Some students look back on their middle school years fondly. But for others, it’s a time they’d rather forget.
Author R.J. Palacio explores the emotional ups and downs of August Pullman’s first year of middle school in her book, Wonder. The novel is the Vermont Humanities Council’s pick for Vermont Reads this year.
Excerpt: The Plague
In this passage from Wonder, Auggie's friend Summer describes some of the bullying Auggie had to put up with at school:
"It was actually because I was playing Four Square with August that I found out about the Plague. Apparently this is a "game" that’s been going on since the beginning of the year. Anyone who accidentally touches August has only 30 seconds to wash their hands or find hand sanitizer before they catch the plague. I’m not sure what happens if you actually catch the Plague because nobody’s touched August yet – not directly.
How I found out about this is that Maya Markowitz told me that the reason she won’t play Four Square with us at recess is that she doesn’t want to catch the Plague.
I was like, "What’s the Plague?" And she told me. I told Maya I thought that was really dumb and she agreed, but she still wouldn’t touch a ball that August just touched, not if she could help it."
Bullying, in its subtle and not so subtle forms, is unfortunately an often common part of the middle school experience. In 2012, the state Legislature strengthened Vermont’s laws on bullying, hazing and harassment. It also created an advisory council to help schools handle and prevent bullying and harassment.
But can new laws or increased oversight make a meaningful dent in an age-old problem?
Despite efforts to curb bullying and harassment, students say it happens – often on the unsupervised fringes of middle school life.
Savannah Carter, a seventh grader at Bennington’s Mount Anthony Union Middle School, sees it in the mornings when kids get on the school bus.
“People start laughing at them, for no reason at all and start picking on them.” She says it makes her feel bad, and a little helpless.
“I don’t know what to do about it. Because I feel if I get involved with it they’d do the exact same thing to me,” Carter says. Her school is one of many where students have been discussing bullying and harassment this year.
Sixth grader T’ea Oakes says it’s complicated, “because there’s so many different ways that it happens. Like, sometimes after lunch when nobody is watching is when a lot of bullying happens.”
Oakes had problems earlier this year, when a classmate kept shoving her in the halls. She says she told the bully to stop, with no results. After that, she turned to a faculty advisor.
“And when that didn’t work, I talked to my mom about it. And then we talked to the principal about it and then it finally stopped,” Oakes said.
Toney Lee, the vice principal of Mount Anthony Union Middle School, says education about bullying and harassment begins each year with an assembly on the first day of school.
“We talk about bullying and we actually do examples of what it looks like so the entire sixth grade sees – what is bullying, what is fooling around with your friends?”
The lessons continue all year with programs, activities and discussions in small advisory groups.
“I think we’re doing a good job of educating kids about other kids feelings and what their actions mean to other people,” Lee said.
Even before state law required it, the school had a bullying and harassment policy and three designated staff members to quickly investigate complaints. Solutions range from mediation and education to, in rare cases, criminal action.
But there are always new challenges, like the recent explosion of cyber-bullying among middle schoolers. So while his school’s anti-bullying program is a good one, Lee says, it hasn’t solved the problem entirely.
“It works and it doesn’t work.”
Vermont students showed the same sort of ambivalence in a listening tour conducted last fall by the state’s Harrassment, Hazing and Bullying Prevention Advisory Council last fall. The panel visited five middle and high schools chosen at random from around the state.
Council member Ken Page, who directs the Vermont Principals Association, was shocked by what he heard at one school.
“Because there were a number of kids that presented pretty hopeless situations. First of all they said they couldn’t think of a single adult within the building that they would turn to,” Page explained.
The council’s report says students’ feelings of safety vary noticeably from one school to another.
Tracey Tsugawa, the council’s chairwoman, says the group was created to address those inconsistencies and provide training, advice and resources around the state.
Meanwhile, schools are exploring programs that address the wider issues of school climate and respect.
More than 100 Vermont schools have adopted a program called PBIS: Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. It’s a fact of life at Central Vermont’s Northfield Middle/High School. Middle School administrator Ryan Parkman sees its impact everywhere as he walks through the halls.
“PBIS really works at building a positive environment and a positive climate. I don’t think we focus on just bullying. We focus on overall behavior. We don’t allow rude, discourteous behavior. So if we can teach our students that that’s not appropriate, it doesn’t even rise to the bullying level,” Parkman said.
A precept of the program is that students get noticed for doing the right thing. Since the school’s mascot is a pirate, students are rewarded with "doubloons," which can add up to prizes or privileges.
“If you’re in a classroom and you’re trying to teach, and you notice a couple kids maybe goofing off in the back, you can walk over to a student and say ‘Hey, [thanks] for really taking care of your work and doing the right thing.’ Don’t draw attention to the students who are goofing off,” Parkman explained.
School officials say bullying investigations and suspensions have decreased noticeably.
A group of older students in the school’s busy lunchroom say bullying has become less common.
Junior Patty Bailey said, “I feel like it’s gone down a lot since I started middle school here. Like I noticed it a lot when I was little, like just people getting picked on.”
Bailey’s friend Taylor Nash agrees. “I think it’s helped a lot that the administration’s been a little bit more keen on spotting bullying. And students are a lot better at handling it.”
People don’t feel so helpless, Nash says. If they see someone being bullied, they say, "We don’t do that here."
Two Mount Anthony Union Middle School students, Dominic Bullock and Dustin Harrington, were selected from thousands of students who wrote "precepts" of their own after reading the book Wonder. The precepts, simple rules for behavior, were submitted to the author, R.J. Palacio, for inclusion in her next book, titled 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts.
The Worst Thing
Even without bullying, middle school can be a difficult time for students, as Christ The King middle schooler Sophia Moore-Smith shared in her essay for the Young Writers Project:
The worst thing about being a teenager is that nobody seems to understand you. It seems like you can’t say or do anything right.
Say something negative, even if it’s the truth, and you complain too much.
Say something positive, and now you’re accused of being naive and childish.
You’re struggling with a learning disability? You just need to study harder, stupid.
Feeling crushed under a wave of depression? Just smile and get over it, emo.
Being ostracized for having a different opinion? Don’t rock the boat! Just try and be normal.
Grappling with an eating disorder? Just eat something, for god’s sake!
Made fun of for being overweight? Just stop eating, for god’s sake!
Your problems are looked at as not being real, and most of the time, this attitude from adults only makes the problem worse.
You might try to speak up about what’s bothering you, but teachers and parents brush it off as “angsty teenagers.”
Maybe if adults put themselves in our shoes and tried to understand our issues without blaming us or making us feel stupid, then maybe the current number of 1.75 million teenagers diagnosed with anxiety disorders in the U.S. alone would drop.
It’s stressful enough just being our age, with school, and friends, and just growing up, but it’s worse when we don’t have a sufficient support system.
Teens need supportive parents and authority figures to succeed in school and in life. When adults don’t understand a point I’m trying to make or don’t accept that I might be frustrated with a situation at hand, it makes me unwilling to try to explain further when it’s clear they will always disagree.
It’s easier to just talk with my peers or even be alone than to engage in a disagreement that I know no adult will ever lose. And parents wonder why their teenage children are so distant.
Tomorrow on Vermont Reads, 'Wonder', we hear from some Vermonters who say they’re living the story of Wonder.