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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The bigots are aging. Kids give me hope.

After a week of news dominated by two old boneheaded racists, I would like to tell you about a day I spent with a very different group of people. They’re eighth graders at Greenfield (Indiana) Central Junior High School, and they decided that too many people were getting hurt by intolerance and bullying at their school. So they've done something about it.

This story began when the students, who were Lisa Potter’s gifted-and-talented language-arts class in seventh grade, decided they wanted to keep on learning together over the summer. So they created a book group and asked Mrs. Potter to suggest a title. She offered my novel The Revealers, which deals with bullying in a fictional middle school — partly on racial grounds, and generally because some kids, at this crucial phase when it feels so important to fit in, are seen as different.

This class of kids can be seen as different, too. They’re very bright. Some are mainstream athletic types, others are not. Several are very musical — their school is strong in music — and some are into theater. Some aren’t sure what they’re into. In that way they’re a pretty typical group. And a number of them know how it feels to be treated as outsiders.

So after reading my book they formed “Just Stop It!”, a bullying-awareness group. In September, I got an email from Lisa Potter. She wrote:

I am a junior high teacher in Greenfield, Indiana, a city twenty miles east of Indianapolis.  I have taught for 28 years.
This past summer, I had 16 students voluntarily do a summer learning program with me.  It started out as just that, a continuation of learning.  It revolved around your novel The Revealers.  Students read the book (which they loved!), read research on bullying and anti-bullying programs. They began to come up with a plan to implement an anti-bullying program in our school, Greenfield Central Junior High School.  They have brainstormed PSA announcements, videos like in the novel, rubber bracelets, banners, a school wide reading of the novel, buddy/mentor program, and a guest speaker.  They have a grant award to help in many of these endeavors.
They have asked that I contact you and ask your fees for presenting in schools.  Also, they want to know how you present.
I am quite sure you are a busy man.  I am doing exactly what I told these children I would.  They are indeed a special, motivated group and want to make a difference in our school, our school system, and our community.

I wrote right back, of course. I always do; and anyway, who wouldn’t? What followed was a process. The students needed to raise money to make their program and my visit happen. They approached the local Greenfield Central School Foundation. I heard from the foundation, too. “Their dream is to have you speak,” emailed Myra Bleill, executive director.

She funded the project, and as a result this year every student at Greenfield Junior High read The Revealers. Last week, I flew out. Classes were suspended for the day, and all the students, both seventh and eighth graders, rotated through a series of “stations” where they did various projects aimed at raising awareness around bullying and intolerance. Everyone also spent a session talking with me, in groups of about 150 at a time.

Here's what, in my experience, made this day unique: it was a group of young people who conceived the undertaking, won funding for it, enlisted the administration, and saw the whole thing through. There were some other kids who told them they were lame or dorky, to do it. These are middle schoolers, after all.

But when a local TV crew came out to do a story — you can watch it here — Violet Overstreet of the “Just Stop It!” crew said this: “I think it’ll make a big difference, and make an impact on the students that are participating. They make think it’s a stupid thing to spend an entire day on it — but I think in the long run, it’ll do them a lot of good.”

That’s an eighth grader talking. And the truth is that I meet kids like Violet all year long, of all races and all backgrounds: people who want to make a positive difference with their lives. This week, we all shared in the outrage about a couple of old racist idiots, whose time is rapidly passing. But I also got to meet Violet and her classmates.

And their time is coming.

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