Jonathan’s Game

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This week, a three hundred-pound man and a skinny genius collided in my world, united by a common experience, and divided by a single action.

The man was Jonathan Martin, the sort of physical specimen you wouldn’t normally think of as the victim of bullying. Jonathan Martin stands six feet, five inches tall and weighs three hundred and twelve pounds. He’s not only enormous, he’s bright – a starter at Stanford – and relatively wealthy, earning a 2013 salary of $607,466. In short, he’s physically imposing, intelligent, and possessed of considerable – if not NFL star-level – wealth. And this week, he left his team – the Miami Dolphins – because he was being bullied. We’re not talking about some sort of exotic grown-up bullying, either. According to teammates, he was teased, called names, and – I’m not making this up – forced to eat his lunch by himself, because they would actually get up and move if he sat down next to them. Grown men did this. Seriously.

The skinny kid, meanwhile, was Ender Wiggin (portrayed by Asa Butterfield), protagonist of the new movie Ender’s Game1, who’s bullied twice – first on Earth (where he’s fairly sure his response gets him kicked out of the training program), and again in space – SPACE! – where the same cycle of guilt and shame repeats. Watching Butterfield up on the screen brought back the same throat-closing adrenaline rush I experienced when I first read the book back in 1985, a year that found me freshly on the other side of the bullying ‘line,’ having shot up two inches during the year and gained twenty pounds from a full season in the swim team weight room. I was bullied incessantly from the time I entered the fourth grade through the summer of my eighth grade year, and when it dissipated, I was keenly aware of its absence. Not being bullied is something you notice, especially being a smart kid that was a frequent target; one day, they’re looking for you, and the next – it seems – they’re not.  But looking back after the fact, Ender’s Game spoke to me, and I’m sure it’s spoken to bullied kids ever since. It still speaks to me, because of what separates Martin and my current adult self from my own 1974-1984 self (and from Ender): choice.

With, seemingly, at least a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, Martin could – literally! – afford to make a choice. It might turn out to be an unpopular choice, or one that might end up branding him with many of the same words that kids across the country get branded with – insert your own pejoratives here, I’m not going to dignify them by typing them here – but it was a choice nonetheless. That choice said a lot, too. It said that bullying is in the experience of the bullied, not the intent of the bully himself/herself. Martin, of the Stanford education and the 20 reps at 225 pounds on the bench and the six-figure bank account, simply had no answer for teasing and name-calling and lunch exclusion, but he did have choice. He left. Kids in school bullying situations don’t, and thus begins the cycle I saw up on the screen with Ender Wiggin: the desire to somehow end bullying permanently. I won’t spoiler the movie for those that haven’t read the book, but bullying – and some unseemly steering of his emotional state by authority figures – transforms him into a monstrous entity. Did Martin try to do the same through all those hours in the weight room? Was he trying to permanently outrun bullying by becoming something unbullyable?

It’s easy to look upon Martin’s situation as a reflecting pool of the bullying issue. Some would find his situation laughable, or dismiss his issues as easily discardable; a six hundred-thousand-dollar salary might be interpreted as sufficient to balm the wounds of plenty of names called, or plenty of lunches eaten in isolation. Others would find Martin to be a case study in the lack of hope for bullied kids everywhere; if a starting NFL  offensive lineman can be bullied, what hope is there for skinny junior high kids trying to avoid eye contact with the hulking eighth-grade brutes, dog-eared copiesof Ender’s Game in hand? We all looked forward to being Jonathan Martin someday: frighteningly huge, college-educated, wealthy. Unassailable. What would I have thought of this news when I was in the sixth grade? What does his plight say to those kids today?

What I took out of it is the depressing permanence of the damage bullying causes. It leaves scars that no one can see, and worse, are expected to heal on their own. I’ve taught my kids that school bullying has three timeless and eternal aspects: it exists, it is temporary, and it is best solved in groups.  No amount of school assembly speeches or stern hallway posters are going to eliminate bullies from human existence, but it does pass – at least in the aspect of confinement to the bullying environment, since adults – like Martin – can just pack up and go. It’s also a test of group fortitude, since if even one friend can be counted on to stand up and side with you against a bully – let alone an entire class – bullying can’t survive for long.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Bullies pick loners, the Ender Wiggins of the world, to go after. They don’t have classrooms on their side, or even groups – and sometimes not even a single friend – to side with them. Who are the loners of the junior high hallways? Smart kids. Kids with intensity. Kids with learning disabilities. Combinations of the above. I don’t know that Jonathan Martin wasn’t bullied in the Dolphins training room; maybe he was. Or maybe, the kid within Jonathan Martin, the smart kid who got bullied in those junior high hallways, never got a chance to grow up feeling safe – and thus never got a chance to really grow up at all. Souls don’t necessarily benefit from the strengthening effects of bench presses, and bullying scars don’t necessarily heal in the cold tub.

His certainly didn’t.

______________________________________________________

Yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of writing a bullying post involving Ender’s Game when author Orson Scott Card has turned out to be a homophobic monster of an individual, and yes, I’m aware of the backlash against the movie. Here’s what I would say about it: at the time I read the book, Ender’s Game had one of the most powerful messages of compassion, inclusivity, and empathy I had ever read, It moved me deeply to see those qualities present in Ender and his friends, and the book encouraged me to continue along that path in my own life. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in those feelings. If it was Card’s intent to instill in me instead a hatred and suspicion of those different from me, he did a colossally piss-poor job of it, and somehow ended up doing precisely the opposite. In the end, I went to see the movie in large part to close the chapter in my own life that Ender’s Game had been a part of.  I take issue with what Card has become in the years since the publication of the book, and I wonder if he would, himself, not benefit from a careful re-reading of Ender’s Game.

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One response to this post.

  1. Thank you so much for this post, and for your amazing site! As my smart, unique (officially profoundly gifted, but I hate the loaded words) son struggles mightily in 4th grade, I have been reading more and more about alternative choices for him.

    This post fits his experience perfectly as he deals with bullies daily, “Bullies pick loners, the Ender Wiggins of the world, to go after. They don’t have classrooms on their side, or even groups – and sometimes not even a single friend – to side with them. Who are the loners of the junior high hallways? Smart kids. Kids with intensity.” He’s not yet that age, but this is exactly his experience, and it is so very painful. We’re trying to find our way through, and posts like this are so helpful. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences!

    Jessica

    P.S. I came across your blog while looking a list of “gifted/homeschooling resources”. I had to visit because of your title, and have been devouring content since. “Real Genius” was a favorite of mine growing up…love it!

    Reply

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