Monday, July 14, 2014

BULLY FOR YOU: THE ARMCHAIR SQUID TEACHES US ABOUT WONDER

Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,

Today I'm delighted to welcome The Armchair Squid to BULLY FOR YOU. Mr. Squid is a teacher, a tough job, and he's also the recent host of The Songs of Summer bloghop. He's always up to something, and I suspect he says the same thing about his students.

Wonder Bullies




            Recently on my blog, The Armchair Squid, I reviewed Wonder by R.J. Palacio, a novel that has dominated the Middle Grade book world for the past year.  Janie graciously invited me to write a post for her BULLY FOR YOU series and I felt the book would be a good launch point to discuss the larger issue of bullying.  If you haven’t read Wonder, I give fair warning: there will be MANY SPOILERS in this piece.

            A quick synopsis: Auggie, a boy about to enter the fifth grade, was born with severe facial deformities.  He has always been home schooled before but is fully aware of the social challenges he is likely to confront.  Not surprisingly, bullies are an important part of Auggie’s story.  Two kids in particular – Julian and Eddie – loom large.  The manifestation of bullying is very different between the two and the storyteller’s judgments of them are also divergent.

            Julian is one of three students at Beecher Prep who are encouraged by the school director to take Auggie under his wing.  He turns out to be a very poor choice for the job as he can’t resist picking on Auggie and works actively to turn other kids against him.  Julian is a verbal and social bully – never physically threatening.  We learn the apple doesn’t fall from the tree as Julian’s mother, a power within the parent community, is also offended by Auggie’s presence in the school - photoshopping him out of class pictures and writing letters to the director encouraging his removal.

            Ultimately, the tide turns against Julian.  Auggie is accepted – even celebrated – at his new school while Julian is marginalized for his offenses.  At the end of the year, Julian leaves the school.  In an interesting turn, though an appropriate one to the overarching theme of the book, Julian is granted a small moment of redemption at story’s end.  Over the summer, all of the students are encouraged to send postcards to Mr. Browne, their English teacher, with precepts.  Julian’s is “Sometimes it’s good to start over.”  We are left with hope for Julian.

            The story of Eddie is another matter entirely.  Auggie and his buddy Jack have a scary encounter with Eddie during a class trip.  Eddie presents a greater physical threat than Julian.  For starters, he’s older: a seventh grader.  More to the point, he has clear violent intent.  Luckily, Auggie and Jack are rescued by other boys from their school before serious bodily harm is done.  Auggie loses his hearing aids in the scuffle.  They are found later in Eddie’s locker, destroyed.

            Mr. Tushman, the middle school director, encourages Auggie to press charges against Eddie, or at least to talk the matter over with his parents before dismissing the idea.  Auggie (and through him, the author?) does not express much hope for Eddie.  When Mr. Tushman suggests that Eddie and his accomplices might learn from being held to account, Auggie says, “Trust me: that Eddie kid is not learning any lessons.”  So ends the story of Eddie.

            Full disclosure: I’m a teacher.  I teach elementary and middle school, music and drama, grades 5-8.  Not all of the venom our little dears direct at one another qualifies as bullying but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.  The power disparities are clear in the world they inhabit.  It’s easy enough to sort the Auggies from the Julians and Eddies.  When bullying emerges, one’s sympathy naturally goes to the victim.  In my own youth, I found myself in Auggie’s place enough that my heart turns against the “mean kids” quickly.  But here’s the rub for the educator: the bully is my student, too.

            I have great sympathy for Mr. Tushman in the Eddie chronicle.  Even though Eddie is a student at another school, Mr. Tushman knows what I know: the Auggies of the world are the life-affirming heroes who make your entire career worthwhile.  The Eddies are the real challenge. The Auggies get you out of bed in the morning.  The Eddies keep you awake at night.

