Bullying, Censorship, and the Book I Wish I’d Had in School

October 5, 2013 at 10:32 pm (General) (, , , )

As some of you might be aware, the Parents Action League of a school district in Minnesota recently lodged a challenge against Rainbow Rowell’s book Eleanor & Park, saying it had no place in the classroom, library, or summer reading program. There are a lot of posts out there recapping the series of events and the specific aspects of the challenge and responses, and the fact that the bulk of the incident took place in the middle of Banned Books Week was surprisingly appropriate. These parents have listed a lot of reasons why the book shouldn’t be in their children’s hands: the swears! the making out! the talk about drugs/sex/booze!

What those parents aren’t talking about is why this book SHOULD be in their children’s hands, because the parents don’t understand it themselves. You see, the majority of these parents haven’t read the book- they’re ‘calculating the average curse words per page’. First of all, these parents have clearly never stood in the hallway of their children’s schools between classes, or the swearing in the book wouldn’t even register. They’re feeding the text through programs designed to trigger at certain words, blissfully ignorant about any sense of context or bigger picture.

Now, this post is going to get rather more personal than I usually air; if frank talk about bullying, including the kind that comes hand in hand with physical development, bothers you, I won’t be offended if you close the tab and don’t read on. Similarly, I won’t be offended if you decide you’d simply rather not challenge your view of the circumstances. That’s your right.

But in all seriousness, Eleanor & Park is the book I wish I’d had in school.

In the past few years, it’s become almost ridiculous to say “I was bullied in school”, because it seems like everyone was (hint: that’s become almost everyone was). Everyone gets bullied at some point or another in their lives, for a wide range of things. But some of us got bullied relentlessly. Some of us couldn’t escape it.

And for some of us, it started right away.

I was the girl in kindergarten who got made fun of because I was always reading or playing make believe on the play ground. I was the girl who got made fun of because a boy tried to kiss me during group work in the portable. I was the girl who got made fun in first grade (and subsequent grades) because I was friends with boys, and liked playing kickball and such with the boys during recess. I was the girl who got made fun of in second grade because I had to sit in the front row and still couldn’t see the board–and then got made fun of for having to wear glasses. I was the kid who got made fun of for being the teacher’s pet, for falling in love with interesting words and daring to use them. I got made fun of for being so far ahead of everyone else in our reading assignments that I got sent to the library to do my own work.

I developed YEARS before the bulk of my classmates, and that’s not an exaggeration. I was nine years old when I suddenly sprouted breasts, going from nothing to a DD in a very short span of time. All the girls made fun of me because breasts were something only old people and freaks had. All the boys I’d been playing with for years suddenly didn’t want to play with me anymore–suddenly I wasn’t their friend, I was a girl. Only the girls wanted nothing to do with me. I got my first period later that year, while I was at school. I knew what it was because my mom and I had that particular conversation when the breasts arrived, but how can a nine-year-old comfortably tell her teacher she has to go home because she’s bleeding? And the girls made fun of me even more because most of them didn’t know what it even was–our school didn’t do the health section until fifth grade. But I got made fun of then, too, because this nurse’s daughter insisted on using penis and vagina instead of vague euphemisms, so I got sent to the library for the duration of the health unit.

With the early onset of puberty came other significant problems, namely what has become a lifelong battle with weight. I know now that my problems arise from a hormonal imbalance that causes a variety of symptoms and issues. What I knew then was that suddenly, despite the fact that I hadn’t changed the way I ate, despite the fact that I was an incredibly active kid who ran around like crazy, I was packing on pounds that I couldn’t get rid of.

Be the kid who suddenly can’t run the mile without almost passing out. Be the girl who doesn’t understand why running suddenly hurts so much, because I didn’t know about sports bras, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because we didn’t dress out in elementary school.

