It was Pink Shirt Day today in Canada.
That may not mean anything to people reading this outside of the Canadian borders, so let me give you a brief explanation. Pink Shirt Day (or Anti-Bullying Day) is held on the last Wednesday of February across Canada. It started in Berwick, Nova Scotia at a high school called Central Kings Rural High School (I know it well – I have relatives who have attended this school). Originally, a Grade Nine student chose to wear a pink shirt to school, and was viciously bullied by other students. According to Wikipedia, it was David Shepherd and Travis Price, two fellow students, who were so outraged by this event that they purchased and distributed fifty pink shirts, and then arranged for everyone to wear them in support of victim. It’s been a grass roots movement since then, and now students across Canada were pink on this day to recognize that bullying still happens and something must be done.
I must confess to feeling a little mixed up by this day. On the one hand, I am proud of students for standing up for something that they believe to be wrong, and for creating an event that has inspired other students to join them. On the other hand, I am saddened that bullying is still so prevalent – and even so much more violent – that a day like this is necessary.
Bullying isn’t new. In fact, it has been described by some as part of the human condition, part of what makes us who we are. I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that, but I can see the point that conflict forces us to grow and become different people. I’ve witnessed many incidents of bullying in my life, both as a teacher and as an individual, and let me tell you – it never gets easier. From the insidious, long-lasting nature of girl bullying (woe betide you if you fight with someone in Grade Two, because that feud might run until the end of high school), to the often more vicious physical bullying of boys, there is no case of bullying where anyone comes out a ‘winner’.
Recently, I’ve read two outstanding pieces of teen fiction that deal with bullying. Both have fifteen year old male protagonists with older sisters, both are set in the Maritimes, and both are heartbreakingly compulsive reads. In both cases, the male protagonists have been bullied, or continue to be bullied, and they are forced to deal with the situation in the best way that they can. There are moments of true despair in these books, and moments where you just want to reach out and do something.
I know these kids.
I’ve taught them. I’ve seen their faces after an encounter with their bully, and I’ve read the pain in their eyes. I’ve seen them tentatively reach out, hoping to connect with someone in their class, and watched them withdraw again when they have been rejected. I’ve done what I could to make things easier – separated them in class, warned other teachers, set up a class of respect, spoken to parents and their kids, brought in mediators – but I’ve also known that I can only do so much. It breaks my heart.
Reading these books broke my heart a dozen times too. Nix Minus One by the remarkable Jill MacLean tells us about Nix, a boy in rural Nova Scotia who is trying to find his place in the world. Nix used to be ‘the fat kid’ – the one that everyone teased – and while he may have lost weight, he still faces his bully every day. Things are a little better for Nix, but he still feels set apart from his peers, preferring to work in his father’s wood shop or to slowly build a connection with a neighbour’s abused dog instead of doing things with his classmates. Nix is a normal teen with realistic responses; when catastrophe strikes, he deals with his anger and grief in completely logical ways although it’s painful to read. MacLean writes teen boys incredibly well – last year’s Red Maple selection, Home Truths from the perspective of a school bully was equally as poignant, but with Nix she has gone even further, creating a wounded boy who seeks friendship and solace in alternative ways because he has been so badly burned before. The book is also written in free verse, lending a sense of lyricism to the narrative, and you quickly fall into Nix’s thoughts.
There’s more to the story than just this plotline, but the bullying is an integral part of who Nix has become. The same is true of Wayne Pumphrey, the protagonist of Creeps. He is, if that’s possible, even more heartbreaking than Nix. The story opens in the middle of an incident with Wayne and his attackers. The incident is horrifying in its simplicity and it its familiarity. Both sides have obviously been down this path before, and their reactions are measured and distinct. Wayne will be left humiliated, both emotionally and physically beaten by Pete and his buddies, and there is little to be done to stop them. His solace is to express himself in letters that he never sends – letters that are heartfelt and honest and deeply sad – even as he begins to develop a friendship with Marjorie, another outcast. I won’t say too much more about this book – it won’t be out until August, and I will post my review closer to that time – except to say that the character of Wayne Pumphrey is unlike any I’ve read recently and I may need to start a Facebook group in his honour.
Both of these books focus on the male victim, and both are genuinely personal. While I think that the Pink T-Shirt Day is an incredible event, and I’ll continue to support it in every way that I can, I’ll also do whatever I can to put quality literature such as Nix Minus One and Creeps out there as well. They are the kind of books that you want to put into the hands of every student you know – and every teacher, if only because they remind you that bullying happens all around us, and sometimes it takes more than one day or a special t-shirt to remind you to make a difference.
Nix Minus One by Jill MacLean is published by Pyjama Press and is out now. It may be purchased from Indigo, Amazon and your friendly independent bookseller. Creeps by Darren Hynes will be released by Penguin Canada on July 3oth.