Mind and Body

Bullying emerges as the moral laboratory for early adolescence

An interview with Doug Wilhelm, author of The Revealers, who shares what the ongoing conversation with kids has taught him about bullying

Photo courtesy of Doug Wilhelm

Doug Wilhelm, right, the author of The Revealers, discusses his book with students.

Courtesy of Washington County Coalition for Children

A example of the sidewalk art from the Chalk It Up event in 2014 as part of an anti-bullying campaign.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/19/15
The organized efforts to take a public stand against bullying and spread positive bullying prevention messages featured a chalk-in on the sidewalks of Westerly, Wickford and Wakefield this past weekend. It also has included making books available to middle school libraries and public libraries, including The Revealers, written by Doug Wilhelm. ConvergenceRI conducted an in-depth interview with Wilhelm.
What’s the right approach to take in confronting a bully – in school or in the workplace? What happens if that bully is not another student but a teacher, or if that bully is not a colleague but a boss? How can parents learn to support a child’s right to be different – including different from his or her parents’ expectations? What lessons need to be taught on the playing fields? How much of bullying is related to power and intimidation of others, because of wealth, social status and race?
Personal animus has always been a strong, persistent undercurrent in American politics, and the recent bullying techniques employed by Donald Trump in the way that he has disparaged his opponents can be connected to a long, dismal tradition of stirring the cauldron of hate and divisiveness, focused on blaming the other for our problems, and belittling politicians with whom they disagree with.
What passes as “factual” is often just what people think or want to believe, driven by polling, not by what is real. Conversation involves both talking and listening, not just talking at someone with invective and vitriol.

WAKEFIELD – On Saturday, Oct. 17, the communities of Wakefield, Westerly and Wickford held their annual “Chalk It Up Against Bullying” event, with children and adults creating chalk drawings on downtown sidewalks, in an effort to take a public stand against bullying and spread positive bullying prevention messages.

The chalk-ins are part of a series of anti-bullying events being held to mark the national Anti-Bullying Month, coordinated by the Washington County Coalition for Children.

Earlier this month, five books with a strong anti-bullying content were distributed to nine middle school and 11 public libraries in South County, thanks to a $1,000 grant from the GFWC Women’s Club of South County.

The books included:
•    Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories by R. J. Polacio
•    Better Than Weird by Anna Kerz
•    Bystander by James Preller
•    Confessions of a Former Bully by Trudy Ludwig
•    The Revealers by Doug Wilhelm

ConvergenceRI asked Doug Wilhelm, an old friend and colleague [to be fully transparent, we were editors together on our high school newspaper], to offer his reflections on how the anti-bullying movement has grown in the last decade, in part as a result to the response to his book, The Revealers.

The book’s origins go back to a time when Wilhelm had been bullied in middle school [which was called junior high school back then]. Wilhelm sought to weave the emotions of what he felt as a result of being bullied into the characters in his novel. More than just a book about bullying, Wilhelm described the book as being about “what can happen if you bring something out of darkness, into the light.”

When he wrote it, Wilhelm had no idea that his book would prove to be so resonant. It was his 10th book of fiction for young adults, and no one had paid much attention to the previous nine, he told ConvergenceRI.

One social worker involved with anti-bullying recently told ConvergenceRI that almost all adults had their own stories about bullying – either having been bullied themselves or having witnessed someone else being bullied and done nothing.

In response to a question from ConvergenceRI about the advice he would give to adults on how to share their own stories, Wilhelm said: “Kids who are targeted are usually seen in some way as being different. They can be made to feel that they’re singled out because there’s something wrong with being who they are – so they’ll often hide what they’re going through, because they feel ashamed.”

The isolation and depression that can occur as a result, Wilhelm continued, “is the single most dangerous impact of bullying on young people who are targeted. A parent once asked me, in an evening forum at a school I’ve visited: ‘How can we make it safe for our kids to be different?’ I think that’s a very key question.”

Here then, is an interview by ConvergenceRI with Doug Wilhelm, author of The Revealers, adding some context, conversation and convergence around the anti-bullying efforts in Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: How has the landscape changed in education around anti-bullying efforts, for what you've observed in your travels and interactions with students and teachers?
One big contributor to the rise in schools’ efforts to address this issue has been the rapid spread over the past decade of state legislation that, although it takes various forms, generally requires public schools to do prevention and awareness work around bullying, and often to develop a response criteria and procedures.

In 2004, the year after The Revealers was published, my state of Vermont became the first to enact an anti-bullying law aimed at public schools; last I checked, about a decade later, all but two states had passed some similar legislation.

That has made a big difference. So has the rising tide of awareness that this is a serious issue, coupled with and reinforced by research showing that bullying is very widespread in schools, and that it often has serious long-term negative impacts, both on those who are targeted and on those who actually do it.

ConvergenceRI: When you wrote The Revealers, did you have an inkling of how it would transform your own life?
Oh no! This was my tenth work of fiction for middle schoolers, and nobody had paid much of any attention to the previous nine. The Revealers came along just as bullying was moving to the front burner as an issue, propelled by this new legislation and by surges in lawsuits, in suicides among young people, and in the rash of school shootings during the late 1990s, about three quarters of which turned out to have had a direct connection to bullying.

ConvergenceRI: With so much of bullying now occurring not just in person but online, what's the best advice about how to combat it?
It’s hard to answer that question, because I don’t think anyone really knows how to help young people cope with all the cruelty they’re seeing online. Their generation is the first to grow up in a networked age – we don’t have experiences from our past that can really help them.

I think parents need to be intrusive. Our kids will almost always push for privacy in their online affairs – but it’s that very privacy (if online privacy even exists today, in any real sense) that creates a zone where kids can be totally on their own, trying to cope with some very dark and harmful stuff.

