I didn’t expect to be writing two blog entries about Judy Blume within two months’ time, but my 7-year-old daughter is on something of a Judy Blume tear, and reading the early chapter books with her has brought up a lot of interesting issues. In my last Judy Blume-related post, I wrote about my surprise in finding out that certain details had been updated in recent printings of the books: kids listen to CDs rather than records and they film with video cameras despite the fact that the book in question was written in the 1970s.
This time it’s the subject matter itself that is inspiring our contemplation. Holly and I have been reading Blubber, a novel published in 1974 for middle readers about what happens when scapegoating in a fifth grade classroom runs amok. At 7, Holly is probably a little younger than the target audience for this book, but I have no objections to her reading it. The characters are pre-pubescent; more importantly, the subject matter is timeless.
Or so I thought. Scapegoating and bullying continue to be hot topics in my children’s classrooms, but I’m finding the theme to be not quite as timeless as I would have expected. What has changed is not the way kids can treat each other – meanly, ganging up, siding with the stronger against the weaker – but the likely results. Over the weekend, we read a chapter in which the “mean girls” ambush and partially strip the scapegoat character, Linda Fischer, whom they dub “Blubber,” in the restroom, and then another chapter in which they destroy her lunch while calling her names. By the end of that chapter, the ringleader is threatening physical abuse, and in the words of the frustratingly passive narrator, Jill, “You could see she wasn’t fooling around anymore.”
I’ve stopped several times while reading to ask Holly for her perceptions on what’s going on. She understands what it means for kids to gang up on each other; she knows about ideas like being left out and being called names, not because it’s happened to her but because unlike in “Blubber”’s era, adults talk about this at her school openly and frequently. While bullying may be a timeless theme, the Judy Blume who wrote the book back in 1974 probably could not have imagined how much adults’ response to it would change. Although in Blubber, it’s apparent that telling a teacher or other adult about the abuse would be futile, Holly knows that at her school any form of meanness is taken seriously by the adults in charge – and unlike in Blubber’s world, the kids talk often about how to avoid behaviors like name-calling and teasing. The idea of pulling down another child’s pants in the restroom is unheard of to them: keeping your hands to yourself is of paramount priority at their school, and what the girls in this book do would be considered sexual harassment by today’s standards.
It’s a relief to think that the previously cloistered world of pre-teen bullying has been rendered generally unacceptable, although it’s hard for me to articulate to Holly the reasons. It’s easier for me to keep repeating “They wouldn’t be allowed to do that today because a teacher would find out and help Linda” than “The administration would intervene not only to protect poor Linda but out of fear that Linda might return to campus with a loaded semi-automatic.” Bullying is simply a dirty word on today’s elementary school campus, for reasons good and not-so-good: because bullying is mean, and because fear has developed around the bullied. Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, argues convincingly that it’s actually a misnomer to refer to the anti-bullying movement as a Columbine issue since in fact his extensive investigative reporting revealed that bullying wasn’t a problem for the Columbine murderers, but even if that was a misrepresentation by the media, it still helped all of us to open up this issue for general discussion in the classroom arena.
And no matter how much anti-bullying instruction we give our kids, there are some ways in which they’ll never get all of it right. My son, who is in fifth grade just like the characters in Blubber, told me proudly that he and his recess buddies have started making an effort to be much nicer to a boy who was often left out because he was clumsy and inept in their playground football games. “Now we pass to him all the time, and when he throws it, we make sure we don’t intercept it so he gets the play and feels like he’s doing really well,” Tim reported. "And we cheer for him." This is great news…sort of. Tim and his friends are doing what they sincerely believe to be a nice thing, and it’s hard for me to point out to him that the boy in question might eventually start to feel patronized.
I wish I knew what happened to Linda “Blubber” Fischer after fifth grade. Maybe she lost weight, became pretty, and no longer had a problem with mean girls. Maybe she stayed fat and pathetic, and the teasing and bullying continued right through high school, in which case I imagine her becoming a woman with low self-esteem and a sad adulthood, possibly subjected to domestic abuse. Or maybe she endured middle school and then went to a progressive private high school like the one I attended, where middle school’s outcasts were celebrated for their differentness.
Aside from the bullying, there’s a minor plot point in Blubber that is also alien to Holly: the protagonist’s mother is shown smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table in one scene, and talks about trying to quit smoking in another. “Back when this was written, it wasn’t all that strange for parents to smoke,” I told Holly. “People knew it was unhealthy, but it wasn’t as unusual as it is now.”
“I saw a man smoking when we were in Boston yesterday,” Holly contested.
“I know, but he was by himself outside. Wouldn’t it seem weird if you were at a friend’s house and the mom was sitting at the table smoking?”
Until we had that discussion, I hadn’t given much thought to how much the idea of smoking in a typical suburban household has changed, but it was interesting to contemplate – and much simpler than the question of how bullying has changed. My kids’ school demonstrates a zero tolerance policy toward pretty much every kind of behavior exhibited in Blubber, and for that I’m grateful. Now it’s just a matter of eradicating the intent behind it, and the way girls still find it possible to gang up, scapegoat, or generally make each other unhappy for no good reason other than that they can.