Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Brutal Tale of Bullying

There is a great, big beast in our schools that we can't control. Try as we might, as strict as we can be, we can't stop the bullying that happens among our students. I think the greatest feeling of helplessness for a parent or educator is knowing bullying will happen no matter how many conferences we attend, how many times we bring the students together to have an open conversation, how many horror stories we share or how many times we try to appeal to the conscience of our children. I am not a pessimist, but I consider myself a realist. Bullying is out there, and we just have to hope all our preparation and proactive actions will help in the long run. Michael Harmon's Brutal shows how one school had good intentions, but feel far too short to protect one young man.

Poe Holly is the product of some bad decisions. Her mom is an amazing doctor who selflessly goes to South America for a year to help people, but she isn't so great at being a mother. Instead she leaves Poe with her father, the same father Poe has never met and has only spoken to a handful of times in her entire life. When she arrives at her father's house, she realizes not everything is the way it seemed. Her father is the school counselor and he is actually a very kind and understanding man. Despite her previous feelings of abandonment, she can't help but start to care about him.

The same thing happens when Poe meets the students of her new school. Her next-door neighbor is a boy named Velveeta (really Andrew, but he really likes cheese) who seems to be the target of the worst kind bullying. She also meets a cantankerous young man named Theo who seems to subscribe to Poe's exact philosophy of anti-establishment-ness. Turns out, though, Theo is the mayor's son. You would think Theo's particular brand of politics would tick his parents off, but in reality they are just the most happy and bubbly people- nothing seems to phase them (which you would think would be super annoying, but isn't really).

When Poe stops a group of the prized football players beating up Velveeta after a prank they pulled on him, she finds herself on the wrong side of the most powerful students in the school. Now Colby Morris has it in for Poe. When Poe hits his girlfriend in the face for stealing her spot on the Elite Choir, Colby thinks Velveeta did it and spreads the word that he is going to make Velveeta pay. Poe tries to seek help, but no one is listening to her (perhaps because the other times she spoke out were to protest important things like the inequality of the gym uniforms). When the football players pull Velveeta into the bathroom and beat him within an inch of his life (actually put him in the hospital), no one believes it was Colby Morris, even the teacher who heard Poe screaming and came into the bathroom to find Velveeta broken and bloody. now Poe must find a way to prove to the school it was Colby (although they already know who did it) beyond a shadow of a doubt, even if it means putting herself in danger to do it.

This is a book where the characters constantly defy their stereotypes. I thought Poe's father was either going to be completely detached or totally ticked off by her constant need to "poke the bear" or throw injustice in people's faces, but he was supportive of her in a wonderfully constructive way. He called her out when she was being petulant for the sake of it, but he supported her when she was right that the school was created a hierarchy among the students while simultaneously touting that all students were equal. Theo and his parents were a mold-busting group too. His parents seemed fine with his obvious attempts at non-conformity, but at times they seemed a little too disconnected. I expected them to be frustrated with how his actions affected their political aspirations, but they didn't. Even Velveeta was a surprise, as a boy who would fight to protect Poe- his only friend- even if it meant getting beaten half to death and not seeking help or police protection. This story became a stereotype buster for me. No one followed their traditional roles, and while it seemed a little over the top at times, I appreciated this character creation by Harmon.

The sometimes sharp language would probably make this a book best for mature junior high students through high school. This is a great book for any student to open up a dialogue about bullying and life in their own high schools. Sometimes I find myself shocked by what students share with me when they open up. In such a small school, I like to think we are super-connected to what happens with our students, but the truth is, we can't know everything. This book is proof of that. I hope you will give this story a chance and let yourself admit our flaws in order to try and fix them.

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