Bullying: A Big Complicated Problem with Many Simple Solutions

If each one of us untangled one string at a time...

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fat Boy Chronicles

Ever since reading the delightful and insightful Fat Boy Chronicles by Diane Lang and Michael Buchanan,  I can't stop thinking about it and why it hits home for me.  The main character, Jimmy Winterpock is an overweight boy who lets us into his high school life through journal entries, an assignment given to his entire class by an enlightened teacher.  The teacher tells them that if they write something they don't want her to read, then to fold the page over and she won't read it.   Of course, those are the journal entries that draw you in and make you remember every nuance of high school life. (At one point, I felt like I was in gym class again right along with Jimmy.)

Why do I think this is a great resource for kids, parents and teachers?  Although Jimmy is relentlessly teased about his weight (and everyone in the bullying prevention field knows that overweight kids are teased more), you get to know who he is, how his family works, overcoming humiliation, the turmoil that some of the kids with less visible imperfections experience, and the sometimes funny and often poignant journey of a teenager.

I love Jimmy Winterpock...and I suspect if you read the book and/or watch the movie (now available on DVD and at stores like Walmart and through Net Flix) you'll love him, too.  If you're a teacher, curriculum is available and there are at least a dozen lessons hidden in the storyline.  Of course, it's about bullying but it's also about parenting styles, the value of a good teacher, character, silent pain, the need for friendship and connection, sibling relationships, love, perspective, motivation, humor and the bravery of getting through four of the most confusing times in a person's life -- high school.

When I spoke to co-author Michael Buchanan, he told me that Fat Boy Chronicles is based on a true story.  I wasn't surprised.  Michael was kind enough to answer these questions:

1.)  Why do you think the Fat Boy Chronicles resonate so much for kids AND adults?

Even though the main character is an overweight boy, Diane and I wanted to point out that everyone has something that weighs on their soul. And regardless of how popular you are, or may have been, in school, there are those dark days in which you felt alone. We all understand that. With the response we have received, it seems that everyone sees themselves in the story. We’ve had people in their 70s tell us about events in their childhood that left a permanent scar on their heart, and kids will come up after a school talk to tearfully tell us how they are treated. Just like Atticus Finch said, “You never really know a man until you walk around in his shoes for a day.” To see the world through the eyes of Jimmy helps others understand how their actions, or lack thereof, can affect a life forever. It causes reflection on the moments when we were the victim, bystander or bully.

2.)  What do you want the book and the film to accomplish?

We want the book and movie to continue to create empathy for those feeling left out of the world. Both versions have been out long enough for us to have received many emails and comments about how the book and/or movie have changed behavior. Whether that change is to be healthier, speak up for someone who is a victim or stop being a bully, we have seen the impact Jimmy Winterpock makes on people, young and old. For those who are the bystander: heroes can be any age—a simple act of kindness today can mean more than you could ever imagine, perhaps for the rest of their life.

And, most importantly, we want anyone who reads or watches the story to know that they are not alone, that tomorrow can be better, and that they, just like Jimmy, should never give up hope.

My best friend in high school -- Kevin Bittles -- was a lot like Jimmy. Kevin was a bit chunky, a little shy, but in his own way, the most mature, good-natured person I ever met.  He saved me from the feeling of being an outsider.  Underneath it all, he was comfortable with being himself.  He allowed me to be light-hearted by being 100% genuine in his friendship.  Kevin didn't make it to his 18th birthday (unfortunately, he lost his life in a car accident during a cross country trip) but Fat Boy Chronicles gave me comfort and made me smile because the world needs more Jimmys and more Kevins.

Thank you Diane and Michael for letting us get to know Jimmy and reminding us about the power of empathy.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Goodbye to My White House Pal

Yesterday on Twitter, my son had posted, "A fond farewell to my mom's 'White House buddy.'" That's how I found out that Maurice Sendak had died.

I met him years ago when I worked for Shirley Katzander.  And although part of me admired Shirley,  I still think that the "Devil Wears Prada" movie was really about her.  Shirley was a dynamo.  (For example, I'll never forget the day she let Mike Wallace have it.)  Her clients ranged from Playboy to  Simon and Schuster to Reading Is Fundamental (quite a leap from Playboy to RIF.)

During the 1979 International Year of the Child campaign, RIF sponsored a day of reading at the White House.  Jimmy Carter was in office and Rosalind and Amy were our hostesses.   That's when I met Maurice Sendak.  He was commissioned to do a Where The Wild Things Are poster and he was the special guest at a White House press conference and reception.   Other guests were NBC's John Chancellor,  tennis champ Arthur Ashe, and comedian Carol Burnett (who went out to the hall and called out AAAAAAAMY in the direction of their private quarters to make sure the teen was on her way down so the festivities could start.)

As I mentioned, Shirley was a piece of work but getting to go to this event was worth every grueling minute I worked for her.  Maurice and I got along right away.  He was like a little kid himself in his excitement over being there.  He had become a bit of a recluse so being at the White House where everyone was so thrilled to be with him, was adding to his exuberance.

Towards the end of the day, Mrs. Carter asked Maurice if he wanted a private tour of the White House...and he turned and said, "Come along with me."  So Mrs. Carter took Maurice Sendak and I around the White House, pointing out tidbits about the different china and why the "blue room" was special.  Every time she turned around, Maurice and I would look at each other and mouth, "Are you believing this???!!!!!  It's Rosalind Carter showing us around the place!!!!!!"

The tour ended and so had the event.  When we got back to the lobby, everyone was gone. We walked outside expecting to see our limo.  No limo.  No Shirley.  She was annoyed so she just left us.  The guest of honor...and me.

We got to the end of the driveway having no idea of how to get to our hotel and we had no money.  My purse was in the limo.

So Maurice and I walked a block, then sat on the curb and laughed our heads off.  So much for special treatment.  

When we got our bearings, we kept walking and talking about life.  About what success is and how hard it is to put yourself out there.  I was about to get married and we talked about that...and we talked about how much trouble I was going to get into when we got back to the hotel...and about how you need people even though sometimes people are hard to understand.  He talked about how the day had made him feel more like getting back into the world after his work had been criticized.  (That didn't last long because he is now considered to be one of the most important children's authors of all time.)

We got back to the hotel and of course Shirley was mad but Maurice magically made that all go away by telling Shirley that it was his fault and that he was grateful that I came with him...and then he drew one of his wonderful monsters on one of his posters and signed it to me, "To Susie, My White House Pal  October 11, 1979."

That poster hangs on my wall and although slightly damaged, it gives me total joy.  When I need a laugh, I think about walking down the White House driveway with this great artist and author, who took himself lightly that day.  

I'll never forget it, Maurice.  Thank you.  And I must remember to always take myself lightly.  It's so much more fun.