Lessons In Small Print: When Bully Turns Benign
Once a month, Meher Marfatia recounts stories from the preteen book club she runs with Rupal Patel. Part review, part reaction, she discusses plots and themes as much as the minds of their 11- to 14-year-old readers.
Take a young sports star and track his journey from mean prankster to mature personality. What you get is a story for kids that packs punch and poignancy in equal dose, for riveting reading. As racy as it is revelatory, Crash by Jerry Spinelli is a lively middle school novel. It engagingly (as opposed to prescriptively) shows the downside of making assumptions and jumping to conclusions – pitfalls both children and adults succumb to more often than we think.
Over-competitive, opinionated, and in a nutshell, obnoxious, John “Crash” Coogan couldn’t care less about anyone or anything. Brawny bully that the seventh grader is, he picks on skinny Quaker boy Penn Ward but can’t succeed in breaking his spirit. No amount of teasing or troubling fazes cheerful, good-natured Penn. He neither confronts his tormentor nor challenges him. This reaction riles John more than ever because he is much too used to either intimidating people or having them stand up to him. In his own words: “As far as I can tell, I’ve always been crashing—into people, into things, you name it, with or without a (football) helmet.”
It is not until his beloved grandfather Scooter is traumatized by a stroke that the spoilt jock finds his world rocked and he becomes sensitive to the needs of others. His little sister Abby, who has befriended Penn and is influenced by his gentle concern for the environment and wildlife conservation, helps in her brother’s compassionate evolution.
Crash offers a credible transformation of a boy who has always done what others expect of him to someone who begins behaving with more responsibility and greater sincerity, staying true to his thoughts and accepting others’ personal beliefs. What won the book clubbers over was the non-judgmental, breezy tone Spinelli adopts, though he’s teaching tough life lessons.
“This is a book for once describing a kid-life crisis!”
Every child seemed excited by the author’s understanding of what it feels like being in a transitional phase of life in the tricky middle school years. “There’s so much talk among adults about mid-life crisis, but how about a kid-life crisis?” one boy asked. “Here’s a book that tells us it’s ok to start out by being a ‘bad boy,’ or self-centred or worrying only about your next pair of new sneakers, as long as you are aware this should change and it does.”
“It’s best not to assume anything about anyone.”
Who would have thought that John could be anything but his awful self? The kids said that in painting a realistic picture of the hero’s slow but sure brutal-to-benign character transition, Spinelli does a fine job of urging young adults to shun stereotypes and welcome surprises. They then shared stories about things they would never have expected of people in their own life – and how they were proved wrong.
“Popularity isn’t everything. Neither is winning.”
“Stars rising fast will fall down to earth as soon,” declared one girl. Indeed, the school’s ace football player still gets thwarted in his affection for the most gorgeous girl in class; what’s worse, she prefers understated Penn instead, even though the shyer Quaker boy wears outdated, handed-down clothes while John struts around in the latest mall styles. Penn has aged but attentive, caring parents living with him in a cramped old garage; John’s are better off but constantly away working, never around to share his day’s highs and lows.
“Sad that it took a dying grandfather to make a man of our hero….”
The children concluded: It’s never too late to change, but why wait for a tragedy to realize this? At first John seems incorrigibly thoughtless, beyond redemption. Amazingly, thanks to a series of people and events that show him the power of going against his grain, John finally competes with Penn in a race for the last spot on the Penn Relays team (a reference to the author’s home state of Pennsylvania) and lets Penn win on purpose.
“How hard it is to not retaliate against a bully!”
John relentlessly rags benign Penn but the latter, mild mannered as he appears, is clearly the stronger boy. This is a trait the children admired, saying it’s nearly impossible to refuse to be provoked in the face of totally merciless taunts of the kind Penn is subjected to by John. Sharing some accounts of their frustration with school bullying, they nodded in agreement when one of them quoted a beautiful relevant line Kipling’s poem If: “If you can keep your head when all about you/are losing theirs and blaming it on you/If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/but make allowance for their doubting too…”