Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Best Way to Fight a Bully

A kid in Ohio shoots four schoolmates. A bullied, outcast in Pennsylvania talks his mother into buying him a 9mm semi-automatic weapon to take to school. (Thanks, Mom!)
It seems that sometimes the stakes in schoolyard fights can be raised to a deadly level. We shouldn't be surprised. In the savage world of elementary school, one teacher of my acquaintance estimates that at least a third of all children are the victims of bullies at least for part of their lives. Another source-a pediatrician- says that, if you include high school, probably two-thirds of all the people who have attended school in America have a story to tell about being the victim of someone or a group of someones who use their physical or social power to injure them.

‘Two-thirds’ seems sort of extreme. If two out of three kids have been bullied, then who’s left to be the bully? The answer, as revealed by interviews with kids on both sides of the bully line, is that last year’s victim becomes this year’s bully. There are lots of reasons for the shift in power over the years: the things that make you queen of the hill in third grade may count for nothing in junior high.

So for those people-parents, teachers, family, who are charged with protecting their kid from bullies, there’s an additional morally compelling question: after you protect your child from the class bully, how do you prevent your child from becoming next year’s bully? (The problem won’t go away until parents on both sides of the power struggle see it as a serious matter.)

Of course, there is no single answer, but a very important clue lies in the stories we tell our kids. Stories are sometimes more important than sermons. In stories, we get to be all the characters if we want. In sermons, it’s easier to discount the voice of the preacher who, let’s face it, often sounds a lot like a bully.

So what stories do you want to tell our kids? There’s a whole genre of young adult (YA) fiction about bullies and their victims. The typical story line has the bully vanquished by the victim. But if it’s true that most kids play both roles at some time in their lives, then these stories alienate the (temporary) bully and simultaneously aggrandize their behavior. Basically, most stories simply shift the power relationships without questioning the nature of bully behavior.

And so, I was delighted to come across Cheryl Tardif’s Whale Song, It’s not a story about bullying, it’s a tale of youth and loss and redemption. Folded up in the middle of it though, is a thread about an angry, racist, destructive kid. Because this is a minor thread in a larger story with some very spiritual concerns, the preachy tone is missing. Instead the author is able to explore the pain and loss and humiliation that’s at the heart of the bully’s behavior. It’s a story that just might let the kid who’s temporarily in the bully’s seat see his or her own behavior and accept responsibility without having to take on a gigantic load of guilt.

As I said, Whale Song has a lot of other things on its mind. But by being so busy elsewhere, it manages to offer a wonderfully low-key message for kids on both sides of the bully line. I highly recommend it as a conversation starter on this and a few other special topics. You can buy Whale Song along with bang Bang at Amazon.

--Lynn Hoffman, author of THE NEW SHORT COURSE IN WINE and
the novel bang BANG which is all about a heroine fighting bullies.

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