Review of small press and independent books.
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I used to be a kid. I’ve also been a dinner lady, a mum and a teacher and I’m now a grandmother too. In all those incarnations except the first, I’ve had severe doubts about whether individuals or institutions do enough to prevent children suffering bullying and/or violence. I had no doubts when I was a kid, though. I thought it was clear that adults didn’t take terrified kids seriously. I couldn’t even excuse them on the grounds of ignorance. It was clearly common knowledge because a large proportion of the novels and TV dramas for kids had plot-lines that relied on a child being isolated in the face of an apparently extreme threat.
Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe the adults have simply forgotten just how hard it is being a kid. Whatever the truth of it, I know it’s still a problem because, working as a publisher and editor, I see that “the bully’s coming!” is still one of the most popular attention-getting openers in books for school-age kids.
I didn’t hear about Neil Marr and Tim field’s book, “Bullycide: Death at Playtime” the first time around. I did hear about some of the schools’ and community groups’ anti-bullying initiatives which the book helped to kick off though, so now it has been re-released, I thought it’d be a good time to look back and assess how far we’ve come.
At the time, the book was making a case, flying in the face of a world which simply couldn’t believe that young kids were being pushed to the point of suicide in schools and other institutions where those in charge weren’t aware that bullying was “a problem”. The case is made very effectively, through personal stories from kids, teachers, community police officers and others who have had direct experience of children who have suffered and in more than a few cases, died. The book charts not only projects and investigations but the changing attitudes that were necessary – and in many cases, still are – in order for bullying to be taken seriously. This is from the father of Stephen Shepherd, the boy who, in 1967, became Britain’s first recorded case of death through bullying…
“See, we were the result of two generations of world wars. We weren’t supposed to do anything but fight back when our backs were against the wall. Our folks didn’t understand that things had changed. It’s not people you should fight, it’s war itself. There wasn’t a lot of help for the likes of Stephen in a hard town like Ince. I wonder if there’s any real help even today.”
To my mind, that is the nub of the problem we had – and still have. If parents and teachers believe the answer to bullying is to ‘stand up for yourself’ – which implies returning violence and abuse with more of the same – then there is no help for a child who isn’t a fighter – and from the photos and character portraits in the book, most of the kids who have resorted to suicide as a result of bullying just weren’t the fighting type. Are we still living in a society which puts gentleness down as a weakness, a failing? I rather think we are.
Denise Baillie died, aged 15, on April 8 2000, leaving a suicide note and swallowing a handful of her mother’s prescription pills, before anyone knew she was seriously in difficulty.
Denise's case is an example of the distressing tendency of threatened kids to keep their problems to themselves, even blame themselves for being bullied. Modern school and community carers tend to be more immediately concerned about self-harm, depression and other mental distress issues than they are about bullying, but they are well aware of the seriousness of problems caused by feelings of isolation and self-blame - and these are precisely the feelings that bullys' tactics create. Consider these extracts from a comment by author Tim Field on Denise Baillie's death, …Denise refused to unburden herself and thus transfer the problem to her family…Psychiatric injury impairs objectivity…Unlike physical violence which leaves visible scars, psychological violence leaves few physical clues and society is not yet adept at recognising psychiatric injury.
Have we got better at this in the last decade? Perhaps, but there is another compelling reason to revisit this book now. Although a lot of work has gone into creating facilities and resources for kids who are in danger or feel hounded, one has to wonder how well they can function when pressures and extra work have been piled onto teachers in the name of academic standards; and social and community workers’ budgets are being cut to the bone. At the same time, family break-ups and social problems are on the rise – and there are plenty of signs in the personal stories in the book that a child who has already been isolated or upset by family problems is far more likely to keep silent about problems in the playground, so we need to be increasingly on the look-out for the signs of trouble.
But what are the signs? Consider the extraordinarily detailed and wide-ranging investigation that springs into action when a child is murdered, and compare that with the small and localised searching and questioning that a suicide triggers. Even smaller is the response to something as 'trivial' as a kid who suddenly doesn't want to go to school. When parents report bullying to schools, teachers or heads may ‘have a word with’ or ‘deal with’ the kids involved. How do we know it’s worked? Experts interviewed in the book state time and again that if a school is vociferously confident that they ‘don’t have a problem with bullying’, parents should look very closely – the statement is likely to be a sign that the school doesn’t know where or how to look, or simply doesn’t have time to.
