In my debut novel, Disappearing in Plain Sight, sixteen-year-old Lisa-Marie has been bullied. As her character wove its way into my writing, I discovered that I was exploring two predominant themes – how a small incident could grow exponentially to become a degrading, daily reality and how the experience of ongoing bullying could lead a young person to desperate measures.
Lisa-Marie’s first day in a new high school became the setting event for years of bullying.
The first day of classes she was hopelessly lost in every way that a kid could possibly be lost. She was in the crowded, second-floor hallway trying to juggle books, binders, a time table and map. The bell rang and the hallway emptied rapidly with her no closer to finding her way.
She was standing in a small alcove by the water fountain when she heard voices just across the hall. It quickly became obvious to her that a girl, who looked about her age, was in the process of being dumped by an older guy and she was taking it hard – crying and clutching onto his sleeve. Lisa-Marie saw the guy jerk his arm away. As he walked down the hall she heard him tell the girl in a cold tone to grow up.
Lisa-Marie stood staring like she was watching a train wreck; she couldn’t drag her eyes away from the carnage.
She goes on to explain that this girl turned out to be one of the popular girls and that from that day forward her and her friends made Lisa-Marie’s life miserable.
The idea that ongoing bullying could be the result of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time came from a conversation I had with my daughter, years after she had graduated from high school. I asked her if she could explain to me why a certain girl had always been so unpopular. From my own memories of being in and out of my daughter’s classrooms, there didn’t seem to have been all that much to distinguish this girl from any of the others kids in the class. My daughter told me that all she could recall was that the girl had been a new kid from another province. When the teacher had told everyone where she was from, someone whispered a sly, little, sniggering joke that associated that city name with a sexual body part. And that was it. This girl struggled to fit in from that day forward and the joke followed her right through her school years.
In this Week of Anti-Bullying, I have been thinking back to that girl in my daughter’s class and what it would have taken for the other kids to just let her move beyond such a chance event.
I think we need to help young people develop the tools whereby they can step-out of group think, give their peers second and third chances, and move beyond personal comfort zones and small cliques to include others. Young people would need high levels of self confidence to do any of the above and that’s a tall order.
In Disappearing in Plain Sight, Lisa-Marie explains that she tried to get help but no one saw her, no one wanted to listen – no one wanted to be the one who tried to help the kid everyone hated.
For Anti-Bullying Week and beyond, let us strive to be the kind of parents who build confidence in our children, let us be adults who model inclusion, the type of people who take responsibility for the power of our words, let us be the teachers who don’t turn a blind eye to a student’s suffering.
(The photos in this post were taken at Taliesin West – architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, outside of Scottsdale, Arizona.)
Character building is important when it comes to writing, but more importantly as it pertains to raising children. The power of words must be taught at an early age and reinforced by example. Great post, Francis. I’m moving your book next in my cue!
Thanks, Jill – I appreciate your support in taking the time to read and comment on my posts and of course I’m doing a happy dance at the thought of someone moving my book up their reading line.
Working in an elementary school, I deal with this almost daily. My school district has invested a lot in anti-bullying education and has added a curriculum supplement with activities for teachers to implement in the classroom. It’s interesting, I’ve found there isn’t a whole lot of crossover between the classroom lessons and real-life situations. Despite the instruction, kids are often unaware that certain real-life behaviors can even be classified as bullying. So my mission in my job as a lunchroom & recess supervisor is to label these instances while I’m interacting with the kids so they can (hopefully) become more aware. Just yesterday a 4th grader ran up to me nearly in tears to complain that 3 other girls weren’t letting her play – a very common occurrence. I gathered them all together to discuss the behaviors, and asked the group of 3 if they realized exclusion was a form of bullying. Silence. Then one girl apologized without my prompting her, and the others followed suit. We talked about how they could find a way to all get along. When I was a teacher, my #1 goal was to make my classroom a safe and comfortable environment to encourage optimal learning. I hope to do the same with the playground, but it’s a much steeper slope to climb.
I’m weighing my response between your comment and Roy’s below, Gwen. I’d love to have your input as well on what he’s saying because I think he’s teasing out an important distinction. Can we draw hard and fast rules and say – this behaviour in all situations is bullying? If we always push inclusion will we strengthen the desire children have to group together with some and not others? Does being left out, now and then, build character and force kids to examine their own behaviours? Tough questions, for sure. I’d love to extend this discussion. Maybe a whole new post?
Hi Fran, thanks for encouraging dialogue to continue exploring this tough topic. A whole new post would be welcomed on my end. Roy raises some good questions, as do you. And I agree, there may not be any hard-and-fast answers. We will never be able to fully contain or prevent bullying in any form. Exclusion will always be a part of playground interaction, and I certainly don’t condone “pushing” inclusion. I think it’s more important to teach awareness, to point out to children the behaviors that can be labeled as bullying. Education and awareness are more important now than ever before, since opportunities for bullying go far beyond the tough-guy kid with a cocked fist. Cyberbullying is scary new territory, I’d argue it’s much more insidious, and we hear all the time how it can quickly spiral out of control and lead to the unthinkable. And cyberbullying often starts with exclusion. We can’t force inclusion, we can’t force kids to interact or even like each other. But we can search for teachable moments and show them how their behaviors can affect another person, and ask them to empathize.
The awareness part is key – especially, as you say, when bullying behaviours have moved out into the ever pervasive world of cyberspace where they can take on a life so much more damaging than the kids who initiate this behaviour may realize. You’ve written a great post on this already. We can’t ‘push’ exclusion for fear that we end up doing the opposite. Complicated. I hope you will post again on this issue, Gwen. Link to me if you do.
Interesting input from Gwen in the front line here. I’ve no such experience and honestly I’ve personally never come across what I’d term hard-core bullying as opposed to children forming friendships and factions and having rivals as has always been the case.
Gwen, is there a line to be drawn somewhere here? Clearly the sustained attacks that may lead to self-harm or worse are abhorrent and unacceptable by any standards. But the instance you cite of a child being excluded from a game seems to me to be what we’ll never control, or maybe should even seek to. Is there a crossing-over point?
Great points, Roy. Really got me thinking. See my comments to Gwen above. Lots of questions, few answers.
Hello Francis! Your book really intrigues me. Anti-Bullying is an issue I care a great deal about. Thank you for creating awareness. Great post!
You are very welcome, Vashti. Bullying is a huge issue now (the whole cyber-bullying aspect adds another level of complexity). I wish it was as easy to come up with solutions as it is to define a problem. In my novel, I try to trace a trajectory from a fairly common setting event (being in the wrong place at the wrong time) to a drastic outcome and then look at what might come next.