I Am Jack by Susanne Gervay brought back to me in vivid emotion a trying but very revealing experience in my early middle school life. While my hometown district was one of the pioneers of the middle school model, and the teachers were young and very innovative, the school could not easily shed its reputation for being “tough.” Rather than the mannered neighborhood that my elementary school was in, Estee pulled in kids from the entire city, including what was then dismissed as the bad sections of town. I did meet up with some badasses that I never would have encountered in my neighborhood of doctors and lawyers’ kids. All walks of life had to mesh here, an experiment in egalitarianism. Academically, I found middle school very exciting, with the changing of classes, team teaching, tactile projects, and involved teachers. Parallel to this newfound joy was “Ron Manning,” a bad boy from wherever who took an immediate interest in me. His hands-on approach increased in intensity with each day–hair pulling, tripping, lots of slapping.
I can’t remember now what the catalyst was that turned the situation around. I do remember him slapping me until I cried, then sitting in a very sympathetic vice-principal’s office, and my parents getting involved. But it turned out I was a lucky one on the bullying spectrum, because not only did Ron Manning stop tormenting me, he became my protector. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else treating me the way he had, because he looked out for me for years after. I don’t know what made him target me in the first place, or why he turned out to be so protective, but I was not arguing with the turn of events.
In this book, eleven-year-old Jack finds himself in a similar situation when a bad boy named George Hamel gets him on his radar. It’s not long before Jack is ostracized and labeled “butthead” and afraid to go to school. The book also shows how children are self-protective in their own way. Jack is ashamed of his fall in status, and doesn’t want to tell adults who might be able to help him.
The reader gets a glimpse into why George Hamel singles out Jack. George has basic literacy problems. Jack is rather manic in his interests which is unpopular in his social strata , and he’s a bit annoying to others with his self-satisfied joking. He’s also goofy looking. Experts tell us that a bullied kid can survive his torment with at least one understanding adult in his life. Jack has a bunch of them: his mom, his soon-to-be-stepdad, and eventually, his teacher. His situation was similar to mine in that the bullies did learn a healthy fear of the consequences of their behaviors, and were led, one way or another, to interact peaceably with their former victims.
I Am Jack is illustrated by Cathy Wilcox and available from Tricycle Press. Readers in the later elementary grades are a good target audience for the novel.