: we’re big fans of the “Can I Sit With You?” project, which provides imaginative resources for bullied and excluded kids, currently on its way to a live touring success in Seattle next weekend.
But that’s not what we want to talk about here. Laurie has a life-threatening allergy (to some insect stings) and both of us know people who live with life-threatening allergies. One thing we’ve learned is that these allergies will usually have a very profound effect on who a person is and how she experiences herself in the world.
Having a life-threatening allergy is a form of living with the knowledge that a seemingly trivial circumstance can kill you. The world is not only peopled with risks; it’s peopled with risks that have your name on them, and don’t seem to have other people’s names on them. Living with that knowledge every day changes who a person is and how she relates to the world.
If it’s a food allergy, it means that something which is nourishment and pleasure to others is, in the most literal sense, poison to you. And the people to whom your poisons are nourishment and pleasure generally have–at best–a hard time believing that something they eat without thinking twice is poisonous to anyone.
This is rough enough on adults; it’s far more difficult for children, and perhaps worst of all for teenagers–the group for not “fitting in” and “being different” can been scary. And for most allergies, medical science can do very little. While it’s all too common for people with severe allergies to experience themselves as “weak” or their allergies as a form of illness, in fact, allergies are simply part of your physical nature, like the color of your hair.
So we’re not just recommending believing people who say they have life-threatening allergies, and we’re not just advocating making sure that kids have as little opportunity as possible to endanger someone else. We’re not even focusing on teaching kids how and why not to be bullies, or how and why to protect themselves from bullying–though all these things matter.
What we haven’t seen anywhere is a conscious, positive context which supports people with allergies, by cleaning up the environments where possible, but also by accepting allergies as an intrinsic part of who people are.
Thanks to Rachel Edidin for the pointer.