In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, teenager William Kamkwamba’s wonderful narrative of his journey and discovery to create “currents of electricity and hope” in Malawi, we are given a portrait of innovation, resource management, and community. As part of the story, William shares how he attempted to combat bullying in his life with the aid of what he thought would be a quick fix elixir concocted by an acquaintance.
At the age of nine, William struggled with bullies who “stalked and tormented” him in the schoolyard. “It was a time of crippling humiliation,” William writes.
Out of desperation and hope for relief from these torments, William turns to a powdery substance to be rubbed into the veins in his hands. For this to happen, his hands need to be cut open with a razor so that the powder, made up of “the blackened bones of the lion and leopard, along with other powerful roots and herbs,” can enter his veins and make him the “strongest boy in school.”
William endures the stinging pain of what felt like “hot coals” and blood spilled from his hands, as the acquaintance finished the task. It took three days for William to feel the strength of the anti-bully remedy. On the fourth day, William, buoyed with confidence, seeks to try out his new powers and steps on the foot of a boy twice his size and strength, to garner a reaction from the bigger boy. While William lands a few punches at the start of this confrontation, he quickly finds himself flat on his back and receiving a beating from the boy. William is genuinely stunned that his powers failed him.
William returns to the boy who inserted the powdery substance into his veins and asks what happened. The boy asks William if he washed after the substance had been put inside his veins. William responds yes, and the boy informs him, “Well, that’s why. My medicine doesn’t allow you to bathe.”
At age nine, who wouldn’t want to believe that a powdery substance could solve the perils of bullying?
However, there are two critical pieces missing from this story: the parents and the school. William, believing himself to be alone and without choice, resorts to a painful remedy, and suffers in silence and isolation, without the support of his teachers and parents.
At the youngest ages, children are subject to bullying, and parents are rightfully worried, concerned, and want advice and counsel.
In The Playground Gets Even Tougher, New York Times reporter Pamela Paul shares the findings of a recent nationwide Harris survey: “67 percent of parents of 3- to 7-year-olds worry that their children will be bullied.”
Bullying at the younger ages can come in the form of exclusion from games, taunting, name-calling, ignoring, and children making fun of clothing, school supplies, and appearances.
Where does the behavior come from? Is it part of the larger culture of media and TV and the case of “monkey see, monkey do,” as Ottawa University professor Tracy Vaillancourt wonders in The New York Times. Maybe, but as with any behavior, if it is not discouraged or called out as inappropriate, it can continue to swell and grow in any setting.
What happens when an incident occurs? If it happens at school, the teacher needs to communicate with the parents so that conversation takes place at school and at home. The most successful learning environments are the ones where schools and parents partner to help kids navigate the murky waters of the playground and hallways at school.
Pamela Paul, in The New York Times, shares the story of Caroline Port, who had been bullied when she was in first grade. Caroline’s mother noted that Caroline was waking up with “night terrors, sleepwalking, and crying excessively.” Caroline’s mother, after meeting with Caroline’s teacher, rightly asked, as reported in The New York Times, “Why hadn’t anyone told me?”
Schools can’t wait to communicate with parents when bullying incidents happen. The close partnership that happens with regular communication between home and school ensures that kids don’t get lost in the shuffle on the playground, and go it alone, as William had to do.
Early elementary age students are constantly trying to figure out the landscape of social interaction at recess. Parents rely on teachers to communicate when incidents occur, so that parents can reinforce positive messages at home, and help children to figure out appropriate responses and word choice when communicating with peers.
Parents need to be part of the solution and not the problem. Pamela Paul highlights that some parents fuel “Queen Bee” behavior in young girls, and can be happy that their daughter “is so popular.”
No parent wants their child to be subject to bullying, and no parent wants their child to be the bully. Without guidance and support from schools, though, parents may not know where and how to have the conversation with their child around how to foster kind behaviors and combat unkind behaviors on the playground.
If schools and parents do not join forces to create positive cultures in schools, then kids may end up going underground and devise dangerous solutions to escape bullying. The last thing schools and parents want is for kids to feel desperate and cook up anti-bullying powders, like William Kamkwamba did.