Earlier today, I received an email from Neesha Meminger directing me to her recent blog post. I read it quickly as I tend to do with first ereads. I felt compelled to respond, not only because Neesha is such a gifted writer that she tends to inspire her readers, but also because I had been considering a post on bullies every since I began reading Jamie Adoff’s Names will Never Hurt Me. We seem to agree on a lot. Please read, comment on one of these blogs. Thoughts become words and words become actions!
I find it interesting how trends occur.
I first became aware of the concerns about bullying in schools when I traveled to Japan in 2001 and bullying in schools there was a hot topic. I can’t help but believe that with all the finger pointing about what was happening in Japanese schools, that someone finally said “Hey, we have the same problem in the US.” Anyone who has ever attended a school has seen it. I saw it in both the Catholic elementary school and the all girl high school I attended. It’s in Japan, Taiwan, France… it’s almost pervasive enough to seem as if it is part of our human DNA.
I thought of bullying last night when I watched Dateline and saw social scientists verify our tendency to sit and watch someone be attacked, but do nothing. I don’t remember hearing an explanation as to why it is so easy for people in crowds to watch someone to beaten physically or verbally, but that’s what we do: we watch people suffer from bullying all the time. I would be fascinated to know why people across so many cultures share this tendency to not only observe but to participate in bullying. Think of racism in the south, the bullying that led to the death of Emmett Till or the torment that people of color, Jews or Irish faced in their daily lives throughout pockets of America. Bystanders observed these hateful actions, yet most often did nothing!
I look at behaviors in my own family and I wonder why some have been picked on and others haven’t? Why some have been bullies while others have been peacemakers? Children seem to follow the behavior of same sexed parents in my family. How do we teach this??? While we teach tolerance, understanding and acceptance in intentional lessons to members of the same family, how do we unintentionally teach someone that they are a person of power or a person who is to yield their power to someone else?
If we are able to intentionally teach historically disenfranchised groups (women, POC, LGTBQQ, disabled persons…) that they are indeed persons of power, can you imagine how that will shift our society? A true paradigm shift!
I do agree with Neesha that it will take a multi-pronged approach to address this issue. I think the causes of abusive power over others are deep and complex. It’s hard to get one person to stop bullying someone else because the behavior continues until the person is able to stand up for them self. I saw this just today with a substitute teacher, young and new to education who went to the principal every time two middle school girls cussed and threatened her. It won’t stop until the teacher stands up for herself, yet the girls need to know she has the full support of the principal. This is definitely a problem that will take the entire village to solve it because we are all part of the problem.
I wonder what role our iconic literatures have had in spreading and maintaining subtle messages that instruct us to see but not to act, to accept acts that subordinate others and to know that there are those that are better than and those that are less than. Would not our recorded stories teach us how to be? And if so, can they not teach us how to be better? I’ve always thought the purpose of education is to help one figure out the world around them. Books, too! Our stories should help us find our worth, give us characters with whom we can identify and give us hope. This makes books with protagonists that are female, people of color,LGBTQ or disabled persons IMPERATIVE! It requires adults to listen to and write the stories, make them available and share them alongside young people.
Then, becoming a vocal advocate for the rights of those children and teens who fall outside the margins and working toward systemic change. Again, authors, writers, agents, editors, booksellers, librarians, and other gatekeepers in the publishing industry can play a significant role here. In recent years, there have been more books by people of colour, LGBTQ writers, and working class authors than when I was coming up, but we have a long way to go. Part of empowering young people is to show them reflections of themselves as powerful, valuable, important members of their communities – no less deserving of privilege, love, wealth, dignity and respect than their peers. I know from experience that stories do that. Stories heal and mend and expand. Stories in books, stories in the news, stories in film, on television and in magazines. It’s part of the reason I started writing to begin with. I read stories that showed me More. Showed me hope and possibility and another way of being. And I still believe there are those in the publishing industry who are in this for more than just the profit motive – those agents (like mine!), editors, booksellers, etc., who are committed to the young people they serve. The young people we all serve.
To me,this not only applies to authors, publishers and librarians but to people in the media whose stories have such a wide audience. They can’t let this just be a trend that makes us aware of a problem and then moves on to the next topic of the day.