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.

2 thoughts on “Allergies

  1. That’s messed up. Mind you, no more messed up than the stuff we’ve all been through or potentially been through.

    But that’s not an excuse.

    I do think, being a sufferer of the slow-way allergies (mostly GI tract issue triggers or asthma triggers – they both have the potential to kill me – GI through ulcers, and asthma through a slower form of suffocation than anaphylactic shock, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been better at both avoidance and management, so the chances of death are slimmer for me, I think, than through violent accidents) and severe asthma, that the old survivalist maxim “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” works, in a way. If you survive the bullying, you learn from it. So maybe it’s not “stronger” but “cleverer”.

    I have often wished, even so, that folks in my young (and heck, current) life were more attentive to allergy risks. But I also wish a lot of other things and ultimately it devolves to me to take care of the allergy issues myself.

    I say “devolve” because it is my strong conviction that civilized societies should contain folks who are attentive and careful and who ask instead of assume, who think critically and are capable of self-criticism, who put themselves in the places of folks who are worse off than they when they say or do things that might affect those people. So I think the passing bar should be up where you blog/talk about things needing to be (as you do in this post), but I also have often though that we really rarely live up to that standard.

    For whatever reason, and there’s always some excuse, valid or not, we often fail to see, fail to perceive, fail to notice what’s going on around us, or even what we cause for others by our own sweet selves. I think this is what largely motivates the momentum behind all sorts of power disparities, be it racism, ageism, sexism, allergyism, whatever.

    So even though little bastard bullies come at us with new, more tailored weapons of words, fists, sandwiches, whatever our weakness, I think it behooves us, collectively as past or present victims of bullies, or as individuals, to do what we can to also develop effective coping strategies when folks either intentionally or unintentionally bring those weapons against us.

    That self-defense is certainly not the whole solution and I by no means mean to blame the victim in this case (or any other case). I am arguing for what self-sufficiency can be achieved, and hoping that this teenager survives long enough to find some for herself, despite the bullies and their crassness.

  2. Malcolm,

    That’s a really thoughtful comment. Thanks.

    I agree with you about self-defense. I had bad bullying problems as a child and by my teens I’d gotten pretty good at dealing with it effectively.

    Then I learned to speak up when it was happening around me. That’s what I can do individually to help. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard but mostly I do it. And often it feels great.

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