Discussions of bullying and social exclusion are everywhere, but the conversation is mostly the same. It's a narrative told again and again, as old and worn as a high school drama department's rendition of Our Town. In the bullying play its a cast of three. The Bully: an openly aggressive frightening cruel monster who feeds on the weakness of others like the monster from IT. The Target: (we would have said - Victim, but we don't use that world anymore) a fundamentally weaker, but slightly etherial creature, who draws the attention of the bully, but is in fact rather special. The Bystanders: (think of them as the Greek Chorus) basically everyone else in school, those who walk by and don't say anything, don't help. In this well worn tale, the bully and target parry, each winning one or two hands, the bystanders watch on until one peels off and acts as the HERO. The average kid who steps up and finds their humanity, befriending the Target and allowing the rest of the Bystanders to befriend the target too. THE END.
I don't know why we tell this story. I certainly don't recognize it from my childhood, and in my time as a parent, have yet to see it play out at any of the schools my children have attended. Much of the bullying and social exclusion is subtler than the story we tell, its also not a two person play, witnessed by a faceless many.
Two books I've read recently recognize this essential truth about bullying and social exclusion. Written over seventy years apart, The Hundred Dresses and TBH, This is So Awkward are two books that talk to the subtley to social exclusion and how easy it is for "nice" kids to find themselves deep in the world of bullying.
Geared toward elementary school children, The Hundred Dresses doesn't focus on the target, poor Wanda Petronski who doesn't even have two dresses, never mind, one hundred; or the main bully, Peggy, who has plenty of dresses and plenty of social cache to burn. The center of the story is Maddie, Peggy's best friend. The nice one, who knows full well that she could swap places with Wanda at any time if Peggy gets bored of going after Wanda. Focusing in on the fear, and cowardice that leads many kids into bullying, The Hundred Dresses is a story that still rings true after over seventy years.
In TBH, This is So Awkward, we rush head long into the present, with an epistolary novel told in text, passed notes and emails. Prianka, Gabrielle and don't mean to hurt Victoria's feelings. Its just that they are tight -- they've been friends forever. And this year is REALLY important. They're heading up the Valentine's Day Dance Committee and its the biggest social event of the grade, so they can't leave anything to chance. Can't she see that? Yeah, maybe Prinanka sent a text on the wrong group, and sure maybe they don't respond to her super fast, but that's not like, bullying. Is it?
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin
published 1944 Harcourt Brace & Co, 80 pp.
TBH, This is SO Awkward: a novel in text by Lisa Greenwald
published 2018 Katherine Tegen Books 212 pp.