"I am the new kid. I am tuf. This morning I beat up a kid."
Last night I picked up the Dexter the Tough, a children's chapter book by Margaret Peterson Haddix. This book came with a slew of freebies from Scholastic after I placed my September bookclub order for my classroom. (I love scholastic for this reason- they have quality books for cheap, and the more my class orders and the more orders parents, family, & friends place online, the more free books and points our classroom earns. I've been lucky enough to furnish a big area of my classroom library thanks to Scholastic. Thanks to the bookclub program, I've gone from a classroom with ancient junk to beautiful fresh books for my students... many of those haven't experienced new books up until class with me!) I went off on a tangent.. but hey, I gotta give props where due! Oh, and if anyone wants to purchase books, contact me and I can help you out!
Back on track.... I picked up the book and read it because it is a great back-to-school read aloud. Dexter is the new kid in school. On his first day of school he decides that he hates everyone. They all hate him anyway. Kids only laugh at you when they hate you, and principals only yell at you when you're a bad kid and we all know secretaries are only mean when they don't like you. Dexter takes his anger out on a peer. He is angry.
Once in class, Dexter sees that he has the most sparkly teacher ever. He knows he is going to hate her, and she will probably hate him too. Dexter gets an assignment- write like a professional. He choose to write about his fight.
As the story continues to unfold, we learn that Dexter may not be so tough. Maybe he is just hurt, and doesn't know how to handle his complex emotions as a 4th grader. At times both heartwarming and heartbreaking, Dexter the Tough teaches kids that maybe bullies aren't really mean, but just confused. Emotions are confusing for everyone. The fear of death, sickness and being away from your family bring about a lot of emotions. Anger, sadness, hatred, fear and hope just to name a few... to 4th grade Dexter, it is just too much to handle and the easiest way to deal is to be mean. Will he soften? And how will his family problems end? Dexter has a lot on his plate for a new kid at school.
I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I am glad I read it first... in the comfort of a bubble bath with a glass of wine. I cried like a little girl. The topic hit home for me- Dexter's dad has cancer and is waiting for a bone marrow transplant or is going to have to try an experimental drug... or worse case, he may not survive. Dexter the Tough never states explicitly that Dexter's father has cancer. But I did go through this with my grandmother, and the general description of "bad blood" and a need for bone marrow and chemo treatments make it fairly obvious to adults (and some kids in the know). It hit home because my late grandmother had leukemia and we went through the search for bone marrow, unsuccessfully. Needless to say, the emotions that Dexter experiences are similar to how I felt through my grandmothers battle while I was a high school senior. I am glad I read it at home- I have no problem crying in front of my students (I've done it before!) and they do know my grandmother passed away from cancer... but it gave me a chance to deal with some of my own emotions before passing it off to my students.
I plan to begin reading this book to my students on Monday during lunchtime. I think they will relate well. All of my students have had severe trauma in their lives, and many of them lash out in aggression. Both physical and verbal aggression occur on a regular basis in our setting (psychiatric in-patient hospital / group home setting for adolescents with trauma history and psychiatric disorders). I hope to relate the emotions that Dexter feels and his way of dealing with those emotions. Many of our kids struggle to deal with their emotions and instead lash out at their peers or staff. That is the basic issue in Dexter the Tough- lashing out instead of dealing with difficult feelings. I will do a lot of therapeutic feelings work with the kids while we dive into this back-to-school chapter book.
Here's hoping it goes over well!
I suggest that teachers and parents alike read this story to the children in their lives. Sometimes all we need is a friend and an ear to realize that our feelings are okay.
write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow