Educational Books Review

Martha Brooks and Maureen Hunter’s play I met a Bully on the Hill, is a perceptive and compassionate exploration of the archetypal conflict between the playground bully and his quarry. First produced by Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg as part of its 1986-87 school tour, the socially realistic one-act play directly reflects the culture and concerns of its elementary school audiences; adults are on the periphery in this depiction of a child’s world.

At some point most young children find themselves in J.J.’s shoes. With a light, humorous hand, I met a Bully on the Hill offers several practical solutions to bullying. Brooks’s and Hunter’s characters are complex and sympathetically drawn. As the play’s gruff nine-year-old antagonist with a blood sense for his peers’ Achilles tendons, Raymond presents a manipulative, angry exterior which masks a frightened child; he lives in mortal terror of the dark and of his sadistic older sister. The playwrights have created an engaging triumvirate of co-conspirators who join forces to defuse Raymond’s destructive offensives: ‘Jonquil Josephine,’ the bright, sensitive, and gregarious new kid who dons her namesake daffodil yellow as a talisman; David, the sardonic eight-year-old musician who spouts jazz trivia and idolizes Wynton Marsalis; and Karla, the tough girl with the warm heart, who outstrips her contemporaries in strength and stature.

When J.J. arrives at urban Buena Vista School fresh from an idyllic upbringing in the country, she is ripe for Raymond’s picking: small for her age, though well-endowed with pluck and a strong moral sense, she is inclined to think the best of people; having lost her father at a young age, she keenly misses her grandfather’s warmth and wisdom and the wonders of the pastoral world she has had to leave behind. When Raymond heartlessly squashes her prized Swallowtail caterpillar, J.J. chastises the big kid and then kicks him in the shins, thereby unleashing his ire. bully on the hill kids bookLike the proverbial ogre under the bridge, Raymond haunts the hill between the school and J.J.’s new house, charging the little girl a heavy toll payable in quarters, homework rendered, and tears. When David and Karla (who have bested Raymond in the past with brain and brawn respectively) uncover J.J.’s plight, they pool their resources to knock the wind out of his sails. What begins with a harmless prank leads to harsher punishment. Despite J.J.’s protestations that Raymond is ‘just a little kid’ (47), Karla and David sabotage the bully and leave him hand-cuffed to the bridge as night falls. Cornered, Raymond finally lets his mask slip: ‘Don’t leave me here. Please! Don’t go. Okay? (Fights tears.) I’m scared. I mean I’m really scared of the dark. J.J.’ It is J.J.’s compassion (spurred on by her grandfather’s wise words) which ultimately transforms Raymond from tormentor into ‘nothing but a pack of playing-cards.’ Though kindness rather than cruelty prevails, I met a Bully on the Hill is neither preachy nor condescending to its young audience; Brooks and Hunter demonstrate how each child must find his/her own means of dealing with the bully. In the play’s realistic resolution, Raymond is not magically transformed into an ally, merely reduced to what he really is, an unhappy nine-year-old who knows when he has been beaten.

Bullies in a variety of guises also figure on- and off-stage in John Lazarus’s engaging dramatic quartet Not So Dumb — Four Plays for Young People.Schoolyard Games, Not So Dumb, Night Light, and Secrets depict several phases in the uneasy metamorphosis of four young protagonists from children into teenagers, as they grapple with bullies, confront childhood fears, and dodge exclusive cliques along the ever-evolving schoolyard gauntlet. Written between 1981 and 1992 for performance by Vancouver’s highly acclaimed Green Thumb Theatre for Young People, the published texts also include an historically rich and insightful introduction by Canadian playwright Dennis Foon, who in his role as founding artistic director and dramaturge at Green Thumb Theatre and colleague to Lazarus directed the premiere productions of the first three theatrical works.

Inspired by the travails of his own young daughters, in Schoolyard Games Lazarus explores the intricate triangular dynamics between ten-year-old Eleanor, her eight-year-old sister Binnie, and their nine-year-old friend Susan. The playground jungle-gym around which the three girls alternately frolic and collide serves as an apt metaphor for the psychological teeter-totter which the trio energetically ride. With the quicksilver speed of a round of ‘Double Dutch’ the play shifts from harmony to discord and back again. As the self-centred, domineering older sister anxious to shake her bouncy younger sibling, Eleanor dreams of a place on the school gymnastics team, an entrée to the older crowd, and boys. Her precocious little sister, Binnie, combines a quirky sense of humour and almost irrepressible high spirits with an uncanny knack for the profound observation. It is Binnie who so aptly defines the unwritten playground code to which she as the littlest is especially vulnerable as ‘the law of the jungle gym’ (32). Susan, who struggles to play amicably with both sisters, ultimately serves as a balancing device between them. All three girls demonstrate a fundamental need to be accepted, especially by the big kids.

When Eleanor gets the chance to accompany the gym team to watch the ‘Provincials’ tournament, she selfishly decides to exclude both younger girls from the outing. Like a ‘fairweather friend,’ she exploits Susan’s admiration and shuns her kid sister while playing the role of know-it-all gymnastics tutor. When her pupil democratically tries to include Binnie in the proceedings, Eleanor’s ensuing anger precipitates injury for Susan and misery for all three. In the end Susan and Binnie choose clemency rather than revenge for the oldest girl’s transgressions. Though Lazarus only hints at the sources of Eleanor’s antagonism inSchoolyard Games, he has certainly captured the exclusive ‘twosey’ bully which I still recall with trepidation from my own childhood.