By Sarah Kowalski, AmeriCorps member serving on the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care team with Hennigan K-7 School
Bullying is always a tricky topic to broach with students. It is often difficult to find a way to guide the conversation that does not seem stale or rely on worn-out tropes that no longer resonate with students. However, as impossible as it may sometimes seem to create an organic and meaningful discussion about bullying, it is still an absolute necessity. That is why it can be helpful to start this conversation with a relevant book.
When thinking of relevant books to start this discussion, the author Patricia Polacco immediately sprang to my mind. Her books are written with such heart and honesty that it is nearly impossible to finish one with a dry eye. The book Mr. Lincoln’s Way is no exception, and comes with a heartwarming message that can help start the conversation about bullying, but in a slightly different way than is perhaps the norm.
Mr. Lincoln’s Way tells the story of a young principal who is beloved by his students, except for one young boy known as “mean Gene." This boy is the bully of the school, and also the center of the story. Mr. Lincoln finds Eugene’s behavior disturbing, and makes it his mission to find out what is the root of his negative actions. Mr. Lincoln connects with Eugene through their mutual love of birds, and the two work together to build a bird atrium and care for the birds that come to it. As they spend more time together, Mr. Lincoln discovers that Eugene’s aggression towards the other students mirrors his father’s behavior at home. The insensitive remarks that he makes towards other students, who look different from him, are largely parroted from his father. Mr. Lincoln works to make school a space where Eugene will be respected and loved as long as he shows all of the other students, or “little birds”, respect in return.
One of the main reasons why this book can be a powerful conversation starter is that it focuses, not on what to do as a bystander or a victim, but rather the motivations of the bully. This story can help to foster empathy toward those who lash out as a result of their circumstances, while teaching those who may be heading down the path of becoming a bully, that they are not defined by their actions and have a choice to change their behavior. No matter what direction the conversation goes, the earnestness and power of the story can offer a great start to a sincere discussion on how to make school more inclusive.