I participate in several online writing groups. Often times the conversation turns to pen names. People are often surprised that I write under my full real name, but I would never choose anything else. The reason is personal – I was bullied as a kid and it gives me satisfaction that one of the kids who made my life a living hell at school might one day pick up one of my books and see my name and realize that despite all the crap they put me through I still did better than them. I know that sounds harsh and I’m supposed to forgive and forget, but well when a large chunk of your childhood was taken up with taunts and ridicule. When you heard the name “fleabag” at school more than your real name, you maybe don’t forget so easily.
Let’s back up a little. I grew up in a tough neighborhood and I was one of only three Jewish kids in my whole large comprehensive school. That in itself was enough to get you bullied – but I had a host of other unforgiveable traits – I had asthma, so couldn’t run fast. I couldn’t catch and was generally clumsy and uncoordinated. Always the kid chosen last on any sports team, of course.
All this translated into big time bullying – not physical mostly, apart from the occasional pushes and shoves. No mostly it was taunting and name-calling, often in full view of the teachers who conveniently ignored it. My parents ignored it too, if they were even aware it was happening. I know I never told them. There’s was nothing they could have done anyway that wouldn’t have made it worse.
When I start writing P.A.W.S. I didn’t initially think about incorporating my experiences into my work. It just kind of happened. Miri is torn away from the only home she’d ever had and her best friend Jenny and thrust into a boarding school. The Saul Emmanuel Academy is very different from my own working-class comprehensive, but bullies are the same the world over and Miri is very different from the rich kids around her – she’s messy, uncoordinated, and is more concerned with books than clothes. But whereas I never really stood up to my bullies, (they were too numerous and I was too weak), Miri is able to escape her bullies by discovering her magical powers – would that we all had magic powers!
I was lucky to be invited into my son’s fifth-grade classroom to read from P.A.W.S. and talk about the book – I chose chapter three which includes the main bullying scene. The students listened in awe and then answered questions from the teacher and picked up clearly the reasons why Miri was bullied. These kids gave me hope. I’m generally very cynical about today school anti-bullying programs. Part of me believes that there will always be bullies and despite school policies this will never change.
But you know what – I’m definitely stronger from my experiences and while I wouldn’t go as far as thanking my school bullies for their inspiration, it does give me a certain sense of satisfaction to think that I finally found some magic to counteract the misery they put me through – the magic of the pen!