Empathy for the bully

Stewart Foster
Opinion - Children Thursday, 29 June 2017

Stewart Foster hopes that his new novel will contribute to raising awareness of an emotive subject

I didn't start out writing All The Things That Could Go Wrong thinking that it would contain such an anti-bullying message. I just wanted to write a story about a boy bullying another boy really badly, and then see what would happen next. As I wrote, I started to care about my characters Dan and Alex, and chapter by chapter the caring started to turn into frustration, building to anger. I couldn't believe the terrible and upsetting things I was writing.

It's just fiction, I told myself.

But it's not, is it? For many kids, being bullied is a reality, and it's happening in schools all over the country. The real shock for me came when I told my daughters what I was writing about and they told me that they had been bullied too.

And there I was thinking that I was the cool dad whose kids could tell him anything!

Perhaps the most important idea I stumbled upon came when I was completing a teacher training induction at Saffron Walden County High. My mentor, Pete Wilson, had read The Bubble Boy and asked if I'd like to talk about writing to his Year 7 class. I told him that I'd like to talk about bullying, because a couple of boys had spoken to me about it and there were loads of posters about it on the noticeboards. I took his next class.

The first thing I noticed was the effect of saying the word "bullying" to students. All you have to do is follow the eyes and they lead you to the bully or the bullied, who in turn either look at their desk or out of the window.

We did a mind map on the board.

How does the bullied boy feel?
Useless. Weak. Low self esteem. Insecure.
What should he or she do?
Tell a teacher, tell their parents. Don't react and hope the bully will go away.
And how does the bully feel?
Who cares?

"Let's put it another way," said Pete. "Does anyone have empathy for the bully?"

A boy shot his arm in the air and shouted, "No, way!", and from the look on his face and the way the class went quiet, I think I knew why.

For maybe 20 minutes we talked about empathy for the bully - that he or she may have their reasons, might be being bullied themselves, might be having trouble at home - and all the time I was thinking that the law of averages dictated that there must be at least one bully in this class.

I chatted with Pete for a while after. He said that it had been a great discussion; that having this "outsider" in had somehow made the kids speak more freely, or maybe it was simply that I was an author without a remit other than to write his next novel. But the most important thing was that it had got students talking about bullying, that maybe understanding the bully would help him or her and ultimately them.

In my daydreams I have a picture of bullied kids being brave enough to walk up to a teacher and tell them what's happening, and in those same dreams I have a picture of a bully being brave enough to walk up to a teacher and tell them what they are doing and that they need help too. I know those teachers may not have time to listen, but the very least that can be done is to make time in the school curriculum to talk about it.

In another dream, I visit every school and talk about bullying. I aim to visit as many as I can, and I hope All The Things That Could Go Wrong will raise awareness and create discussion in the places I can't.

Photo: Tallulah Foster

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