Interview with Deborah Ellis

Interview with Deborah Ellis
Reviewed by: Canadian Interviews

Trouble at School. It is extremely tricky for adults to access the complicated world that children and teenagers inhabit at school. With her book 'We Want You To Know', Deborah Ellis offers teachers, parents, and students a path to better discussions and perhaps increased understanding. The focus of the book is the problem of bullying. Young people between the ages of nine and nineteen tell their stories about being pushed around and how they reacted to such mistreatment. Interestingly the bullies themselves weigh in on the issue, describing the reasons why they teased and tormented their classmates. Some of the stories are startling in their brutality. The book, published by Coteau Books, is set up simply. Young people give personal accounts of how bullying has made everyday life at school and at home very stressful. Kids talk about being excluded from social groups, and getting teased for appearing different. They reveal the arbitrariness of bullying, and the fear and frustration that comes when this cruel behaviour is taken to dangerous extremes. Ellis follows each story with questions meant to help readers, particularly teachers and parents, start a discussion on the issues involved. Fortunately there are accounts of what Ellis terms redemption', in which students discuss how they made it through disturbing situations and managed to gain back some measure of confidence. It is clear that bullying has long-lasting consequences for those who have been victimized. Ellis makes plain that the problem does not stop at national borders. With a global perspective, she inserts quotes from young people located around the world who have dealt with similar circumstances, highlighting the fact that this problem is not limited to North America. Deborah Ellis is the prolific author of more than twenty books for children. She has challenged herself over the years by travelling to investigate the tough conditions that people face in politically unsettled areas, concentrating especially on the hardships endured by women and children. In the late nineties she trekked to speak with Afghan women who were living in refugee camps in Pakistan. These conversations formed the foundation for what is known as the breadwinner trilogy, three books that have enjoyed considerable international success. A few years later she turned her attention to Africa. Curiosity took her to Malawi and Zambia to learn more about the impact of the AIDS pandemic on children. Ellis has also written effectively about life in Canada. She won the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature in 2000 for Looking for X, which explores the harsh realities facing a young girl living in grim conditions in Toronto. Throughout her career as a writer, Ellis has donated royalties from the sale of her books to various charitable causes, including Help the Afghan Children, Women for Women in Afghanistan, Street Kids International, and UNICEF. Her efforts have not gone unrecognized. In 2006 she was named to the Order of Ontario. Her tradition of giving continues with We Want You To Know. Royalties from the sale of the book will go to the Name It 2 Change It Community Campaign Against Bullying, which operates in Haldimand and Norfolk Counties in southwestern Ontario. Deborah Ellis lives in Simcoe, Ontario. The following interview took place in Simcoe downtown at the very attractive public library. The author talks about the process of collecting stories from young children and teenagers, the challenges that teachers face when dealing with bullying, and the additional dangers newly posed by the largely anonymous world of the Internet. CI: The book developed out of your association with the Name It 2 Change It Community Campaign Against Bullying, which is rooted here in Haldimand and Norfolk counties, and royalties from the sale of the book go toward supporting the campaign. How did you get involved initially with the campaign?/ DE: Very simply! I needed a job. They were looking for someone to co-ordinate their campaign. They got a grant from the Trillium Foundation, and I applied. By lucky chance, they hired me. That's it. CI: On the subject of bullying, the kids that were interviewed for the book were between ages nine and nineteen. What was involved in the process of taking their stories and shaping them into print? DE: Well, the first step is of course to contact the parents and get permission. Once we meet, we sit and talk, and the interview just kind of flows from there. I never know exactly what a kid is going to tell me when I sit down with them. This is the fourth or fifth book that I've done like this. Once you start talking, they lead you in different directions, and you just pick up on that and go with what they have to say. Some of the kids talked about being victimized, or watching it happen to their friends. Of course, some of the kids talk about actually doing the acts of bullying as well. So it's interesting. CI: The actual writing down of what they told you -did you write that, did the kids write it, or was it a collaborative process for the book? DE: It was by and large verbatim. The only changes were when I would jump around and not ask questions in a proper linear fashion. Then sometimes I would have to go back and piece it together, but that was more because of my clumsiness rather than because of the kids not being articulate! By and large, it's their words. I didn't mess with it. CI: As adults it is often