Anna is a small blonde student who’s smart, sweet, and fun. She’s also the subject of Melody Arabo’s book, Diary of a Real Bully. The book, which is written from Anna’s point of view, looks at how bullying occurs in and out of the classroom, and helps children to recognize the consequences of their actions. Another key detail: Sweet little Anna is not the victim in this story.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Arabo, who teaches third grade at Keith Elementary in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District, was having a busy year before her book debuted in February.
She was named the 2014-15 Michigan Teacher of the Year, making her the spokeswoman for Michigan’s 100,000-plus teachers and a nonvoting member of the State Board of Education.
Arabo is also a founding member of TEACH (Teachers Educating and Creating Hope), a group of Chaldean educators working to help displaced children and families in Iraq — which is especially important now that ISIS activity has forced minority groups to flee the country.
Then she introduced Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson before his state of the county address in February. She was the winner of Patterson’s annual Elite 40 Under 40 program.
Arabo is also slated to meet another politician this month. She’s traveling with her husband and children in April to the White House to meet President Barack Obama.
As if that isn’t busy enough, she’s got her “day job,” plus a book to promote.
Arabo says while most people think of a bully being a big, dumb boy or a popular, mean girl, she’s never seen a student like that in her 13 years of teaching third grade. While “television style” bullies may be memorable, she wanted to create a character for kids to connect to that was more relatable.
“I just know that kids connect to characters really well whether they’re on TV or in movies or in books,” Arabo says. “I wanted to make the point to the kids by having a character that was so different from what they perceive bullies to be.”
She chose Anna as her main character for that reason. She’s the opposite of what someone would expect a bully to look or act like. She’s a “nice” girl.
But the distinction between acting like a bully and being a bully is a point Arabo emphasizes.
“The bottom line is [bullying] is about how you make the other person feel. Kids will so often make somebody else feel bad but will have no sort of remorse for it because they don’t see themselves as a bully, so they don’t think it’s bullying,” she says.
Most people have acted like a bully at some point in their lives: a mean comment behind a friend’s back or a joke made at someone else’s expense.
Arabo wrote the book when she began to notice an interesting phenomenon with her students. “After my first couple of years [of teaching], I started to notice the same trends and patterns. … The most surprising part was which of my kids were acting like the bully,” says Arabo. “It was always the really nice kids who were very bright students. The first half of the year [they] did not show any signs of [being a bully], but suddenly in the spring that side of them would come out.”
Arabo acknowledges that some kinds of bullying can be difficult to recognize. While she probably experienced bullying when she was younger, she didn’t recognize it at the time.
“Looking back, it was people that were friends, or who would call themselves my friends, who would be the ones [to] make me feel bad about myself or question things about my appearance or background,” says Arabo. “[It’s] surprising to think that it’s not somebody that doesn’t like you, it’s actually probably a close friend that’s doing it to you.”
Because the language surrounding bullying is tricky, it can be hard for kids to recognize when they’re acting that way. Parents, too, have trouble accepting that their child could act like a bully.
“If the word ‘bully’ comes up [parents] get really defensive. Their kid is not a bully,” she says. They may be right: The kids may not be a bully, but they may be acting like one.
“It’s really having to shift the parents’ thinking, too, so that [they know] people in education are not trying to label their kids a certain way or say that they’re a bad kid,’’ says Arabo.
Arabo’s work is far from finished. She’s developing workshops for parents, teachers, and students to help them understand bullying, and to empower children to speak up if they feel bullied.
“The end of the book is just the beginning of the work I do with kids,” she says. “Because there’s a whole piece of making them independent problem solvers and communicating so that they can solve these problems on their own.”
Visit melodyarabo.com for more information or to purchase Diary of a Real Bully.