Essay by Miriam Cosic
It’s not easy having a weird name, as many teenagers with foreign or experimental parents can attest – or unusual looks, or a stutter, or being too fat or too skinny, or shy, or any other characteristic that marks a child out from a very narrow mainstream. In a school where Class A bullies rule, the results can be devastating. It’s not inevitable: I never copped it for having a foreign name, though I went to an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon school. In fact, two kids at the top of the social pecking order there carried a Greek and an Italian name. But where bullying does occur, it can potentially leave scars for life.
So imagine a kid in a rough-and-tumble Australian boys’ school having a name like Ishmael Leseur. That is what the protagonist is called in Michael Gerard Bauer’s young adult novel, Don’t Call Me Ishmael!. The book is in the form of a journal, written in the first person and kept by the protagonist, fourteen-year-old Ishmael, to help him understand the problems his strange name has created for him. It becomes a narrative of a particularly challenging school year.
The class bully, Barry Bagsley, and two of his acolytes make mincemeat of Ishmael’s name. Fishtail le Sewer, le Spewer, Manure, they call him, and much more. It only gets worse when a sympathetic young English teacher, Miss Tarango, arrives at the start of the year and admires the name, telling the class it comes from Herman Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick. Ishmael had wisely kept the origins of his name, chosen in a bizarre unfolding of events in the maternity hospital when he was born, a secret. And sure enough, the outing of the book’s title gives the bullies even more ammunition.
When an odd boy arrives in the class – small, with a conspicuous facial tic and precocious vocabulary – and Ishmael is allocated to look after him, he fears the worst. There is no safety in numbers when bullies take on the weak; it only multiplies the attacks. What Ishmael soon finds out, however, is that the new boy, James Scobie, has a remarkable power: he is totally immune to fear. A survivor of brain cancer surgery, he can’t be rattled by anything any more. He is also smart, knowledgeable and worldly, and thinks on his feet. Within days of arrival, he has cut Barry Bagsley down to size, standing up to threats of violence with withering wit. When James stands up to speak publicly for the first time, Ishmael is stunned: ‘When Scobie spoke it was like someone turning on a light in a darkened room. Everything that up until then had been vague and confusing suddenly snapped into focus.’
James starts up a debating club, and persuades Ishmael to join. The only other volunteers are the extroverted Orazio Zorzotto, an incorrigible comedian and would-be Romeo, who hopes the gig will give him access to pretty girls at other schools; Ignatius Prindabel, a nervy science nerd who is a master of the non sequitur; and the large and ponderous sci-fi and fantasy fan, Bill Kingsley, who seems to exist in a world of his own. While Bauer’s Anglo-Saxon names are pretty conventional throughout the book, making Ishmael’s burden a standout, the ‘foreign’ names seem the result of out-there invention. There are no Zorzottos in the Australian telephone directory – nor is the name of a teacher who makes a cameo appearance, Mr Kalkhovnic, to be found – and one can’t imagine that an Ishmael Leseur would be bullied any more for his name than an Orazio Zorzotto.
Ishmael confronts a new terror in the debating club: the fear of public speaking. A mortifying collapse at his first function not only attracts the attention of the girl who has already caught his eye there, but sets him up for the second half of the book, where his personal growth ramps up. When James has another health alert and is taken out of school, Ishmael steps up to lead the team. James’s departure also unleashes Barry Bagsley, but Ishmael is on his path to maturity and has new methods of coping. He stands up to Bagsley and his mates to help a younger boy they are attacking, and succeeds in losing both their hats to the river. But he learns about the self-assurance that comes from doing the right thing and standing up for the underdog, whether one wins or not. He also discovers later that the girl he likes from the debating series is the younger boy’s big sister and is grateful for his intervention. Small successes begin to quench the ‘loser’ status he has carried in his own mind.
He and Zorzotto, who never seems to have had a moment of self-doubt in his life, stand up for Bill Kingsley too a little later, when the boy is being terrorised by the Bagsley bunch for being fat. Through the debating club, Bill also begins to assert himself in the small but dangerous arena of the schoolroom. His refusal to let Ishmael call in the adults to sort out the bullies gives a rite-of-passage feel to his torturous experience, and all the boys are a little wiser, a little stronger, for having solved some of their problems on their own. James returns after finding out the ‘shadow’ on his brain scan was a false alarm. And the year ends promisingly for them all.
Don’t Call Me Ishmael! deals with a number of themes prominent in young adult novels: among them, self-image and self-esteem, the importance of solidarity and loyalty, and the power of words and of humour to diffuse aggression – all of which can be annihilated or strengthened by the experience of bullying. Bauer’s purpose is to teach that strength and resilience are gained in the process of maturing, and it must be the boys’ own work. The adults in the book are one-dimensional and each is symbolic. The deputy principal, Mr Barker, is a force of order, refusing to tolerate nonsense by setting scrupulously fair boundaries; Ishmael calls him the school’s ‘go-to’ guy. Ishmael’s parents are unfailingly loving and supportive. Miss Tarango, the Year 9 teacher, is smart and sweet, and shows the boys that femininity – and by extension, all the traits that wouldn’t help in a punch-up – has sophisticated resources with which to defend itself. After winning an early duel with Barry Bagsley in the classroom, she notes, ‘You see how powerful language can be, boys?’ Even the parents of Barry Bagsley turn out to be nice: so nice that it stops Ishmael from humiliating their son, when he finally has an opportunity to do so, in front of them and the whole school community.