difficult to get a clear picture of what is going on among kids at school. The kids that you interviewed, I thought, responded in a very forthright way. How difficult was it for you to be certain that the accounts of bullying that you were getting were authentic, that it happened the way that they were telling it? DE: Actually I didn't worry too much about that. I figured, if they were telling me, they were telling me that for a reason - I didn't go around and ask all the parties if that is how it happened - that was their perception of what had happened. Part of that perception was, in some cases, they felt that no one was on their side. Whether or not that was true, I think, could be open to interpretation by the people who read the interviews, and kind of read between the lines of what the kids were saying. I tried to touch on that a little bit in the introduction by saying that often teachers will do things, but they can't tell anybody what they're doing because of all the rules of confidentiality. So partly it's a problem of kids perceiving that nothing is being done, even though things are being done -they just can't see it happening. They feel more alone because of that. CI: In the stories, often the relationship between student and teacher comes up, and the perception on the part of the student of what the teacher is doing. There is one section in the book in which a girl named Crystal, who had been diagnosed with a form of cerebral palsy, mentioned that she felt her teachers had bullied her. DE: That was a really interesting situation. She had a diagnosis. Everyone knew that she was struggling with this, and even then the teachers were giving her a hard time around it. Hopefully that was a while ago that she was in school. Hopefully things over the past decade or so have changed and moved forward. I think in a lot of cases they have, but not every case, you know? People act like jerks in all kinds of professions, including the profession of teaching, even though there are a lot of terrific teachers out there too. CI: It struck me that teachers have to walk a fine line between discipline and what some of the kids might consider bullying by their own teachers. From your perspective, what is the main challenge for teachers when coming up against the issue of bullying in their classrooms and schools? DE: Man, they face huge challenges on every front, from the situation the kids are facing and then from dealing with the parents, some of whom, as we saw in the book, can become very, very vocal in defending their kids and in asking for things to be done. Sometimes that enthusiasm for trying to create a solution goes over the top. Sometimes parents have been asked to leave the schools. So I think that teachers are getting it from every angle. A lot of the kids talked about their favourite teachers being the ones who were sort of old-school', and fairly strict, teachers who just didn't take any nonsense from anybody, and you could tell that as soon as you walked into their classroom - this is going to be a different kind of environment! You just weren't going to be able to get away with anything. Some of the kids talked about how they felt that the newer teachers were more afraid of being sued, that they felt their hands were tied more than the older teachers, who just took control and did what needed to be done. CI: There is a very interesting quote in the book. It comes from a sixteen year-old named Barrett. He mentions how bullying seems to refine itself and become more pointed when more rules against bullying are introduced. I thought it was a sharp observation. He states: 'I'm in a school now where there are many rules and always supervision, always someone watching. Kids will try to go after other kids as a roundabout way of getting back at the staff, because they have to have some breathing room. 'What stood out to me is the idea that bullying might become more vicious in the face of movements to prevent it. Have you found that to be a valid concern? DE: I don't know enough about it to know whether it's a valid concern, but it's certainly a very interesting point-of-view, and a valid point-of-view from where he sits. I think he's right: people need breathing room, and if they can't get it through legitimate means, they're going to get it from picking on other people. Whether that comes from having a lot of rules, or whether that comes from other things that people bring to the table in a situation -I mean, it's really complicated! Human relationships are really difficult. They're hard when we're young, and I don't think that they get any easier when we get older. There are no simple solutions to any of this. We're all trying to figure out who we are, and that should be easier when we get older, but as kids it's sometimes very, very difficult. We have all these other forces telling us what to do and how to behave, and it becomes very complex. CI: The sense there that, in an institution, there is always someone watching you -that's an idea that is at work very broadly in the social sciences right now, and that students run up against in political science or sociology courses at university. There is a French thinker, Michel Foucault, who died about twenty-five years ago. He studied institutions and how institutions function. He traces much of it back to the design of a prison called the Panopticon, where no matter where you are in the prison, and no matter where you are in your cell, you are visible. It was this idea of always being visible. When I read what Barrett said