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.
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,