Sunday, September 9, 2007
Poison Ivy by Amy Goldman Koss
We have all known mean girls. We have also known their victims. In this story, Ivy is the victim, Ann and her two girlfriends are the bullies, and the entire class witnesses everything and does nothing.
When Ivy’s government teacher Ms. Gold find a note from Ivy that might be construed as suicidal, she confronts Ivy and learns that she has been horribly bullied over the past several years by three girls in her class. While the entire class has been aware of the bullying, the teachers are oblivious to what’s going on. Ivy pours her heart out to Ms. Gold and her teacher reacts by deciding having a mock civil trial, with Ivy suing her tormentors. Lawyers and the judge are chosen by drawing names out of a paper bag and the trial begins.
As a middle school librarian, the bullying in Poison Ivy rang true to me. It might seem unrealistic that Ivy could be bullied for years and no teacher caught on. Unfortunately, mean girls also tend to be clever, and they are really good at saving their bullying for those moments when the teachers aren’t watching.
I liked having a book where the one who was bullied didn’t end up bringing a gun to school and shooting everyone – I seem to have read a lot of those books recently. I know that’s a direct reaction to Columbine and other school shootings, but the truth of the matter is that most victims of bullying just take it. They just die a little bit inside each time they are bullied.
I also liked many of the characters. Ivy isn’t a perfect child but she is just strange enough to be the perfect victim. As she withdraws more and more from her classmates, she exhibits habits (such as picking at her sweater and never seeming to be fully “with it”) that give her enemies more reasons to bully her. There was an Ivy at my middle school back in the 70’s, only her name was Sheila (fortunately for her or I’m sure she would have also been called Poison Ivy). The girls at my middle school could be vicious and Sheila was just strange enough to be the target of their wrath, and she was just naïve enough to never see it coming (as a contrast, Ivy does see it coming and her reaction has been to withdraw from everyone). Sheila didn’t go to our high school and I’ve often wondered what happened to her.
Why do the classmates put up with the bullying? I think it’s partly so that they don’t become victims themselves, and partly so that they don’t get ostracized from the ‘in crowd.” We as teachers need to continue to stress to our students the need to stand up for those who are victims to bullying.
Finally, one criticism. The character of Ms. Gold bothered me a lot. To think that middle school kids are mature enough to overcome peer pressure and their own personal feelings to make unbiased decisions in front of an entire class is incredibly irresponsible. What does she do if the class rules against Ivy? She jumps on a bad situation and tries to use it as a learning tool, but her whole plan ultimately backfires on her. The better solution? Take the whole situation to the guidance counselor who is professionally trained to deal with such problems.