You may have seen the story in the news about a boy named Gage Berger who had abnormally protruding ears, was bullied at school, and decided at 6 years of age (with his parents’ consent) to have his ears surgically “pinned back.”
I would never presume to judge that decision. If my child were born with ears like that and wanted them “fixed,” I would probably agree. The surgery itself sounds pretty simple and risk-free. A charitable organization that helps bullied children afford plastic surgery even footed the bill. I understand that it is not fun to have a physical trait that is so striking—open to curiosity at best, and bullying, at worst.
All of that aside, this story saddened me deeply. The little boy is in first grade. According to the news, he had been made fun of for years, the kids calling him “Elf Ears” and other cruel nicknames. His parents said he no longer felt excited about going to school, that he didn’t really play with the kids anymore. When I heard about that, my heart broke in half.
I am the mom of two boys: one who is in third grade, and one who just turned 3. My older child has had a pretty easy time at school—some stress here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. My 3-year-old hasn’t started school yet, but when he does, I’m a little more worried for him than I was for my older child.
My 3-year-old has a large, noticeable birthmark on his neck. Perhaps it’s not in the same league as Gage’s ears, but it covers most of his neck, and is a dark coffee brown. It’s one of the first things you see when you look at him (along with his huge, gorgeous eyes, of course!). Ever since he was born, the question of how he will fare in school with such a glaring physical anomaly has been a constant concern for me.
We’ve talked to doctors. We learned that it’s not the kind of birthmark that disappears as he gets older: It grows as he grows. It can’t be lightened by laser like some birthmarks. Removal of the birthmark would require full-blown surgery—very possibly more than one procedure.
At 3 years, our son is just beginning to become aware of this difference. He knows that most people don’t have large birthmarks on their necks (although we have pointed out the smaller birthmarks people have, and have explained that birthmarks are common). When he was little, people would sometimes ask about his birthmark, but he had no idea that their asking was in any way significant.
But now that he hangs out on the schoolyard after school with his big brother and socializes with the other kids, he gets asked often about his birthmark. I am usually with him when children ask, so I am there to answer. More and more, I have been letting him answer for himself. I am proud of him. He answers, simply and unapologetically, “It’s my birf-mawk.” Sometimes I have to translate his toddler-speak to them, but the kids usually get it, and move on.
I wonder what will happen when I am not there. In fact, I’m a bit terrified about that. I believe there will be times when the question will have a taunting edge to it. There will come a day when my son will be bullied. I hope to God that my son will tell me as soon as it happens. If and when it does, I will be on the steps of the school the next day to talk to his teachers about it. I have confidence in the school that my son will be attending—the one his big brother goes to now. There have been very few reports of bullying there. The school has a zero-tolerance policy and is very responsive to parents and their concerns.
My hope is that any unhappiness my son experiences over his birthmark will be minimal. I hope that any teasing that happens at school is shut down immediately, and that the kids just get used to how my son looks. Usually what happens when someone meets him is they notice his birthmark right away, and then it just becomes part of him—not noticeable at all.
In the case of the Gage Berger, while I don’t know what was done to address the bullying issue, the fact that it went on for years really upsets me. What actions did the school take to prevent the bullying from continuing? How about the parents of the children? These were young elementary school students. If I got word that my child was bullying another child at such a young age, I would do something right away. I would not allow it to continue.
If the school administration took no action, I wouldn’t give up. I would go over their heads. I would speak to other parents, rally the community. If nothing else worked, I would switch to a different school. I know this is not an option for everyone, but I can’t imagine under any circumstances letting my son stay somewhere where this was permitted.
As for my son and his surgery, we are leaving it up to him. Even without bullying, it is hard to grow up with a physical abnormality, even one that is purely cosmetic. My son will have our blessing to get his birthmark removed when he is old enough to make a mature decision. But if anyone taunts him or bullies him for his birthmark—or any other reason—the first thing I will do is address that issue directly. When a child is being bullied, the victim is not the one who needs to be “fixed.”
I am very glad that the Gage Berger feels happier now, and relieved that he is not being bullied anymore. But I’m concerned about the message this sends to the children who bullied him. If Gage needed to be “fixed” before the bullying could stop, this suggests that his appearance was somehow responsible for the way he was treated. It suggests, in fact, that the bullies were right. And I’m concerned about Gage internalizing the message that the only way out of an awful situation was for him to change. Even if the surgery was ultimately the best decision, it is no solution to the problem of bullying in his community.