Monday, October 22, 2012

Tightropes and Wonder

October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month here in the US, and I’ve been trying for weeks now to think of the right way to share our family’s story from the past year. Blogging about real children is a tightrope walk—you never want to share anything too painful or too raw, or anything that your child feels is too personal. But you do want to share those universal moments that might resonate with other parents and kids who are struggling. Because sometimes those shared moments weave together to form a net that catches people when they are falling, helping them feel a little less alone in the void. So here goes the tightrope walk (my son gets the final edit).
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

A little over a year ago, our family moved to a small town just south of the suburb where we had lived for all of my 12-year-old son’s life. We had lots of good reasons for moving, and both kids were ready for the adventure of a new beginning. Our older son already knew a handful of kids at his new school through sports, and he quickly acclimated to his changed environment.

Our younger son—who is delightfully quirky and enthusiastically intellectual—found himself in a country grade school where he knew no one, surrounded by kids who were nothing like him. He delighted in reading. They delighted in kicking him in the shins under his desk when he pulled out a book. He loved to grapple with difficult math problems. They loved to sneer and mock him for loving what they hated. He had a malformed, smaller left hand, and he was surrounded by kids who refused to tolerate differences.

Day by day, they peeled away his confidence and his well-being and his sense of self. They carved him with whispered taunts, cutting away at how he saw himself, until all that was left was a shell of the boy he had been. Tears. Panic. Daily heartache. And that was before the day last spring when he was attacked on the playground. A single punch to the mouth left him bleeding and stitched and swollen, unable to eat solid food for over a week. The classroom teacher truly ached for him and tried to help, but she and I agreed that the best solution for my son was to get away from there, to start over in a school with kids more like him.

We found our silver lining in a new school this year in a district not far from here—another year of being the new kid, but with much different results. My son has found his tribe. When he brings up questions about wormholes and time travel in science class, the other students mull over and discuss his ideas, never even considering that the concepts might be unusual. He passes notes with a friend coded via the Periodic Table. He jokes with his pals about his “lucky hand" and shares the hallways with a stellar athlete who has no hand at all. He has friends. He is happy. We are happy.

But what happens to those kids who came so close to destroying him last year? How do they grow past their brutish tendencies when the people who are different from them are chased away? How do they learn to be anything more than what they are? What will they do in the larger world when they are faced with people who are disabled, or gay, or culturally different from them? The thought makes me almost unbearably sad.

Yesterday afternoon, I read a delightful book that could be part of the solution. Wonder, by R.J. Palacio is an exceptionally written middle-grade novel that captures the pain of bullying so poignantly, so beautifully, that the story and its message resonate long after the last page is turned. If I were still teaching (grades 4-6), I would buy a class set of this novel, and we would spend the month of October reading and discussing it to lay a foundation for mutual understanding and to facilitate a culture of kindness. Even if you don’t routinely read children’s books just for the joy of experiencing the quality literature being produced in that category today, you should make an exception for this book. But have tissues handy. Really.

            “… in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary—the world really would be a better place.”
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Bullying is not just an October problem. It’s an everyday, everywhere problem that can only be solved when people consciously remove themselves from the neutral bystander camp and become protectors of the least of us. This month, and every day of every single other month, do what you can in your world to foster mutual understanding and compassion.

Please leave your ideas and comments below.


  1. I have another grandchild who is in a new school this fall, but in the first grade (which tends to be a lot less thuggish). Each child has a day where the other kids write something nice to him or her. I was there for Amelia's day. There were comments where she was nice, happy, beautiful, liked to bike and was a good skater. But the best comment of all was the one that said she was kind. An advanced concept for a 6-year-old to notice for sure, or better yet for a child to be.

    I wonder what it is about society that causes such a change between most first grade children and those same children six years later? I think we should all remember that some of the most important things we'll ever learn, we learned in the first grade.

    1. I have seen a similar activity build on community and connection rather than isolation and ridicule. 2 of my children attend a charter school that upholds kind acts. Throughout the school day, students are encouraged to notice and even seek out the good in others, write them down on paper and submit it to a jar. At the end of every day, students will draw from the jar and read aloud; praising the kind acts of the day. For each kind act, teachers add a token (a marble, coin, etc.) to another jar and when that jar is full the class gets to choose a fun activity that replaces academic study. Of course, this fun time builds even further on the relationships that these children have worked to build themselves.

  2. I love the idea of children writing kindnesses to each other. It's definitely worth wondering about what we can do to foster that kind of open, heartfelt welcome among the middle school set.

  3. Unfortunately bullying has always been around. I am 76 and of German heritage. I can still recall, about 70 years ago when I was in the first grade, dreading walking home from school in Spokane Washington and having to walk through Glass Park. Because the 2nd World War had just begun, and I was German, there were always a minimum of six kids my age and older that were waiting for me. There object was to just beat the crap out of me!! The plus side, I learned to walk many different routes to get home.
    Herb Kost

    1. I'm sure bullying has been around forever (your story makes me so sad), but wouldn't it be amazing if--like so many other enduring human problems we have been able to address--we could, in this era, change that for the better?

  4. I feel very sad for the boy whose parents don't have the resources to change schools. What happens to that little boy whose mom is not as protective and aware as you? What about the mom who has no idea that switching schools is even an option. That single mom who works and can't drive that extra distance?
    I think schools are starting to educate the kids on bullying and what they should do. But are parents being told what they should do? Where can a parent to to find an advocate for his child?
    I am so thankful that your son had you to fight for him. He is a lucky boy (lucky hand and all)

    1. Lisa, you make some excellent points. One of the reasons I think writing about bullying is so important is that it brings the topic under scrutiny and helps parents see that there may be solutions out there that they haven't considered. Oregon's new open enrollment law was truly our salvation. Being able to start again in a wonderful public school district at no charge was life-altering for our family. Parents can research their own state's enrollment laws online. Additional information on preventing bullying can be found at

  5. Karen - We're so glad Caden has "found his tribe". He is such a unique individual, with so much to offer the world - we can't wait to see what he accomplishes!

    And I read Wonder - another wonderful recommendation by you - thanks!


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