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Two stories about the New Kid in School

Two days, and two 1st Grade classes in two schools, with two read-aloud assignments around the same topic: being the new kid in school. In both cases, the child is also new to the community, coming from another country. Some synchronicity!

Cover depicting Lazlo Gasky, the new kid in school.
Marjorie Priceman: illustrator.

How can two approaches be so different? Here are the links and book descriptions from “From one of America's most respected journalists, The Brand New Kid is a heartwarming story about tolerance and the need to give others a chance that will entertain and inspire children and adults alike.” “Farah feels alone, even when surrounded by her classmates. She listens and nods but doesn’t speak. It’s hard being the new kid in school, especially when you’re from another country and don’t know the language. Then, on a field trip to an apple orchard, Farah discovers there are lots of things that sound the same as they did at home, from dogs crunching their food to the ripple of friendly laughter. As she helps the class make apple cider, Farah connects with the other students and begins to feel that she belongs.”

In the Couric story, told in the 3rd person, Lazlo Gasky comes to a new school where he is ostracized, teased, bullied and made generally miserable for “several weeks” before one sainted child, Ellie, notices his mother – pale, harassed and weeping, leaving the office one day. It occurs to her that what has been happening to Lazlo might not be okay. A post-it on this page has the children turn and talk about what they think Ellie will do, what might happen next. Suggestions in this classroom focus on what the school should do about it – they speculate that Ellie will put up anti-bullying posters around the school; call a meeting where anti-bullying instructions are given. It takes some guided questioning to get any of them to suggest a direct approach to the victim himself. To continue, yes, the child approaches Lazlo and asks if they can have a play date. They agree upon Thursday, (Teacher-aside: no parents are contacted, no-one gives permission, no release notes are sent to the teacher allowing Ellie to go with someone other than her assigned pick-up person - Aaaagh!) After a walk through the countryside to a small farmhouse, Ellie discovers that Lazlo plays chess, soccer, and loves to skateboard. The mother brings them Strudel, and they have a great visit.

Next day, Ellie gets bullied for hanging out with the weird kid, but the tide has turned and we are to suppose that from now on, things will get better.

It is hard to believe that the administration in a small country school, and even less in a large urban one, would not take steps to ensure a welcome for a new family. The teacher would be aware of how the boy was being treated, and address it immediately in a class meeting. Weeks went by? Someone needs to get fired. If this is meant as a cautionary, instructive tale, then the existence of only one hero and the complete lack of guidance from the teachers belies my own observations, over 24 years. Note that in the blurb, the story is called ‘heartwarming’. Most people with an actual beating heart would call it 'terrifying'. Or, are we just meant to be outraged?

The second story, by Eve Bunting, is told in the first person – a young Muslim girl has come to live in a rural white community in the U.S. On her second day, the class takes a trip to an apple orchard, and despite shyness and hesitation, the students quickly begin to reach out to her. When the apples each child has picked are blended into cider, her hopes are raised that eventually her differences will become a part of her new community. The illustrations are stunning, and the speed with which the welcome begins contrasts strongly with the torture of the Couric version, where the stereotypes of childhood cruelty and cliquishness are indulged for weeks of pure victimization. What is it about the outsider myth? So many stories revolve around a group uniting against an individual who presents as different, weird, strange, and unfamiliar. The much admired “Chrysanthemum”, by Kevin Henkes, includes the bullying, in Pre-K, of Chrysanthemum, by a classic clique of ‘mean girls’, because of her long name. Again, the teacher blissfully ignores tattling, teasing, and bullying, making no effort to intervene. In reality this kind of indifference by legally mandated reporters is probably actionable as condoning child abuse. Any adult in today’s culture of geographic mobility, integration - and awareness of suicides - who throws up their hands and says “That’s the way kids are!” should be drummed out of the profession.

I happened to discuss these two books in the second (“One Green Apple”) classroom with a Teach for America student from South Dakota, and yes, in a more stable and monolithic (German/Scandinavian) population, it is a lot different. Even teachers can get away with stereotyping children that don’t ‘match’, triggering profiling remarks. Her memorable comment (having been the non-matching student at home), was – “When I saw the list of names in this class, I was dancing around the room! None of them matched!” Another fringe benefit of subbing – meeting adorable people from all walks of life!

In the sober light of reason, probably everyone has experienced some form of exclusion or discrimination. It is a common human experience. But in a classroom or in a community, it is vital that the adults are alert to the signs of any stigma or exclusion, and immediately put a stop to it in the most decisive terms. No anti-bullying policy is going to work until and unless the adults are fully invested, and truly embrace inclusive norms. Unless we all agree that no matter how different or unusual any of us might be, we still belong and have a right to a secure, safe environment – children will continue to suffer in silence and begin to believe the myth of their own inequality. For all the Einstein’s who have survived this, there are far too many who have not. Teachers can make the difference to this outcome. Choosing books that truly support the message can lead the way.

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