I’ve written before about Lewis’ lifelong struggle with bullies, and my own reflection on what I think is at the core of bullying, but I just happened to read this passage today–a “pink shirt” day dedicated to stopping bullying. My son was begging for us to start the 4th Chronicle of Narnia, The Silver Chair. As a good irresponsible parent, I relented, and was struck with how relevant the passage was. Jill Pole is struggling with bullies in a school that seems oblivious to the menacing presence of “Them.”
IT WAS A DULL AUTUMN DAY AND JILL Pole was crying behind the gym.
She was crying because they had been bullying her. This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill’s school, which is not a pleasant subject. It was “Co-educational,” a school for both boys and girls, what used to be called a “mixed” school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it. These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked best was bullying the others. All sorts of things, horrid things, went on which at an ordinary school would have been found out and stopped in half a term; but at this school they weren’t. Or even if they were, the people who did them were not expelled or punished. The Head[master] said they were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. And if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head, the main result was that you became rather a favorite than otherwise.
That was why Jill Pole was crying on that dull autumn day on the damp little path which runs between the back of the gym and the shrubbery. And she hadn’t nearly finished her cry when a boy came round the corner of the gym whistling, with his hands in his pockets. He nearly ran into her.
“Can’t you look where you’re going?” said Jill Pole.
“All right,” said the boy, “you needn’t start—” and then he noticed her face. “I say, Pole,” he said, “what’s up?”
Jill only made faces; the sort you make when you’re trying to say something but find that if you speak you’ll start crying again.
“It’s Them, I suppose—as usual,” said the boy grimly, digging his hands farther into his pockets.
Jill nodded. There was no need for her to say anything, even if she could have said it. They both knew.
One of the brilliant features of this story, of course, is that the school is to blame for creating the environment of bullying. “Experiment House” is the perfect caricature of the feelings-based approach to educating children.While I think our school cultures may create the space for bullying–certainly it is what Lewis experienced as a child, and that’s the setting in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terebithia—I wonder if it might be larger cultural issue. I do think that the core of bullying is in the insecurity that bullies and the bullied share, as I argued in “On the Nobody Somebody Has Inside.” I think, though, that the issue goes beyond personal psychology, and is a perfect storm of societal parents, including: 1) highly focused media targeting; 2) ineffective, disengaged, and over-protective parenting; 3) over-taxed school systems with no foundation for dealing with this issue; and 4) a culture of entitlement that negates any effect true inclusion could have. Lewis writes about #1 in letter 20 of The Screwtape Letters, #2 as the parents of Eustace Scrubb in The Dawn Treader, and #3 both here and in Surprised by Joy, Lewis’ autobiography. I don’t know that Lewis ever dealt with entitlement and inclusion, except for a few hints in Screwtape.
I do find it a bit sad that books written two generations ago–long before cyber bullying and body-obsessed role models–are just as relevant today. Unfortunately, it is an essentially human problem. I just hope we can address the social issues so that more children are not victimized.