I thought it was going to get better in middle school, because there’d be new people, but somehow that was exactly what made it worse. Because along with all the kids who’d been bullying me for years, we got an influx of kids from other elementary schools who joined right in. When the cliques all gathered together so they could take turns shielding each other while dressing out for gym, or crowded into the bathroom and took up all the stalls, I was the one who had to change right out in the middle of the room with people pointing and laughing. I was the one who got made fun of for being smelly in class because we never had the opportunity to take showers after gym–not that I could have taken one anyway, because the curtains were clear and the thought of being naked around all those mean girls was debilitating.

I wore shorts because I got overheated in jeans, but got made fun of for jiggling thighs. I wore monstrously large t-shirts because I thought–hoped–that if they couldn’t see the fat, they couldn’t make fun of me for it. But they did, and they made fun of my glasses, and my frizzy hair that was back in a bun every day because it was the only way I could manage it. They made fun of me for being smart, for participating in class. They made fun of me for reading, for writing. They made fun of me for not having a date to the mandatory in-school Valentine’s Dance in sixth grade–I spent the entire time silently freaking out in a corner because I was terrified some hateful boy was going to ask me to dance only so he could humiliate me in front of everyone. I had a crush on a sweet, amazing boy, but I was too scared to ask him to dance, because I was afraid he’d say yes–and everyone would know it was only because he was a nice guy and didn’t want to hurt my feelings.

Eleanor gets called Big Red because of her weight and her hair–I got called that because in seventh grade, my period hit unexpectedly on a day I was wearing white shorts. My mom couldn’t come get me and none of the teachers would let me go down to the gym lockers so I could at least change into my PE shorts. I was the girl whose backpack got raided so girls could pass around the pads and tease me for the things they didn’t need yet.

And it never helped to go the teachers, not even the nice well-meaning ones, because then you heard things like ‘We need to be mature and not tattle every little thing’ or ‘you just need to try harder to get along with people’ or ‘I’m sure they didn’t really mean anything by it’ or, my personal favorite, ‘this is something you’re just going to have to learn to deal with, because you’re always going to experience it’. I was hurt and embarrassed, and the teachers were so scared of pissing off parents that they made it my fault.

And it got even worse in high school, when I finally started wearing clothing that fit a little bit better. It got worse when the only way I was growing was out. It got worse when kids would make fun of the way my breasts jiggled when I ran because I was too embarrassed to change bras in front of the girls in the locker room. It got worse when even the coaches laughed when some jackass boy told me not to bounce too hard making a shot in basketball because my boobs might knock me out. It got worse when suddenly they were making fun of me for not having a boyfriend, or for having a weird boyfriend.

And I know I didn’t have it the worst. There were definitely kids who had it worse than me, but somehow the adults never seemed to understand what a sickening standard that was. Yes, it’s true, I wasn’t being attacked the most horrendously, but I was still being attacked, and they did nothing. Weren’t willing to do anything.

Eleanor & Park was the book I needed in middle school and high school. I needed that reassurance that yes, the kids were going to make fun of me, that yes, the adults weren’t going to care, but, and this was the big thing, THAT I WOULD FIND MY PEOPLE. Or maybe even just my person. It didn’t have to be romantic it just had to be real, the people on the fringe uniting in common goals. I found that, fortunately, and by the time I graduated high school I’d largely learned to ignore the insults until finally they mostly stopped coming, but it was something I had to work at, A LOT. I found my people in theatre, and even though I got made fun of for being weird, for being that strange kind of drama person, I had people that were just like me. When I was getting made fun for having to prance around on stage in a green unitard that covered me neck to wrist to ankle, I had friends that had brown suits complete with hands, feet, and hoods that ran around the school cafeteria yelling “I’M A LITTLE CHOCOLATE BROWN TURD! I’M A LITTLE CHOCOLATE BROWN TURD!”

Eleanor & Park was the book I needed, because it would have taught me that I had so much to offer anyone willing to actually get to know me, rather than just stand by and insult me or laugh. Because it would have taught me that common interests transcend physical appearance. Because it would have taught me that a single friend, a single TRUE friend, could mean more than the insults of the entire rest of the school.

