You may have read the news story in May 2007 about Olivia Gardner, the 14-year-old epileptic girl from Novato, California, who was bullied mercilessly for over two years in three separate schools. You also may have heard about two sisters from Mill Valley, Emily (17) and Sarah (14), who started a campaign to solicit letters of support for buder from teens and others who had experienced similar traumas. But what you may not know is that what began as a local, small-town project has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon that has sparked websites, other letter-writing campaigns, and a book (this one) called LETTERS TO A BULLIED GIRL.
With more than 150 letters and copies of emails from those who have been bullied as well as those who have participated in bullying, LETTERS is a powerful book to digest --- or try to, at least. Although par for the course given the subject matter, it's still distressing to read through a full range of firsthand accounts of verbal and physical abuse inflicted on the undeserving. From a girl who had been made fun of because of her facial acne to a boy who had been singled out and repeatedly beaten up by his peers in the lunch yard, the notes paint a depressing but, nonetheless, starkly realistic portrait of what actually goes down on middle school and high school campuses.
Perhaps what's even more bothersome is to read through the letters from adults who were the ones responsible for the taunting, the jeering, the exclusionary behavior, back in their day. The common response, "To this day, I don't know why I did it," although heartfelt, is no excuse, and gives us readers pause to ask the question: Could this be the same sort of behavior that we see around office water coolers, in PTA meetings, or neighborhood country clubs? Yes, bullying is horrendous when it's directed at young adults, but do we ever really grow out of it? Or is it just human nature?
Still, despite that nagging elephant in the room, the overall point and message of the book is a positive one --- that it is possible to make a difference in someone's life just by reaching out a hand. Emily and Sarah Buder saw a fellow teen in need and for no other reason than a compassionate urge to show a stranger that she wasn't alone in her suffering and that there was, in fact, the possibility that things would --- eventually --- improve, they changed a girl's life for the better.
LETTERS could (and should) be a wake-up call to school administrators and parents…that is, those who are blissfully unaware that the problem isn't going away --- especially now that teens are using social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to take bullying to a whole new level. There are signs --- and as responsible adults, they need to be aware of them. It's also an excellent resource for teens, both for those who are being bullied and for those who are standing by watching it happen. Any bit of information on the subject helps, even if it's slightly redundant. But isn't that the point?
The bottom line is that adolescence should (could?) be a time of joy and learning, not of fierce insecurity and intense suffering. Plus the fact that most nasty, deplorable behavior is learned early on --- but can be prevented if it's caught in time. Any material that helps facilitate that goal is well worth a read.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 7, 2011