Have you ever stumbled across a song or a poem that perfectly captures your inner thoughts and feelings? Though sometimes viewed as a lesser genre, poetry has an incredible ability to take the most profound truths and put them simply in a way that makes sense. The rhythm and verse have a way of gently speaking to our souls and revealing things we were never able to see before.
I recently came across a poem that beautifully portrayed a unique way of dealing with bullying. The poem is Edwin Markham’s “Outwitted”:
“He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.”
Though short and simple, “Outwitted” has undertones and intricacies beneath its surface that make it an excellent choice for opening up conversations on dealing with bullies.
First, the poem is empowering. Rather than encouraging children to ignore those who are hurting them, the speaker takes action, and that action changes things. The one being mocked takes control of the situation, not by fighting back, but by refusing to engage in war at all. Children are often told that it takes two to fight; that if they ignore the bully, the bully will get tired and ignore them too. While this is one version of “not engaging in war”, for those children being pushed down, embarrassed, and tormented every day, waiting the situation out may not seem like a bearable solution. In the poem, however, we are shown a different way of staying out of battle. Yes, the taunted one refuses to taunt back or fight back, but he is not powerless. He takes action, but it is action for the positive.
Along this line of thought, I appreciate that the focus of the poem is on the positive. An article in The Dublin Villager shared the story of Drew Jones, an elementary school art teacher who wanted to find a positive way to educate students about bullying during National Bullying Prevention Month.
He came up with a unique idea: an interactive wall where students could leave notes of encouragement for one another. Using recycled cardboard and paper towel tubes, the students went to work creating a wall that featured multiple slots to house the notes, almost like a wall of mail boxes.
The wall was put up in the school hallway and painted orange, the color of Bullying Awareness. While they worked, the children discussed bullying honestly and openly, sharing their own experiences and coming up with solutions to the issue. Months after its creation, the wall continued to be popular, needing refilled every day. “It’s awesome,” one student stated, “It says I’m special.”
Bullying is a difficult and painful topic and it’s easy to get bogged down in discussing the negative causes and effects of the behavior. While it is important to educate children about the realities of bullying, we must not forget the power of kindness and positivity in stopping the problem at its source. We need to teach our children on how to handle bullying when it occurs, but it is imperative that we also take efforts to cultivate an environment of kindness, empathy, and positivity so that bullying is less likely to occur at all.
Another fantastic aspect of Markham’s poem is its description of love as something powerful. Love is sometimes portrayed as a weakness, or as something that is soft and delicate, but the reality is that love is the most powerful tool that we have and true love is tough. True love changes lives. Many children bully because they don’t feel loved. By loving the bully instead of simply telling him or her to “stop”, we cauterize the wound instead of constantly trying to staunch the blood. It was love that prompted the speaker in the poem to act. It was love that took a situation of pain and separation and turned it into one of forgiveness and togetherness. “Outwitted” teaches children that love is strength, not weakness.
Markham also draws a connection between love and wit. Not only is love often portrayed as a weakness, it is also frequently connected with foolishness and helplessness. People fall in love, they are blinded by love, or they act unwisely because they are in love. However real, true, love, takes all the wits you have. To love someone means to care for them, to want the best for them, even when they aren’t acting very likeable. True love isn’t always easy and it takes thought and wisdom to foster and maintain. Retaliating, ignoring, or running is easy. Loving someone that is hurting you takes intelligence and clarity of mind. This poem illustrates that.
A unique facet of “Outwitted” is that, unlike many other works of literature, it humanizes the bully. It doesn’t call him names, wish a horrible fate for him, or paint him as a villain. Instead, it portrays the bully as someone who can be loved. Many children bully because they feel inadequate or isolated. By creating a circle that includes the bully, the writer is not only saying “you were wrong about me”, but also, “you were wrong about yourself.”
Teaching children to draw others in builds empathy, a core skill in preventing bullying, and provides a concrete example of empathy for children who bully, as well. Our goal should not be to simply end the bullying, but to mold children into adults that will never bully, who will choose to always consider and value the thoughts of others, and who will always try to love first.
The final strength of this poem is that it is visual. Loving someone that is hurting you or trying to view the world from their perspective can be a foreign or even abstract concept, especially to a child. However, even a child can understand the significance of drawing an inclusive circle. This could even be carried into a classroom activity to help illustrate the point.
Have students stand outside on the sidewalk and draw circles around groups of kids. Ask students to describe what is similar about everyone in their circle. Without moving, change the circles (think Venn Diagram). Have the new groups find similarities, illustrating how they all have commonalities if they look for them. Discuss how they felt when they were left out of someone else’s circle or if someone was left out of theirs. Using the poem, connect this literal drawing of circles to the figurative boundaries that are frequently drawn amongst students.
On the surface, Edwin Markham’s “Outwitted” is short and simple, but like most poems, there is a lot going on underneath. Christmas time is filled with songs and rhymes. In this season of goodwill and togetherness, I would encourage you to add this poem into the mix!
Have you read this poem before? What did it say to you? Would you use this to help prevent bullying? Let us know in the comments!
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