Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Hundred Dresses

A friend and I took our girls to see The Hundred Dresses, a world-premier performance by the wonderful Chicago Children's Theatre. This production is based on a children's book of the same name originally released in 1944.

The story revolves around a new girl who doesn't quite fit in with the rest of her second grade class. Her dress isn't quite right. She has a funny accent and a strange name. The popular girl in the class bullies her and the others go along, wanting to fit in with the popular girl. I cannot stop thinking about the story and how relevant it is today.

It is hard to believe the story was written in 1944. You can find the same dynamic in classrooms across the country every day. Children who are different for some reason become the target of those who want to make themselves feel cool. The popular kids marginalize those who are different to keep their place in the social structure. It's hard to believe that, despite all the anti-bullying rhetoric and programs, nothing has changed since 1944.

In the story, Wanda's father moves them to a big city where she won't be the only one with an accent or a strange name. In real life, those kids who are bullied take different routes. Some of them move, as the family realizes the bullying won't stop as long as the child is in the same school or community. Some of them turn those experiences into anger, which drives them to success in adulthood. Have you ever listened to interviews with people who achieve success in some field? They often talk about how they were the shy kid in school and had no friends or how they were unpopular because they were different. Others take a darker path.

A few months ago, a student at a wealthy, high-achieving local high school committed suicide. Yes, the article does admit that he had other problems, but the one thing I couldn't get over was how long he was bullied. From elementary school through high school, this poor young man endured unimaginable bullying. His parents worked with the school and tried to save their son. Yet, in the end, he chose to end his life. Of course, after he died, students and others came out to promise they wouldn't let it happen to another child.

It's always that way, isn't it? After something terrible happens to a child, the community comes out to say it won't happen again -- that this will be the last time a child is bullied, feels like an outside or is left on the sidelines. The community swears it will come together to make sure everyone is part of the "in crowd."

We know that's not true, even as we hope it will be. We know there will always be kids on the outside, who don't quit fit in with whatever is cool or popular at that moment. We also know that we don't want our children to grow up to be on either side of it. We don't want them to be bullied, and we don't want them to be the bullies.

The real question, though, is does a middle ground exist? And, if it does, how do we make sure our children are there?

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