there, I thought it was very astute. If you feel like you're always being watched, you really have to be careful and intelligent to figure out the times when you are able to take advantage of the situation. DE: That's right. So bullying is not necessarily focused on the kid who ends up receiving it. It is focused on the system that is providing no way to break out of it. It's very interesting. CI: Another theme that comes up again and again is, for lack of a better phrase, technological advancements in bullying, all the bullying through social networking sites, for example. One girl gave the account of people taking pictures of her with their cell phones, and then those pictures were going around, and she felt that she was being cast in a negative light. This is just one more thing for teachers. What is the biggest challenge posed by the online world when it comes to preventing bullying? DE: It makes bullying easier to do because it's anonymous, so you think that you're hiding behind some cloak of safety. Things that you might not have the guts to say to somebody's face, you can say behind their back in a really hidden way. But it's all part of the same problem. Who are we? How are we treating each other? Are we going to be accountable for what we do? I don't know. Maybe sometimes we don't give kids enough credit to be able to handle these issues, and maybe it goes back to what we just talked about, having all these rules, and then kids acting the way that they're being expected to act, which is badly. They just kind of do that. CI: In advance of speaking with you, I spoke with a few people about bullying just to get some immediate reactions. The common sentiment was that somehow this problem has accelerated in the past ten or twenty years. There were a few ideas on why that might be: the technological issues, the behaviour-modifying drugs that a lot of kids end up being put on, the end of religious and moral education in the schools. Have you given thought to some of the broader issues of why this problem has really come to the fore recently? DE: We seem to be ruder as a society than we were beforehand. I don't know if that's just because I'm getting old and looking back on the good old days, but people seem to bother each other more. I don't know. Maybe it's because we have very little quiet to ourselves. There is very little time in our day when we're not having all this noise inputted, videos or TV or whatever. There is no time to just relax, and people bothering us just gets amplified and we want to lash out at them more. CI: Everything is so intertwined. A lot of kids in the book mention that the bullying starts with some difference in appearance, whether it's physical appearance or something to do with clothing. Of course in the past there were schools -and still today in some of the religious or private schools -where the kids wear uniforms. Are these ideas being bandied about a bit now, do you find, at the school board level, to try and figure out some solution? DE: I think people are trying everything they can think of to come up with solutions. It's tough, isn't it? There always seems to be a reason for it. One of the things I find scary is that we get into the habit of acting in a certain way. A lot of kids in the book, they got into the habit of people behaving badly toward them, and so they were no longer able to distinguish between people just being casually goofy and people being actually mean, so every comment that got directed toward them, they perceived it as being mean. They always felt that they were under attack. They could never relax enough to say, oh, she's just kidding around, that's no big deal'. I thought that was very sad. That kind of leads us into adult relationships, right, where we get into abusive relationships and we can't find our way out of them because we just can't imagine ourselves in a relationship that isn't abusive. The patterns just keep on repeating themselves. CI: With the book, what are your hopes for what it might accomplish? What would you ideally like to see happen with it now that it's published? DE: Well, the book is designed to try to create discussions. At the end of every interview, there are a few questions that the kids can read and think about, or talk about with their parents or in their schools. The questions relate back to the interviews. It's all about choices, the kid in this interview -how did he make his choices? Could the people around him have made better choices to have a better outcome? How would that impact your own life? Again, getting that sense of power over what is happening in our lives - the power of choice - means that we have some measure of control, even in a horrible situation. My hope is that the book will create a lot of discussion, and that teachers will be able to use it with their class, and community groups and parents can use it almost as an introduction to their kids to talk about it. A lot of kids that I talked to didn't want to tell their parents that this stuff was going on because it was humiliating. If a parent can say, well, here's this book, let's read it together', maybe discussions from that will flow. CI: Is it your hope then that the book falls into people's homes, or is it going out through school boards -how does the distribution work? DE: I think in a variety of ways: school boards, community groups, youth groups, churches, people's homes -all kinds of ways! Date of Interview: 03/10/2010 Location: Simcoe Public Library, Simcoe, ON

Share this Post: Facebook Twitter Google Plus