“Stop bullying” is focus of book and local program
by Rob Neufeld
What better demonstration of the power of words than the damage done by verbal bullying; and by its silent partner, shunning? Conversely, what better demonstration of good than the strength fostered by brave words?
Starting tomorrow, the Safe Schools for All Coalition and the Center for Diversity Education engage local schools in the nationwide “No Name-Calling Week.” The No Name-Calling website provides classroom activities, and the local groups point toward a recently published book, “Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories.”
Do you remember the shy girl or the invisible one? Perhaps you were such a person.
Cyn Balog, a popular paranormal young adult novel writer, was; and she tells one of her stories in “Dear Bully.”
“In seventh grade,” she relates, “my health teacher decided to do a project aimed at boosting our confidence.” The students were instructed to write on strips of purple paper compliments about each other, and put them in individual boxes.
When Balog got her box of compliments, she read what she’d dreaded would be the most that anyone would say about her: “SHY.” Over and over again she read that, until she came to the last slip, which observed, “She might not say much, but when she does speak, she always says something special.” Cyn saved that message.
Five years later, she was invited by a classmate’s mother to take some of the daughter’s (Avery’s) books after she had committed suicide. That had been an awful mystery; Avery had been a great student and athlete.
On Avery’s bulletin board, Balog noticed a purple slip. It was what Balog had written: “Lights up every room she enters with her effervescent personality.” Balog also realized that her own cherished note had been written by Avery.
Being sensitive is one of many characteristics that bullies target. One thing a bully hates is deviance from mob insensitivity toward deviants.
“Celebrate the weirdness in others and ourselves,” best-selling author Lauren Oliver countermands.
Kristen Harmel contributes her experience.
“I finalized my outcast status,” she reports about her fifth-grade life, “when Saria stopped by my desk to loudly ask what celebrity I would want to sleep with.”
Harmel had answered, “Uh, I don’t really want to sleep with any celebrities.” She was ten, mind you.
“Within five minutes,” Harmel writes, “the entire class had been informed that I was a ‘frigid bitch’ who’d never have a boyfriend.”
Hilariously, Harmel’s 2006 comic romantic novel is titled, “How to Sleep with a Movie Star.”
A number of the authors in “Dear Bully” recall being bystanders to bullying. It is a painful, soul-testing, and branding experience.
Jo Knowles, author of “Jumping off Swings,” idolized her older brother. Waiting at their rural bus stop, she’d stand on the road’s double yellow lines behind him, riding them like giant skis.
“But I also remember getting on the bus,” she writes. From her seat behind the driver, she could look up into the big mirror and see her brother in the back.
“I can see the boys sitting behind him, leaning into his face, saying words that penetrated his heart in some permanent way that shaped him and changed his course for years to come. I see them smash his head against the window” and call him names, including “Faggot.”
The bus driver paid no mind. Nor did anyone else speak up.
Lucienne Diver, noted for her witty vampire fiction, admits that’s there’s nothing funny about her real-life story about silence and speaking up.
When her mother had learned that a neighbor had molested Lucienne, she put out a warning to other mothers, and the news spread to kids. Lucienne’s outcast status jumped a couple of levels.
“And that led,” Diver relates, “to the scariest moment of my life—the day I swung an aluminum bat at some boy’s head for twisting the knife about my abuse.” She had pulled back just in time to avoid permanent damage, but permanent damage had been done to her. She felt rage. She had to repress emotion.
Do you wonder why vampires and ghouls populate YA fantasy? As Daniel Waters, author of the “Generation Dead” series, recounts in his piece—when a woman had upbraided him, “You’re the guy who writes about dead kids,” he had responded, “No, I’m the guy who writes about kids who’re trying to live.”
What’s the solution?
I’ve been carrying around a copy of “Dear Bully” this past week, and talking with people about their encounters with bullying. Their accounts lead one to wonder about the prevalence of bullying.
In many places, it’s atrocious. But are there certain environments that breed bullying and others that don’t?
In “Dear Bully,” there appears only one adult who helps for every ten who dismiss or abet. One of the lessons plans in the “No Name-Calling” packet directs educators: Distribute the handout, “Take a Stand and Lend a Hand,” which offers strategies for intervening safely when students are bystanders to name-calling or bullying.
Do bad environments depend on vicious ringleaders; and does the reversal of the trend depend on caring ones?
Michelle Zink, a re-teller of ancient myths, tells a memorable story about her daughter. In seventh grade, the daughter matured into a beauty and replaced her glasses with contacts, causing the popular crowd to woo her away from her studious crowd. A former best friend wrote a humiliating thing about her on a bathroom wall, and the girl decided she wanted nothing of either clique.
Zink advised her daughter to host gatherings for nice children who fit in no group. “A funny thing grew out of those first awkward parties,” Zink writes. “Friendship…The kind where you want one another to thrive and be happy.”
The last and perhaps most challenging aspect of stopping bullying has to do with the bully him or herself. A few of the entries in “Dear Bully” suggest that bullies are people who have been bullied. Do we punish the bully, or show them compassion once they’ve been disempowered?
Laura Zeises, after she had become a famous author, found on Facebook the name of a boy who had tormented her (for being fat) all through school. She shot him a damning message, and then learned he did not remember her. He wrote back and apologized for his screwed up behavior then and his forgetting now.
“It is good to see you take the negative and turn it into a positive,” he wrote back, reflecting on her success. “You should be commended over and over and over!”
Apparently, many children are drawn into a mindless kind of acting out. They might very much want adults to mind them.
Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones (Harper Teen trade paper, 2011, 379 pages, $9.99).
WNC Safe Schools for All Coalition supports adults who work with youth. To register and receive additional resources on No Name Calling Week, January 23-27, visit www.nonamecallingweek.org. For more information on the local observance and additional WNC- based resources, visit Asheville Safe Schools for All on Facebook or call 828-232-5024. Call the Center for Diversity Education at 232-5024.