Young adult novels are a curious subdivision of literature. Written by adults for adolescents, they must jump through successive hoops of language and concept, seeking relevance and risking condescension. Adolescents have finely tuned ears for the use of slang and for adults who are trying too hard to be hip. On the other hand, adults often forget that vocabulary develops at a slower pace than kids’ capacity to grasp concepts. I remember discussing quite sophisticated social problems my classmates were having when I was in primary school, but I doubt we were using the language of Freud or Lacan to do so. Sometimes Bauer’s language seems too sophisticated, yet he can also talk down to his target readership. Finding reports on the book by adolescent boys online is an interesting exercise: some of them comment on Bauer’s inability to get these hoops quite right.
One thing he evokes clearly, however, is the adolescent sense that the boys own their world, that they make it and must deal with it within the parameters of their educational institution, their families and the wider world they are still learning about. Appealing to the adults in their lives signals not only psychological but moral weakness. In the minds of the fourteen-year-olds in this book, it is as much about not getting themselves into more trouble with their peers as it is about honour or independence – but ‘not dobbing’ has long been a rule for school children of all ages. The strong bonds and mutual influence of adolescent peer groups, and their escape from the world in which adults make and enforce rules, has long been a powerful trope in fiction written for and about the young, from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It echoes the rites of passage teenage boys had to pass through, tests of physical and moral courage away from the support of their community, in order to become men in tribal societies. By the end of Don’t Call Me Ishmael!, we see vague fears begin to crystallise into clear moral imperatives as the boys’ mini-initiations are passed through.
Men is an operative word here. Set in a Catholic boys school, this is a very masculine book. All the girls except Ishmael’s eventual love interest seem token, rolled out for the sake of egalitarianism. Yes, the girls do well in the debating contests, but that’s old news. Miss Tarango still runs shrieking from the classroom when insects are released into it, though the boys are doing quite a bit of leaping about and shrieking too. It takes a male teacher – Mr Barker, of course – to restore order. And the boys’ responses to girls in general, particularly the uninhibited Orazio’s, are unreconstructed. This allows boys to identify with the protagonists, of course, but it fails the book’s broader didactic purpose: to teach young men how to master the exigencies of the world in honourable and generous ways. Ethnic clichés also exist: Orazio is the Latin lover; Peter Chung, with his strong Chinese accent, runs fast but just can’t grasp the rules of sport. (He does end up the hero of Bauer’s suspense-filled description of an inter-school rugby match, however, and a small ironic gesture as he clinches the winning goal suggests he’s not as blind to the situation as the other boys’ reading of it, and him, suggests.)
Throughout the book, Ishmael learns the uselessness of two responses to bullying: avoidance and revenge. Avoidance, he comes to realise, only encourages bullies; it prompts a frightening and ongoing game of hide-and-seek. Never raising his hand in class, studying Barry Bagsley’s routine in order to evade him, staying mute when he’s teased – these only diminish his own enjoyment of life without deterring his persecutors for a moment. Revenge is no solution either. Being an essentially good person, he comes to realise, during the lead-up to the planned humiliation of Barry Bagsley at the end-of-year ceremony, that he could not live with himself if he played by the bullies’ rules and hurt innocent people on the sidelines.
Eventually, Ishmael learns to rely on himself, to think and plan and not merely react to others. His epiphany at the debating club, when he takes over in James’s absence and finds out that even the worst that can happen turns out to be not so bad after all, is one advance. The promise of the final chapter, a confidence-boosting hope that will linger over the long summer holidays, is a denouement that everyone wrestling with inner demons might hope for. The year represents an important segue in the adolescent journey towards adulthood. Bauer’s narrative contains the romantic notion that one can always triumph over adversity, and that the ability to do so will increase with maturity. It is utopian, of course, because adults too suffer from bullying in marriages and workplaces, from lack of self-esteem and from loneliness. But Don’t Call Me Ishmael! is like a slice of bildungsroman, providing a prototype for constructive coming of age for those who wish to reflect on its messages.
Bauer’s writing isn’t poetic, but has the kind of spare, descriptive quality that not only children’s, but also a lot of mainstream Australian, fiction favours. One can’t help wondering whether the beauty of language should matter more in writing for the young, however. Adolescent reading, as well as learning the mores of family and peer groups, does develop one’s orientation in the world, and elegance should surely play some part in that.
© Copyright Miriam Cosic 2016