I wouldn’t have been fazed by the swearing–even our middle school was full of such language, and that was almost two decades ago. Coming back from a field trip in seventh grade, when we made an unscheduled stop for dinner and I had no money, one of the girls in my drama group offered to pay for my meal–as long as I let her teach me how to swear. It wouldn’t really have mattered anyway, because I certainly read worse in the books that were in our school library. I was ten when I read Avalon, by Anya Seton. Oh, for the sixth grade joys of raping and pillaging. I was fourteen when I read a book where a teenage girl ran out on her wedding night to become a prostitute, and spent the rest of the book explicitly cheating on her husband. I returned the book to the library in absolute disgust, not because of the sex, but because of the euphemisms. I don’t think our media specialist ever recovered from asking me why I didn’t like it; “Because it’s a penis, not a wriggling fish”. So making out in the backseat of a car, getting to second base? Not so much an issue. Drugs and booze? Even the good kids knew where to get the drugs– we could name every corner of the school grounds where you could try your luck if you were so inclined. Booze was easy–you just waited for someone’s parents to let them throw a football party.

What our librarians were wise enough to know was that if we were voluntarily in the library, if we were checking out books for pleasure rather than research paper or reading requirements, we were mature enough to handle otherwise sensitive issues.

And here’s the thing: the parents challenging the book, the ones counting the swears and clutching their pearls, aren’t afraid of the language. They’re not afraid of the sex, or the drugs, or the booze. In their bid for censorship, they claim lofty goals, and in place of their relentless sense of entitlement they claim they’re just “thinking of the children”. They’re not, though. Because what these parents are really afraid of, where this book’s power really lies, is in it’s ability to make children think. It opens minds, it opens hearts, it lets kids know that IT GETS BETTER. It lets them know that IT’S OKAY TO BE DIFFERENT. It lets them know that WORDS ARE HURTFUL.

It teaches children to move beyond the patterns of their parents. It teaches them to start thinking for themselves, to start defending themselves and who they really are. It tells them that they don’t have to sacrifice who they are to try to fit in, because there are people who will appreciate them for exactly who they already are. It teaches them that friendship can grow from the unlikeliest of places.

The parents aren’t afraid of a few f-bombs or backseat groping.

They’re afraid that their children will grow beyond them, that their children will become better people than their parents.

Most importantly, they’re afraid that their children will begin to think for themselves, that they’ll start to make their own educated, informed, and impassioned decisions about what they will and will not stand for, about the kind of people they want to be.

Because the mother who claims to be worried about swearing is worried that a pursuit of language might lead to a pursuit of truth. Because the father who claims to be worried about children making out in cars doesn’t want to admit that he’s uncomfortable with people of other races. Because in their race to censorship in willful defiance of context, they don’t have to identify what it is that really bothers them about this book and other books like it. They can rely on formulas and equations and they never have to read the book, never have to fear the impact it might have on THEM.

Eleanor & Park is the book I NEEDED when I was in school, but I didn’t have it. I had to struggle along by myself and it HURT. The struggle didn’t make me a better person, it made me a less trusting one. I look in the mirror and I can still hear those kids from elementary school.

They made fun of me because I was an easy target. Because it was easy for the girls surreptitiously padding their bras with toilet paper to make fun of me for my large breasts. Because it was easy for the kids who couldn’t get the answers to make fun of me for knowing them. And these behaviors are learned from their parents. It’s easy to go after Eleanor & Park: oh the swears! Oh the scandal!

What’s much more difficult, but so very necessary, is to sit down and open an honest dialogue with the book, and to understand that the very things raising the hackles are the very things that make this book so essential.

When we ban books like Eleanor & Park, when we cut children off from the amazing support and hope that they offer, what we’re really doing is telling them to be victims. What we’re telling them is that it doesn’t get better. We’re telling them it’s not okay to be different, to be unique, to be themselves. We’re telling them that they should change to fit into this homogenized world where everyone’s the same color and follows the same creeds and things are As They Should Be. We’re telling them they’re wrong.

And it’s NOT TRUE.

And when the teachers aren’t willing to step in, when the parents are more scared that their child might be different than they are grateful their child is a real person, that’s when Eleanor & Park becomes even more important, because for some bullied kids, myself included, books were the only hope I had.

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