THE RECKLESS CLUB / When adults are the bullies by Beth Vrabel
When my dad was eight years old, his greatest ambition was for his teacher, Miss Hagley*, to ignore him. “She just didn’t like me,” he says now, nearly 60 years later. “I don’t know why, but she just didn’t like me.”
“I can picture her now, walking toward me.” His shoulders hunch at the thought: Miss Hagley, her ankle-skimming gray dress swinging, tight pin-curls molded against a scowling face, fingers outstretched toward the side of his head. “She would grab my hair and twist. Not just pull, but grab and twist,” he says. After he asked his mom for a “moonie”—an all-over shave usually reserved for when an at-home haircut went sideways—Miss Hagley squeezed his scalp instead.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong. Maybe I missed an assignment or something,” he says. “Third grade, you know? I wasn’t a hellion. I was a Boy Scout. We were all good kids. I was a Boy Scout.” He loved school up until then, thinking of his teachers as a stand-in mom. Until Miss Hagley. “It didn’t enamor me to school. All I looked forward to was getting out of it, home or recess. Because you knew you were going to be hurt.”
The educational system was different then, to be sure. Some teachers had a basket of paddles in the back of the room so kids could pick their own. Dad says if you didn’t get paddled once or twice a year, you weren’t doing your job as a kid.
But Miss Hagley was different, even through that prism. She was a bully.
Today, we often focus on bullying, on how to protect victims and change behaviors of culprits. But that attention is usually given to peer bullying. What about when the bully is an adult in the child’s life? How can we guide our children to advocate for themselves when there is a clear division of power and status?
Books, I think, belong in that toolbox.
Let kids read about abuse of power. About adults behaving badly. About adults who are bullies. And then, talk to them about why it happens and how to combat it. No more accessible arena exists to sort through real-world problems than the pages of a shared book.
To be crystal clear, I’m not referring to situations that come down to a difference in personality or a student’s dislike of a teacher’s approach. I’m not thinking about coaches whose expectations for their team are so high that the players complain the coach is mean. I’m not including the classrooms led by strong teachers who refuse to cater to student entitlement.
I don’t use the word “bully” carelessly. I’m referring to extreme cases of youth leaders peddling in mockery, belittlement and humiliation. (Extreme, yes, but not uncommon. Almost every adult I know has either witnessed or experienced this kind behavior.)
Middle grade literature is full of Miss Hagleys, and their depictions—and characters’ reactions to them—are safe places to sort through how to manage the betrayal and unfairness of petty adults.
After my first book was released in 2014, I received a message from a librarian who was frustrated that the main character’s teacher hadn’t spotted and addressed the problems in the character’s life. A good teacher would’ve nipped that entire story in the bud, she said. And she was absolutely right.
Pick any middle grade book and chances are great that a mindful, observant adult could’ve entirely wrecked the plot. But these books aren’t just for adults; the kids are the only ones in control of the narrative. These are books for the kids consumed with “Will my teacher like me?” worry the night before the first day of school. They’re for the kids who duck behind teammates as their coach walks by so as not to be noticed. They’re for the kids who hear a teacher’s cutting remark to a classmate and wish for the courage to scoot their own chair closer in solidarity.
Granted, as an author I’m a little biased here, but I think the best way to prepare for and armor against any tough situation is to read about it.
I remember reading HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX to my children and the long talks we’d have about Miss Umbridge, whose viciousness was masked behind pink smiles and kitten posters. “Why doesn’t Harry just tell Dumbledore?” my son asked again and again as Umbridge threatened and abused students.
I told him that sometimes kids are afraid to speak up. They think no one will believe a kid over the adult in charge. They think saying something will just make things worse.
But not saying anything won’t make anything better, he pointed out. “So what should kids do?”
“Keep talking.” This a message I repeat again and again when I have the honor of visiting schools around the country. “If you’re being bullied, if you feel like you or someone you know is in danger of being hurt, tell an adult you trust. And if that person doesn’t believe you, go to someone else. Keep talking until someone hears you.”
After all, just like that librarian said, a good teacher would nip that storyline in the bud.
In my upcoming release, THE RECKLESS CLUB, theater teacher Mr. Ackins targets certain kids with cruel comments or by ignoring their existence while at the same time cultivating a crew of favored students. The pain he causes isn’t as tangible as Miss Hagley’s twisting hair pulls, but it’s just as stinging and just as long-lasting.
Pain doesn’t go away. My dad still shudders when he thinks about Miss Hagley, despite the distance of nearly six decades. If he saw her today, he’d turn away. Though pain can be silenced, bottled up and shelved, it doesn’t go away.
But pain can be channeled into action.
THE RECKLESS CLUB features five 13-year-old kids who spend the last day of summer vacation serving detention as volunteers in an assisted living facility. Inspired by “The Breakfast Club,” the book focuses on when the characters (An Athlete, A Drama Queen, A Flirt, A Nobody and A Rebel) put their labels aside and see each other for who they truly are—people, desperate to be heard.
One of the characters documents Mr. Ackins’s words and the effects they have on students, compiling them in such a way they are unable to be dismissed. Together, the kids bear witness and vow to speak louder and more often whenever they see casual cruelty.
That’s another reason we need depictions of adults behaving badly in the children’s literature. Hearing these stories—connecting to them—lets young readers know that everyone eventually will be held accountable.
When we share these books in our classrooms and living rooms, we let kids see that we offer a safe place.
Beth Vrabel is the award-winning author of Caleb and Kit, A Blind Guide to Stinkville, A Blind Guide to Normal, and the Pack of Dorks series. She can’t clap to the beat or be trusted around Nutella, but indulges in both often, much to the dismay of her family. She lives in Texas, in the Dallas area.