            Palacio does not grant us a back story for Eddie but it’s a safe bet that it’s not a happy one.  Bullying - like abuse, neglect and harassment - is often cyclical.  At the very least, it’s reasonable to assume that a kid like Eddie lacks positive social role models in his broader life.  Bullying is a patterned behavior and a difficult one to break.  It’s easy to be dismissive – “that boy’s gonna end up in jail one day” – but punitive measures rarely fix the underlying problems.  The USA’s high incarceration rate is hardly a badge of honor or a sign of our health as a society.  Eddie is no easy fix (for that matter, neither is Julian).  Stern warnings, suspensions and even criminal charges are mere tactics in an ongoing, painful, discouraging struggle.  The overarching strategy requires patience and resilience from all parties involved - a tall order.

            I offer no answers.  If the answers were easy, our world would be a very different place.  But I know we have to keep trying.  In the day-to-day battles, we are obliged to protect Auggie.  But we lose the war when we give up on Eddie.


            Thanks, Janie, for this opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers.  I look forward to engaging with all of you in the comments section.

I hope you'll leave The Armchair Squid some bloggy love in your comments, and remember to thank him for being a teacher. Please consider visiting his blog, too. He's very interesting.


Infinities of love,

Janie Junebug

48 comments:

  1. In all the bully discussions, I still want to place the burden on adults and parents. In a perfect world, kids would all be raised responsibly and have a spirit of cooperation.

    But we all know that is not what is happening, so if you care about kids, step up and defend them. We're the adults, for crying out loud. Squidly, you're right - we have to keep trying.

    Mentor the bullies, if you can. But the bare minimum is to protect the one being bullied.

    FYI: I run a homeschool cooperative (shhhhh).

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    1. We all share the burden - parents, teachers, anyone who cares about kids. And don't get me wrong, the kids need to be held to account, too. I really do believe it starts with the example we set in our relationships with one another.

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    2. Cherdo, I'll never tell--your secret, that is.

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  2. I own this book, read this book, loved this book, and told the school librarian to ditch Where the Red Fern Grows and replace it with this book as required reading. The thing I love about it is that it rarely uses the word bullying...which I think is overused No offense to your title choice, Janie. Perfect for this Monday series

    Well done, Armchair Squid.

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    1. The word is overused. I actually agree with that. Kids - and people in general - can be awful to each other. But bullying implies a pattern of intimidating behavior to exploit a power disparity.

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    2. No offense taken, Susie. I'm so glad you spoke to the librarian about the book. Now I want to read it.

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  3. Well put! I've been meaning to read that book, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. The violent form of bullying does often come from seeing violence at home. It's important to break that cycle, but what can a teacher do?

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    1. To break the cycle of violence? No idea. Our professional and legal responsibilities are substantial, though. If we think abuse is happening, we're required to report it. Calling in the professionals is the first step.

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    2. I'm not identifying anyone here, but I knew a teacher who said she never reported abuse in the home because the parent would find out and beat her up.

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  4. Mankind are bullies. Dictators are bullies. Prime ministers and presidents are bullies. Congress are bullies. Parents are bullies. Siblings are bullies. Anyone who can do something to for for another person is the potential bully. I doubt we will ever eliminate the behavior; we only can teach children not to bully and how to deal with bullies.
    I no longer believe children are born little blank slates to train up. They come with personality traits and recognizing dominance, for instance, and steering it positively may be out of the skill range of most parents. Jealousy, greed, all those little vices that become big vices, can swirl about in a family of several children, or even one child with playmates.
    It's not an easy problem and it is a problem with no solution.

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    1. Life is hard. We do children a disservice by pretending otherwise. Bullying may never be entirely eliminated but we are obligated to try to show them a better way.

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    2. When my kids complained that something wasn't fair, I often told them that life is not fair and sometimes we can't do anything about it except do our best to be fair and correct wrongs.

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  5. Hello, Mr. Squid, and thank you for contributing to Janie's series.

