Walter Dean Myers on Stopping the Bullies
Walter Dean Myers
(Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins)
The celebrated author of numerous children and young adult books, Walter Dean Myers, has a message for kids: "If you are being bullied you are not alone."
He recently visited Scholastic's world headquarters in New York to talk about bullies and bullying—the topic of his new book, Shooter.
While visiting prisons and youth correctional facilities, Meyers noticed something disturbing: Kids that were once so full of promise were now very angry and bitter. He wanted to know what could make a young kid go from being so happy and full of promise to being angry and wanting to strike out at the world. What many of these kids had in common, he learned, was that they were bullied.
"This is a very common problem that happens in every school," he said. "Kids need to recognize and understand that and look for help."
Shooter tells the story of a friendship gone bad between three loners: Len, Cameron, and Carla. Each of these high school students has been bullied and ostracized by the more popular kids in school. The story is told through police reports and transcripts of interviews with Cameron and Carla after an act of violence has shattered their lives.
Read our interview with the author to find out more about Shooter, and how Walter Dean Myers has dealt with bullying in his own life.
SN Online: Were you ever bullied?
WDM: I've never been bullied. I have always been big and physical. To be bullied you have to be isolated. People who are bullied are people that usually don't have a lot of friends. Bullies find someone who is isolated.
SN Online: Did you ever know anyone who was bullied?
WDM: Oh, sure. My younger boy—he could read quite well at age 4. I read to him every day. They put him in the first grade. He had problems all the way through because he was never as old as the kids in his class even though he was taller. He was never that isolated from me, he could always talk to me. He was isolated sometimes from the kids in his class, but never from me. I always understood what boys went through.
SN Online: As a kid, were you ever in a situation where you saw someone you knew being bullied? After seeing that person take it, did you ever try to get them to stand up?
WDM: I have interfered with people being bullied. There was one time I know I didn't interfere; it was with a girl being teased. I did not recognize that as bullying at the time because it was not physical.
SN Online: Was there a specific incident that made you write Shooter?
WDM: When I was visiting prisons I was looking for common threads with these prisoners. I wanted to know what went on in their lives that turned them from being a 13- or 14-year-old with so much promise, into a person who is fighting the world and bitter toward the world. The thing that came up over and over again was bullying.
They were bullied either physically or emotionally. Somewhere in their lives they had been bullied and it stuck with them. They began to react to that by taking on tough attitudes and by bullying others.
When you find a kid who's being abused by a parent, maybe not physically, but by being belittled, that kid wants to make the whole world like that and he or she wants to act out onto others. So many of these people were being bullied. Then when the Columbine incident occurred, that was a shock to me. So I went to the Internet to see how often this happens, and it happens a lot. It happens many more times than is reported in the papers.
I watched this risk assessment team looking for identifying factors and one of them was the idea of being bullied. There was no particular racial or economic factor to blame. They were all kids who were bullied and could not handle it. They finally choose to remove themselves from this difficult situation by harming other people.
SN Online: I was having a debate with myself in reading this story through the risk assessment papers and the police files. What is true and what is not true? You did a great job of laying out the kid's personalities and their responses, but I kept thinking that what you were seeing through the lenses of the police reports was not really the true picture.
WDM: Right. What I hope is that you [the reader] come up with the true picture. For example, with Cameron, he comes from this middle-class family. They're asking him why he doesn't belong to any clubs or activities or the NAACP. What I want you to see is that he has allowed himself to become isolated. His parents are not relating to him as a human being, but rather as a dependent. This was a fairly common theme with the young kids in Colorado. They were given everything.
When you look at the incident in the church, the two boys were—well, one was following the other one. Cameron is actually being bullied even as he goes along. He'll do almost anything to avoid complete isolation. It's the same with girls, too. Len is bullying Carla and Cameron. So it's a love-hate relationship.
