It started when a 6th grade teacher with a flair for drama (the acting kind, not the mean girl kind) decided to read her story on the morning announcements. It was a story of being bullied and being a bully. It was a true story. It was brave and amazing. I don’t think a soul in the entire school took a breath until she was done. That piece kicked off No Name-Calling Week in our school.
This morning a student had volunteered to read his piece. One of my students. He had written a letter to John Boyne about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas for the Letters About Literature contest. It was a letter about being bullied. It was a letter about learning to stand up for himself and others. It was true and honest. It was brave and amazing. I don’t think a soul in the entire school took a breath until he was done.
Dear Mr. Boyne,
Imagine being treated deficiently because you’re different. Imagine being separated because of the color of your hair or because your skin is a different color than his or hers. Imagine there being a fence separating you from the world you once thought was good. That is what happened to Bruno in your book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. That’s what happened to me in my gym class.
In your book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Bruno had no idea what was going on in this world. He had no idea what racism was or what a concentration camp was. Sometimes I wish I didn’t either. One day Bruno met a friend who was on the other side of the fence. Not because he did something erroneous, or because his mom sent him to a timeout. No, he was there because of something that was totally out of his control. He was there because of the color of his hair and his eyes. Just like me.
As a kid I had always been told about racism. About how it still subsist in this world, but being a teenager who thinks they know everything I thought different. That is until my first year in junior high. As a sixth grader I was picked on because of my height and the way I dressed, but the one that stuck with me most was the comments about the color of my skin. The thought of someone making fun of me because of my skin was racing back and forth in my mind for three years, until I read your book. Your book changed me.
As a seventh and eight grader I could see bullying taking place, but not want to interfere because of what happened to me. I would be afraid that because I’m being a friend to the friendless I would get bullied along with them. There is still racism, bullying, name calling and a lot of other stuff at my school. Most kids would probably look at it taking place and walk away or maybe even laugh just to fit in, but not me. Not after reading you book. Your book has stimulated me to be the person who sits with the kid who’s eating lunch by himself. Your book has inspired me to talk to the kid who is sitting alone with everyone else laughing at him or her, and I thank you for that. I hope that you can inspire others just like you have to me. The mere ink that you put on paper will always be forged in my heart.
Immediately after he finished, I walked the student to his locker to put away his coat and collect his belongings for first period. As we walked up the stairs, I asked, “Do you still have that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach?”
“Yes,” he answered without hesitation.
We passed a few staff members. Each of them congratulated and encouraged him as they went by.
“Each time you hear something like that, I bet it feels a little bit better,” I said.
He nodded and smiled.
“You have P.E. first, right? You know those students probably didn’t hear the announcements. So, you may not have a sense of what the reaction is going to be until second period,” I was starting to get nervous for him.
“Actually, today is a health day. So, we are in a classroom,” he explained.
Now I was truly nervous for him. His letter included details about being bullied in gym class. True the bullying he referenced had happened two years ago, when he was in 6th grade, but still. Would this class be understanding? Would this class treat him with kindness and maturity?
We passed through one hallway and reached the health classroom. I opened the door. He stepped inside.
The room erupted into applause. My eyes welled up with tears. And my heart sang.