    It's interesting that one of the bullies in Wonder is named Eddie. It made me think of Eddie Haskell on Leave It To Beaver. In that late 50s/early 60s universe, bullies didn't seem to exist. The problem kids at school were guys like Eddie - lovable, insecure screw-ups who always learned their lesson by the end of the half hour episode. Real bullies existed then as they do now but the arsenal of weapons modern bullies have at their disposal makes them a much greater threat.

    I agree that we cannot give up on the Eddies of the world, that bullying is cyclical and that bullies are not created in a vacuum. In my youth I had a friend whose father was a bully. During visits to his home I often witnessed the father using abusive language with his wife and children. Whenever his son (my friend) said or did something to displease his father, the burly man would administer 50 painful arm punches to the boy. To this day I remember watching the ugly spectacle, my friend's face turning bright red with shame and embarrassment, his eyes filling with tears and his father having way too much fun delivering those painful jabs. The effects went beyond superficial. They were manifested in my friend's behavior toward me. He often punched my arm while laughing nervously. Sometimes he pushed me to the ground, again laughing. Clearly, what was thinly disguised as rough, boyish horseplay was actually a boy repeating the cycle of bullying started by his father.

    It is a tall order, Squid, and we as a society cannot afford to sweep bullying under the rug. No two bullies are the same. Wisdom and finesse are required to deal with them and produce a positive outcome. Each of us needs to assume responsibility and do something meaningful and constructive to stem the tide.

    Thank you again, Mr. Squid, for sharing your thoughts on this important subject.

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    1. And thank you for sharing your story, Shady Del Knight.

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    2. That's so sad, Sir Shady. What an awful father.

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  6. Positive social role models are so important to stop things like bullying A.C. A great guest post Janie

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    1. Absolutely. I've often felt I could solve half a kid's problems by giving him or her different parents.

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  7. I applaud you, Mr.Squid, for your beautifully written, informative piece that tackles some of the tougher aspects of the bullying “epidemic:” seeing the big picture and trying for insights that move us beyond handwringing.

    Among your many astute observations from your experience as a heroic teacher: power disparities between victims and bullies (e.g., age differences), the challenge of educating (and loving) them both, the origins and prognosis for the bullying disease gripping “mean boys” like Eddie.

    “Wonder” could’ve been my story, except for the homeschooling part (almost unheard of in my day) and perhaps the severity of the deformity (my cleft scars and smushed nostril vs. Julian’s “I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.)

    Thanks, Mr.Squid, for adroitly presenting and analyzing R.J.Palacio’s important novel!

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    1. Bullying is nothing new. I experienced it and clearly you did, too. Unlike in our day, people seem more comfortable talking about it now. It's not everything but it's a good start.

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    2. Thanks for joining us, Karl. We look forward to you wrapping up this series in a couple of weeks.

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  8. Bullies need help, too. I think though, it's tougher to help them, because they are less willing to open up and accept it.

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    1. Exactly, Sherry! Trusting adults enough to let them help is a huge leap for a lot of kids.

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  9. I appreciate your perspective as a teacher. All those kids are 'your' kids. More than ever teachers strife to teach kids how to behave socially and so many lessons they should have already learned at home. Luckily I taught high school where most, but not all, the middle school cruelty has matured into something else.

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    1. Teaching high school is its own adventure, though, isn't it? I taught HS for a while and did a lot more surrogate parenting than I do now. Students need different things from us at different life stages.

      But I agree, most of the pettiness dissipates.

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  10. I agree. Eddie's backstory was probably very unfortunate. I often wonder what causes children to resort to bullying.

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    1. One imagines it satisfies the need for power and control. But I don't pretend to understand it either.

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    2. Someone who has bullied me for many years finally admitted it was because she was jealous of me. I've managed to stay away from her for a number of years and will do my best to keep a safe distance between us.

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  11. Good call to stop and think, even as a protective parent, about what that bully has been through. I think we're too often driven to react before thinking--all of us.