We have to insist on them sharing their passwords, on checking their social media posts, on being basically a pain. Even then, they’ll usually keep one or two steps ahead of us; but we have to keep pushing, keep horning in. We also need to find ways to help young people recognize that online cruelty really is cruelty – that just because you can’t see the expression on another kid’s face, you’ve still most likely hurt them in a very real way.

ConvergenceRI: In Rhode Island, an anti-bullying coalition is holding a chalk-in, where kids and parents can write their messages on the street as a way to make their anti-bullying messages visible and public. Are many communities doing that?
I’ve never heard of that! But in my travels to visit schools that have worked with The Revealers, and with its sequel, True Shoes, on cyberbullying, I have seen all sorts of very creative approaches that schools, teachers, students and community groups have taken to raise awareness around bullying and to build momentum against it.

Kids will often say, at first, that this is kind of awkward, probably not cool; but then they’ll join in. I’ve seen that happen again and again.

ConvergenceRI: A social worker recently told me that almost all adults she’s met have a story about either being bullied or watching someone else be bullied and not intervening. Do you think that's accurate? What's the best advice for adults who have been bullied in how to share their stories?
I have come to think of bullying as the moral laboratory for early adolescence. By eighth grade, virtually every young person in a school setting has either been directly targeted by bullying, has been part of targeting someone, and/or has witnessed at least one incident.

Studies are showing that about two-thirds have been directly involved; if you add in the witnesses and bystanders, that’s almost everyone. The comic Louis CK recently said that kids at this age will do and say mean things; they’re experimenting, seeing what happens. Our job as adults is to help them learn that this stuff feels really bad — and that when you’ve been part of doing it, you never forget. Never.

In my travels with these books, I’ve heard stories again and again from adults who cannot forget what they did to another kid at this age. It’s not those who were bullied, I find, who are still troubled by these memories; it’s those who can’t forget what they did. If we are willing to share our stories of bullying experiences, wherever we are in those stories, with the young people in our lives, it can help them a whole lot — first by letting them know they’re not the only ones who’ve had to deal with this; second, by helping them see that they can get through it; and third, by opening up something that can be very hard for kids to talk about. They need to talk about experiences like these, so they can let them go and move on.

Kids who are targeted are usually seen in some way as being different. They can be made to feel that they’re singled out because there’s something wrong with being who they are – so they’ll often hide what they’re going through, because they feel ashamed. The isolation and depression that can result is, I think, the single most dangerous impact of bullying on young people who are targeted. A parent once asked me, in an evening forum at a school I’ve visited: “How can we make it safe for our kids to be different?” I think that’s a very key question.

ConvergenceRI: Can you share some of the positive stories in your encounters with kids and young adults in your travels?
Sometimes kids do share with me stories of things they’ve been through, and they’ll tell me that reading The Revealers or True Shoes has made them feel better, or less alone. They’ll often say they identified with the struggles of one of my characters, and that has helped them know that they can get through it, too.

But when a young person actively changes his or her behavior, I think it’s important to realize that this happens because a combination of contributors came together, and it’s the young person who gets the main credit.

Here’s one of those stories. On an icy night in Michigan several years ago, I was leading a discussion among parents, students and educators in a school auditorium. A boy raised his hand and said, “I’ve got this friend, and he’s not very popular – other guys think he’s weird, but I like him. Sometimes I sit with him at lunch. But I have these other friends, they’re athletes like me, and they don’t want me hanging out with that kid who’s not so popular. They’ve even said that if I keep sitting with that guy, they won’t be my friends any more. I don’t want to lose those guys as friends, but I also like this other kid. What should I do?”

I basically said, “That’s a hard choice – but it’s an important one.”

I said something about how if you choose to sit with a kid that no one else will sit with, maybe someone who is getting mocked and hurt by other kids, you could change that kid’s life. You may not realize the power you have, if you take that risk.

Then the discussion moved on; but after a while, the boy raised his hand again. I called on him and he said, “I’ve decided. I’m going to go on sitting with that kid, because I like him – and if those other guys don’t want to be my friends any more, then they were never my real friends anyway.”

What contributed to that boy making that decision? One factor was that he read The Revealers; the story was part of it.

Another is that his teachers took a skilled, creative approach to engaging him and his classmates with the story. That almost always correlates with kids telling me about making choices like this. So his teachers were part of it.
And I’d expect the kid’s parents were part of it; his upbringing helped bring him to the point where he would take the risk of aligning himself with someone who’s seen right now as different, as unpopular. So the family was part of it, too.

So, finally, was the school’s administration – they brought me there, and they organized this discussion where the boy could raise this issue and we could help him think it through.

But in the end, only that kid made that decision. It was a risky decision; and if it wound up costing him something – like a group of friends, or maybe more – then only he paid the price.

It was a tremendous privilege for me to be there, to be part of that conversation, and to know that my book was part of what brought him to that point. But I always give credit to the kids. When you’re in the cauldron of middle school – where every day, every weird look you get, can feel almost like life and death – only you can weigh the pros and cons of standing up to someone, of changing your own behavior, or of standing up for someone.

When kids do share with me a story about how they’ve stopped bullying other kids, in the context of having read my book, they almost always give the same reason. They’ll say, “Now I know how it feels.”

Adolescence is so very self-centered; achieving that kind of empathy, not to mention acting on it, is a very big bridge to cross. And again, the kid gets the credit. But I do hear those stories, from time to time. The Revealers and I have had quite some journey together.

Doug Wilhelm is a fulltime writer in Weybridge, Vermont. His 15 published books for young adults include The Revealers, which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools, and continues to be a perennial choice for grade-wide and all-school reads across the country. Doug’s website, www.dougwilhelm.com, is a resource center for working with his novels, and also features his blog, Reading Matters.

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