When kids get in trouble, they don't go from detention to let's kill someone tomorrow. It progresses in steps. They have to give themselves permission as it grows into something huge. With the kids at Columbine you can look at what they were doing prior to that incident and say these kids are headed for trouble. If your kid did something like this, would you try to help them get out of it? Of course you would. If your kid vandalized a church and he was to go to jail, would you try to get him out? These are cries for help in my mind. These kids are saying, "Let me push the envelope; let me show you that I am rejecting you as I have been rejected." These kids [in the book] all show signs of that.
SN Online: Do you really blame the bullies for pushing a kid that far?
WDM: Yes, I do. Bullying happens because bullying works. People try to give these very sophisticated reasons for why they bully. Bullying works.
You go to a school and you find that some kid is collecting lunch money from four or five other kids. He is getting the respect that he wants. Think about it on my level. If I walked in here and said to you, give me your lunch money, it wouldn't work. You would call the authorities. If any of us talked to one of our fellow employees and said, you do my work today or I'll knock you out, it wouldn't work. There are levels in which it does work.
In the schools, it works. In prisons, it works. In certain aspects of society, it works. That's why kids do it. You go to the basketball court, and the first thing you are taught is to try to intimidate your opponent. So if I went to the basketball court with you, the first thing I would do is hit you as hard as I can to see how you react. If I can intimidate you, I am going to take your game away.
SN Online: So how do you stop it in the schoolyard?
WDM: In the schoolyard you have to name the beast. You have to say this is bullying. This is not macho behavior. The schools that stop bullying have an official anti-bullying policy that they announce, that empowers kids to complain. You can go to some places where a kid is being picked on and when he goes to a teacher the other kids look down on him or her. This is a very common thing. You have to empower the kids to identify someone as a bully—you are not simply bigger or stronger than me—you are a bully. You have to give the kids that power.
SN Online: And that works?
WDM: That works better than anything else because most schools have a way to deal with bullies. I have stood in front of classrooms and watched a kid sitting behind another kid kick the chair all period long. If I can see that, the teacher can see it too. They have to teach the kids to stop doing that. Bullying is very difficult to deal with—what do you say? You call the parent to school; the average parent is just going to defend their kid.
SN Online: Is this a bigger problem today than in the past?
WDM: I think it's a bigger problem today than it has been in the past because our society generally accepts bullying more. Winning in sports is much more important than it used to be. A person that is just physically strong in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s might make a professional team, but he didn't become a cultural hero. Today, athletes are cultural heroes. When you walk into a school as a guest speaker (with an attaché case trying to look all cool), you have to go through a metal detector. You know something is going on there that is physically violent. It used to be that I could go into any school in the country as a guest speaker and walk in. Now you go to these schools and there are guards.
SN Online: What did you want to accomplish with this book? Is there a message you are trying to send?
WDM: I want to send the message that the people who are being bullied are not unique. This is a very common problem that happens in every school. Kids need to recognize and understand that and look for help. I want to say that the people who are doing the shootings and committing the crimes are doing it as a reaction of things that are happening to them. There was this little kid who had been beaten up for months and months and finally struck back. He hit a kid with a pencil and he got five months in a youth home. The kids who had been tormenting this kid got nothing.
SN Online: Why is this particular subject so important to you?
WDM: Because it changes a kid. When you have an 11- or 12-year-old kid his or her life is full of potential. I want to show what turns these kids around. It is the abuse they suffer? Why are kids abusing themselves? Because of the abuse they are already going through.
SN Online: Do you think your book will make a difference? Who do you think it will make a difference for most: kids who are bullies or kids who are being bullied?
WDM: I think it will make a bigger difference with the kids who are being bullied. When I was talking about bullying on the radio, the switchboard lit up. A good friend of mine told me, tearfully, that she had been bullied as a kid. I see with all the talk about bullying more institutions like schools are reacting. School boards are starting to react. I hope now that kids who are being bullied will be more empowered to stand up for themselves.