“The Gang”


Bullying is a major issue now in all large institutions and schools are no  exception. The problem is not a case of a series of isolated incidents but  endemic, a reflection not only of how these systems fail to work but in fact  of how they function, in a system in which your place in a strict pecking order determines your power, your social status and ultimately your very identity and your only real protection is to go with the flow. The inability of schools to face this problem and to address it and to protect staff and children from the effects was one of the main reasons why I moved away from mainstream and into Special Education .There at last I was given the
resources and the support to create the kind of environments in which staff and children were valued for who they were and intimidation was not tolerated.

As that insightful text "The Lord of the Flies" so eloquently demonstrates, the roots of bullying run deep. Even in the absence of a system which fosters and encourages mob behaviour, parents will find themselves confronting issues with even quite young children such as "Who gets this toy?", "who decides who gets it and how long I can have it?", "why don't they play with me?", "are they really my friends?". Also, but less comfortably, we as parents have to face such issues as "why do I have to include her?", "what's wrong with me just playing with Susan and Isabel?".. "why do I have to give her a go?", "Why shouldn't I laugh at him? He's just stupid". Few of us like to face the fact that our children can sometimes be instigators of excluding and belittling behaviour and not merely on the receiving end of ostracism and aggression.

Mulling over how to broach such subjects with our daughters , aged 7 and 4, I came upon a very helpful book. In eight short, highly readable but concise and comprehensive chapters, Mick Gowar chronicles the experiences of Lucy as she struggles to cope with her feelings of needing to belong in a typical and hostile environment. The story is beautifully written, the dialogue, characters, situations and behaviours well-observed and true to life. Gowar manages to make you feel present in a typical classroom yet without the really bad language and sexual innuendo which is a standard part of a contemporary child's everyday experience in school.Its all there; the child with the desperate urge to belong at all costs including that of betrayal, the small gaggle of children who get a kick out of excluding her and tormenting her in a variety of inventive but typical ways, the gang leader Nathalie who is so good at covering her tracks and the adults who would rather not see what was going on.

As a counterpoint to how Lucy reacts to her situation, we see another girl, Clare, who is equally excluded by the gang; the difference is that Clare has her own ideas, interests and she has the empathy, self-respect and integrity which protect her from becoming a victim. The books ends with Lucy coming home from school and her mother opening the door and asking if she has had a nice day. Helpfully, Gowar then leaves open the question as to Lucy's response.

Reading the story together has provided a useful context in which to discuss issues that arise every day for us as a family. Such questions as "Why does Nathalie behave as she does?", "why do Carly and Gayle follow her?", "why does Lucy get picked on more than Clare?", "who is most damaged by the bullying; Lucy or Nathalie?", "who would you rather be; Nathalie, Lucy or Clare?" and "why do the teacher and the dinner lady behave as they do?" have led to fruitful discussions about the price of belonging and whether it is worth paying it in all situations, the problem of the "best friend" culture, and the importance both of trusting your parents and of defining your own identity and values. Comparing Lucy and Clare's behaviour, we've talked about how Lucy could have dealt better with the gang's behaviour and role-played being assertive in certain situations. As we go about our everyday activities, the question now arises periodically as to whether such and such an action is typical of Lucy, Nathalie or Clare and of whom we would most like to emulate and why.

Reading and discussing the story was clearly a very timely experience for both of our daughters, especially for our 7 year old.
Each day would start with an enthusiastic request for the next chapter. Once we had finished the book together and discussed it, our older daughter could not wait to get her hands on the book and has now read it avidly a couple of times through by herself. A sensitive but truthful read

"The Gang"; a story about bullying by Mick Gowar (Watts Books, London 1995
ISBN 0 7496 2024 2)

Copyright, Karen Rodgers, 2009