Fan Mail Wednesday #121 (re: Teaching “Bystander,” and Some Thoughts on Bullying)

I’ve been in summer mode, the quiet season for teachers and librarians, and taking a break from my weekly Fan Mail Wednesday posts. But here’s a happy letter that might be useful to some of you out there, edited ever-so-slightly for privacy . . .

Hello, Mr. Preller.  I am a Library Media Specialist in Virginia.  Your book is on the Virginia Reader’s Choice Awards list and is a Battle of the Books selection. Because of that, I read it last spring.  I loved it so much I convinced my principal to buy 1200 copies for a One School, One Book unit.  She just authorized the purchase of books and has put me in charge of writing a unit for the whole school.  As a former English teacher I have written many novel study units, but this time it is for the WHOLE school.  To say I am overwhelmed is an understatement.  Any suggestions from you will be greatly appreciated.
Again, thanks for writing this wonderful novel which accurately portrays middle schoolers and the seriousness of bullying.
P.

I replied . . .

Dear P,

I am always floored when I hear something like this, it’s such an honor. I appreciate your support for the book and, I’m sure, your commitment to the greater causes of bullying and social responsibility in your school community.

I confess that while it is great news to learn that my book will find its way into the hands of readers, there’s a nagging part of me that worries about assigned reading. I know, I know. Even if you believe in the importance of self-selected reading, as I do, there’s no getting around the value of assigned books and shared reading experiences. Still, it’s disconcerting to see that I’ve become what I once hated most — homework.

That said, let me see if I can help you a little bit. Be warned, I’m not a teacher and I don’t play one on television.

One of the most important ideas embedded in this book — an idea I learned along the way, and came to understand better only upon reflection — also happens to be nearly-impossible to convey to middle school students. It might even be advisable to not even try. But it’s worth saying to you, here. Research shows that bullying peaks at middle school. Why is that?

Well, for starters, let’s agree that one of the most difficult achievements in life is to become, simply, yourself. It seems easy, but it is not. To be content in your own skin. To not look at others for all your cues. To accept and trust who you are, following your own inner compass. And at no time in life is this tougher than in middle school, when peers begin to replace parents as prime influencers. How to dress, what to talk about, what to listen to or watch on television, how to act, where to sit, who to speak with, who to avoid. This is how we forge an identity, an awareness of self — and all of these details are determined, to varying degrees, by the pack.

These kids care so much about what their peers think, and yet part of becoming a true individual is casting off those concerns. It’s a challenge for ANYBODY to stand up against the crowd. For a middle schooler, it’s nearly impossible. On a deep level, in terms of self-identity, they are the crowd. Generally speaking, the individual is almost indistinct from the amorphous mob, as if swallowed by a great whale. They are only gradually becoming aware of, at ages 12-14, who they are. The group, the social context, provides the first hints toward that great journey to self-discovery. You see where you fit, where you don’t. You watch others to learn about yourself. And at a time when they define themselves only as part of the larger group, we ask these children to not worry about what anybody else thinks. “Who cares what anybody thinks!”

Well, they care. A lot.

So in my heart of hearts, I think the lasting answer to bullying is to become a genuine, authentic, free-thinking, responsible individual. People are good, I believe that, and the closer people are to their true selves, the better and more moral they become (see, for reference: The Bystander Effect). Be yourself, and in doing so you are far more likely to give others the freedom to be themselves. Responsibility is the ability to respond, to act according to the courage of your convictions.

I realize that none of this helps in your task. It’s all background.

There are many pieces of me in this book, and I’ve often blogged about “inside” aspects of Bystander on this site. Here’s a few that might be useful . . .

* The story of one boy who helped inspire this book, “When I Stood By and Did Nothing.

* Here’s a note about the inspiration for the ketchup in Chapter One. I’ve found that kids today don’t generally know about Columbine,  but for me it was an event — and an awareness — that changed everything. The stakes were raised forever.

* The Bystander Effect — this strikes me as such a crucial idea, really the key to overcoming the bystander, do-nothing mentality. There’s a bunch of videos on the web about this, touching upon “the diffusion of responsibility.”

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* Martin Luther King, Jr and bullying. One quote in particular had to make it into the book.

* Dr. Milgram’s experiments and how they connect to bullying and the larger, more profound issues of individuality in the face of seeming consensus, the “authority” of the clan.

* Eric’s father, who struggled with schizophrenia, was modeled after my late brother, John.

* Creating the character of Griffin Connelly, the bad guy with a killer smile.

* How my hometown, Wantagh, Long Island, informed the book — and made it necessary to include Nixon’s dog.

* A rare interview with the author!

* A few possible talking points about Bystander.

* How one teacher’s offhand comment made it into the book.

Okay, well, sigh, I’m afraid that I didn’t help you very much. Too much philosophy, not enough practical info. But that’s your department. If you have any specific questions, please let me know and I’ll answer them. If you want to include a brief Q & A with the author in the Teaching Guide, let’s do it!

In the end, I’m an author and this is a story, a work of fiction. And as an author, I strive to “show, don’t tell.” I want to take readers on a journey, open up their minds, and hopefully inspire them to think about things for themselves. I don’t have the answers. I’m more like the Great Oz behind the curtain, a phony, a faker, but with enough wisdom to say to any reader, “There’s nothing I can give you. The answers are already inside you. They’ve been inside you all along.”

Thank you, again, for your kind note. I’ve felt from the beginning that this book, in the hands of a good parent or educator, could serve as a starting point for conversations. A talking book. I think the success of what you do will depend upon the interaction of students, their feedback and personal observations. As educators, it’s not what we pour into these kids, as if they were empty vessels, but how we help each child make connections to the outside world and draw that information out of themselves.

Good luck!

JP

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