When I was in the fifth grade, I went to a new school and became invisible. I truly have no memory of any peers speaking to me that year. I was pretty shy and don’t remember it bothering me. I’m sure it did, but I don’t remember. Fast forward to sixth grade. In sixth grade, people started to notice me, but not for the reasons I had hoped. I was tall and awkward, developing, and my face was starting to break out. I was dubbed the ugliest girl in the school, specifically “Medusa”. Boys would look at me and pretend to “turn to stone” ostensibly because I was so hideous. The sixth grade was the year that I officially started to hate school. I didn’t have any friends or champions and I had no desire to be there. I just wanted to disappear. I was “sick” a lot.
However, in the 7th grade, something miraculous happened. I was placed in homeroom with THE most popular girl in the grade and ALL of her friends were in the other homeroom. I will never forget the look on her face when she walked into class on the first day of school that fateful day (for me) in 1976. She made a sweep of the classroom with her eyes, then rolled her eyes, then sat next to me. That was it. The rest, as they say, is history. Sinking or swimming in that moment would make the difference between having friends and being lonely and friendless. I swam. One thing that I discovered about myself was that I was resilient. One thing my popular friend discovered was that I was hilarious (a coping strategy we “ugly girls” are forced to develop). The popular girl and I are still dear friends to this day.
Dorothy, one of Jerry Spinelli’s secondary characters in Wringer, is a lot like I was back in middle school. Yes, she’s younger, but she is bullied relentlessly by Beans, Mutto, Henry, and even Palmer. I relate. I connect. I respect Dorothy for having the guts to stand up to her bullies. She’s resilient. Palmer is a weasel for not standing up for her, but soon enough, he discovers that she is a good friend and a worthy confidante and he becomes an upstander for Dorothy and for his beloved pet, Nipper. I suspect if Palmer and Dorothy are based on real people that they are still friends to this day – like my popular friend and I.
If you’re a teacher, you are currently teaching a Dorothy (someone who is being tormented mercilessly, yet is forging on), a Beans (a bully), a Mutto and a Henry (bystanders), and a Palmer (someone who just wants to be accepted and is confused and hurting in his own way). I have found that reading Wringer aloud to my whole class (sometimes 2 or 3 classes depending on the year) is a great way to broach and discuss these painful coming-of-age topics. The bonus is that in all of my years as a fifth grade teacher, I have never taught a student who has read it! It makes for a great read aloud experience filled with surprises.