In this blog post, Stewart discusses the importance of bullying as a theme in children's books like All The Things That Could Go Wrong, a story that contains a powerful exploration of one boy's experiences of bullying.
I was told the readership of this blog, typically, would be primary school teachers and librarians and you might be interested in ways to use All the Things That Could Go Wrong in your class and that you’d like to know the inspiration behind the book.
And on that latter note, I often reply that it was three ideas that came together – the horrors of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the experience of bullying and the raft I never built when I was ten.
But I’m not actually sure any of those ideas represented the Eureka moment. Yes, I know an awful lot about OCD from the experiences of my daughters and best friends, and I know a fair bit about bullying from incidents I had had school, but I think those ideas were just the tip of the iceberg – a headline with something way more ambitious underneath.
But here’s the thing, I’m pretty rubbish at writing self analysis. I’m even worse at writing anything remotely academic. So I thought I’d approach this blog in a way that children are often encouraged to do – Show and Tell. So....here goes:
It’s mid-winter and I’m in a school, somewhere near Hull. A class of Year 7s have been a little rowdy, but in general I’m pretty happy with the talk so far. I’ve just read a particularly hard hitting section from All the Things that could go Wrong and I’ve given the class two minutes to think of some questions.
‘That was really very powerful,’ whispers the class teacher.
‘I know,’ I reply. ‘It doesn’t seem to lose effect no matter how times I read it. Do you want me to lay off a bit?’
‘No, keep going.’ She puts her hand over her mouth. ‘The four boys in the middle row. They are really bright, but they are also bullies. A couple of them have been the quietest I’ve known.’
I clock the Gang of Four. Up until now I’d thought them gregarious and good humoured – maybe a little disruptive – but I’d never have thought them bullies. As they chat I am now aware they command centre of attention with their peers.
With the two minutes up, I turn back to the class and continue the talk – ‘Who feels sympathy for Alex, the boy being bullied? Tell me how he might feel.’
The class fidgets, and from the corners of the room a few students dart nervous looks in the direction of the Gang of Four.
Eventually a girl raises her hand (I’m later told she’s popular, one of the untouchables). She tells me Alex feels lonely, isolated, scared, useless, and depressed. A few more hands go up – Alex feels lost, anxious, confused, like he’s trapped in a corner with nowhere to go.
All the time the Gang of Four are sitting in the middle of the room, with one whispering asides while the others are giggling and nudging each other in the ribs. And it’s putting me off, slightly. I move, stand right in front of them, thinking this might make them stop.
‘So,’ I ask the class. ‘We agree we have sympathy for Alex, what about Dan - the bully?
I look around the room. Every time I expect this silence, but it doesn’t make it any easier no matter how many schools I have visited.
Someone coughs, others shuffle their feet. Some look out the window. Then there’s a whisper I can’t make out from the biggest member of the Gang of Four. He’s grinning right at me. The other three have their hands up to their mouths, hiding their laughs.
The ‘popular’ girl slowly raises her hand.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘The bully may have his reasons for doing it. He might be getting bullied himself, or be unhappy at home.’
Another giggle in front of me. Another whisper I don’t hear. But slowly more hands follow and more students brave the silence to talk – Dan’s parents might be splitting up. He might be depressed and this is the only way he can express it.
‘Yes,’ I respond, ‘tell you what, how about I read you another section, written from Dan’s perspective.’
I pick up the book and search for the page. ‘Actually,’ I say ‘how about one of you read it. I’ve never heard my characters speak with a Yorkshire accent’.
Thirty, 11 year olds looking each other. I’m about to ask again then a hand goes up, right in front of me – a blond haired boy on the end of the Gang of Four.
‘I’ll do it,’ he says.
The remaining three start giggling. The boy walks to the front of the class. I’m thinking this isn’t going to go well, but what the heck, he’s right in front of me now. I give him the book. I’ll be honest, I’ve got zero expectation.
The boy starts to read a section where Dan tells us he’s missing his brother. He reads slowly, but it’s okay; it’s more down to me being unaccustomed to his accent than his reading ability. Also his mates are nudging each other and laughing trying to put him off. I think for a moment he’s going to cave in and start messing around, but he keeps going and suddenly his mates go quiet because they realise he’s actually reading this properly, he means it.
He reads to the end of the page, gives the book back to me and there’s a smatter of applause as he sits down.
‘So,’ I ask. ‘Do any more of you feel empathy for Dan now?’
Suddenly the tension in the room seems to have eased – five hands go up, grow to ten – yes, they have empathy...Dan’s got his problems, he’s needs help, too, but it’s not right he takes it out somebody else.’
‘Exactly,’ I say. ‘Anything else?’
Silence. I seem to have exhausted my supply of answers but that’s fine, that’s about par. Then suddenly out the corner of my eye, a hand goes up in the air.
‘What if the bully is scared of the repercussions if they owned up?’
I glance to my left. The boy who just read, sits, hand half raised his hand. I’m as surprised my his question and I think everyone else is in the room because suddenly its gone so quiet all I can hear is the high pitched whine of my tinnitus.
I turn to the boy.
‘What’s that, mate?’ I ask, even though I definitely heard.
His eyes are sparkling and his face has turned slightly red. Go on, I think, willing him to ask the question again. And he does.
‘What if the bully was scared of the repercussions if they owned up?
‘Yeah....And from others... like if they were a member of a group.’
I pause and glance around the room, spot the teacher leaning forward, on the edge of her desk. I know what just happened. We both know what just happened. The whole class does.
After forty minutes of sailing through my talk we’ve suddenly hit the tip of an iceberg. It doesn’t happen so obviously every time, but I like to think that in every class, a boy or a girl who bullies might suddenly reach such a point, a turning point.
I can’t tell you what happened next, because the boy just walked out with his now slightly subdued mates, and my only immediate feedback was a slightly astounded teacher telling me that has never happened and that the session was great.
Of course, this made me happy but as I packed my bags and box of books in the car and left the school behind I realised this is literally the tip of the iceberg, that he was only one bully and there are hundreds, thousands more lurking under the surface.
But at least I made a start and as I drove the four hundred miles home, all I was thinking was that this is what I want to do, this is my inspiration, this is the reason I wrote All the Things That Could Go Wrong.
Many thanks to Stewart for sharing this guest blog post with us.