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    1. This much I know: there's always more to the story. Kids must be held accountable but there's always a bigger picture.

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  12. First, this is beautifully written and so well thought out. I do think the term "bullying" is overused, and often misused. I think often kids (and adults) display bad behavior, but it is not always bullying. That said, I do believe bullying exists and that it is a real issue in our society. My favorite part of your post is when you say "But we lose the war when we give up on Eddie". This is so true. The bullied child (or adult) is rarely ignored. They often get the support they need. But I imagine that bully is greatly lacking in the attention they need.

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    1. As Rachel says in her comment (below), children need help whether they're the bullied or the bullies.

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    2. I think systemically, we're getting better at recognizing bullying behavior. The victim needs to be reminded that s/he does not have to suffer alone. You're right, though, people generally respond more quickly to the victim's needs than the perpetrator's.

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  13. Janie, it was good to hear this teacher's perspective. And I related to his observation about the 'Auggies' of the world is why we teach and go to school every day, and it's the 'Eddies' that keep us awake at night. Oh boy, is that true.
    Solution? I think to take each case and look at the facts. All cases are not alike and different 'actors' playing the roles. Thanks for this Janie.

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    1. Thank you for joining us, Jim. I know bullying was a problem for you when you taught, as it was for me. I hope I never see that principal again. How could I help the students learn to treat each other better when I lived in fear of the administration"

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    2. Agreed. Each case is, indeed, unique and should be treated as such.

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  14. Thanks for all that you do as a teacher! My co-author is a teacher and I hold educators in the highest regard. You have so much to think about each day and you really did a wonderful job explaining it in this post. I can see why the Eddie's keep you up at night and I am sure his back story is sad and heartbreaking.

    I haven't read the short story that just came out from Julian's POV- but I am definitely curious about it after reading and loving Wonder. When we step in someone else's shoes it is always a different view than what we might expect.

    Thanks for sharing!
    ~Jess

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Jess. I haven't read the Julian chapter either, though I would like to. I thought perhaps I should read it before posting this but decided against.

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  15. You bring up several good points. While I believe if a bully is the cause of a suicide or otherwise causing the death of anyone, they should be charged with murder, I still think nearly every bully has a reason. It is absolutely no excuse for the way they act and it should not excuse a punishment for doing wrong, but instead of attacking the bully, the cause should be found. They should be put into therapy so that any bad circumstances or emotional issues can be helped and possibly fixed. School therapists need more power in helping the children and there should be more staffed in each school to be sure each person is getting the help that they need, whether they are the bully or the bullied. I think if school therapists were around to catch things like that when the children are young, they would have a much higher chance of being helped instead of ending in long term damage for anyone.

    Love,
    Rachel

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    1. Most schools don't have large enough budgets to provide students with the psychological help they need. Many schools don't even have enough reading teachers. It's so sad.

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    2. You bring up an excellent point about school staffing. I can go forth with good intentions all I want but I don't actually have the qualifications to address the bigger problems my students often face. School counselors, social workers and other student support personnel are always over-extended.

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  16. Being that you are a teacher, I liked hearing your perspective on bullying and reading about the book through your filter.
    My only quibble would be with the assertion that bullying is a result of cynicism. Cynicism is a belief that people are motivated by selfish interests. That inclination doesn't necessarily lead to the victimization of others. The impulse to subjugate and humiliate others is born out of a sociopathy or simple lack of empathy, not cynicism. Cynicism is the result, the baby, of bullying. The inception of this occurrence.
    Again, a minor linguistic quibble, as I do respect and appreciate your insight and breakdown of the story.

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  17. Teaching is a really hard job. I may not have my own classroom but being surrounded by kids all day, I give a lot of credit to full time teachers.

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  18. I worry about the lost souls of the bullies and the mean kids. They are the hardest to love and need it the most. Equality in life seems impossible to achieve. But one must strive for connection and understanding. This was a beautiful post. :)

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