I search the online French-English dictionary for the word “bullying.” Harcélement, it tells me. A wikipedia article calls it “le bullying” and states that France is “extremely behind” in dealing with this issue, with a policy of “closing their eyes.” This is not reassuring.

I’m preparing for a meeting with the CPE of the kids’ school. I think he’s the equivalent of a vice-principal. (Meredith, would you agree?) He’s a really nice man, with friendly brown eyes, often chewing gum. I got to know him when I did the English Club at the school last fall. He told me how much he admires my children, and how good their French is “for anglo-saxons,” which amuses me no end. (Talk about damning with faint praise! He means it as a compliment though)

This meeting will not be so chatty, I worry. It’s because Abel is getting picked on at school. Apparently it’s been going on all year but we’re just finding out the extent of it. We knew there were some issues, but it came to a head this week when Elliot got involved. Kids were teasing Abel, picking on him, snatching his recorder and playing keep-away with it while he tried in vain to get it back. Elliot saw what was happening and sauntered over with some of his friends, snatched the flute back, and basically pulled rank…older/bigger/alpha male! Yeah. But Elliot can’t be Abel’s watch dog. The teachers, when appealed to after kids steal Abel’s fountain pen, ruler, pencil sharpener, have proven to be completely useless. Feet of clay all. So, on Elliot’s advice, I appeal to Caesar, as it were.

On Wednesday morning, I trudge off to the meeting. It goes well. The CPE is as nice as ever. He is disturbed. I tell him, “I realize some of it is Moroccan culture (the pushing, hitting, calling names—all of this happens in the teen class I teach, regardless of my best efforts to stop it). But it’s still not good for Abel. I worry that if it’s not stopped, it will escalate, and regardless, it will affect his self esteem.”

The CPE agrees. He asks for names, promises to help. That wikipedia article was wrong—this seems exactly what anyone anywhere would do. He promises to talk to Abel’s homeroom teacher and the kids involved; he says that if there are any further incidents we must come straight to him, no appointment necessary.

I know that he follows through, because two days later a kid in Elliot’s class tells him that he overheard kids in Abel’s class threatening to beat him up because he told on them to the CPE. Elliot dispatches himself to keep an eye on his sibling as much as possible, and so far, nothing has happened.

Sure, some of this is our nationality. We’re the only Americans at the school—or anglo-saxons, as I prefer to think of us. As things are tense on a global stage, maybe not specifically now but overall, we can expect some hassle. Abel has gotten picked on specifically for being an American before. During the first year of the Iraq war we were living in France, and an Arab boy, about 5 years older than Abel, took it upon himself to take out on Abel the feelings watching the evening news stirred in him. But we were able to work that out through talking to the kid.

But honestly, that’s not what’s going on here. Elliot and Ilsa have no problems. Abel is young for his age, small for his age. He’s a sweet kid—thoughtful, caring—but when teased, he responds. He gets upset. He struggles a bit with his French and that doesn’t help. In no way do I want to blame the victim, but sometimes he misses out on social norms, such as the time he was practicing the recorder at recess.

What bugs me so much is how many clues I missed along the way. It’s been going on all year, every day. Now I can see clearly how it’s been affecting him, but at the time I just worried that he didn’t seem to have settled in. How could I not have realized?