There is no doubt that there have been some excellent anti-bullying projects in recent years, some initiated by schools and community groups, some by school children themselves; the stories of earlier projects are some of the most enjoyable parts of this book - but the main reason I would recommend buying a copy of ‘Bullycide: Death at Playtime” is the wealth of information it provides about how to spot bully situations before they become critical, how to deal with them if you do spot them and, even more encouraging, how to run institutions that do not nurture bullying situations.
How is that done? Here’s a link to author Neil Marr’s article, published on the day the book was re-released. http://bewritebooks.blogspot.com/2011/0 … et-in.html
Bullycide:Death at Playtime
Neil Marr and Tim Field
ISBN 978 1 896609 97 9
If you're a parent, a kid, a teacher, a social or community worker, a policeman or any one of a hundred other people who can influence what goes on in the playground, reading this book might just save a life that no-one knew was 'at risk'.
Mm, that's another one on my library list. This is a subject never far from my mind: every time my not-quite-two-year-old recites a nursery rhyme or spells out a word and then claps her hands and says "Clever girl!" applaudingly to herself, I could cry, thinking what's waiting in the playground for a child who's unwise enough to be proud of being clever.
Thanks, Kay. You got it. And you got the reason why I thought it was time for a re-release. Old pal and co-author Tim would have applauded your take (he might well have sent you his thanks in a postcard from a Star Trek congress somewhere, too). The book exposed a problem -- a huge problem -- for the first time, and I honestly do believe it's now being seriously tackled with dedication and vigour. But the bullies who may now be low-profile in playground have discovered cellphones and Facebook and internet forums where they can work their evil more anonymously. Now what do we do about that? I'm afraid it's someone else's job to work it out, Kay. I can't face again the heartbreak of what I went through to produce 'Bullycide'. Even its re-release (little more than new intros and a proof read) left me shattered. I'm now seeing the problem again, first hand, with grandchildren and even a (kinda) great granddaughter, who I love dearly and who's dangerously close to being simply too good for the cruel times ahead. And, yep, I still have wee Stephen Shepherd's picture hanging over my desk. If anyone was responsible for bringing about huge change in general attitude, it was him -- 'Uneven Stephen' with his limp and his self-effacing manner, in his clinic specs and Rupert Bear pants. Thanks again. Love. Neil
I guess we need everyone who gives a **** to focus on whatever area of the problem they have access to. Me, I'm mainly beefing around at funding cuts in the UK right now. Cuts that make teachers and community workers look for the quick, easy answer - which rarely actually addresses the problem, which is one of individual humans in difficulty - dysfunctional kids (the bullies) and scared kids (their targets) BOTH of whom need thoughtful attention.
Book of the Monthified for March. I hereby award myself one £5 Earlyworks Press voucher for the best review this month.... on the grounds that it's the only review this month!
I'd award a fiver to every kid who discovered where the answer to this problem lies and the only folks that can fix it. The answer is in the playground (not the staff room). And the kids themselves are the only people capable of fixing it. Legislation and spy cameras, cops in the corridors, aren't the answer. We must empower and encourage kids to use peer pressure (one heck of a force -- and not our bailiwick) to make it plain: 'Hey, we don't take that shite here. Sod off!' To let it be known that friendship and respect in childhood are earned by interaction and not by demand and menace. The kids can do this themselves if we empower them. Let's not allow adult control (a system children are naturally suspcious of) to take the front stalls: let's just encourage THEM to do THEIR job. Let them realise that there is no such animal as an 'innocent' bystander to bullying. They are much more capable and much more persuasive than thee and me -- I kid ya not. Nip bullying in the bud during childhood and young adulthood, and we will have no future bullying at home, in the workplace, in the military, in politics, in our police forces, in religion, as these wee folks grow and it becomes their turn to run the planet. Neil