John-John is very short and plays the roles of quasi-bully and class clown in school. He also chimes in when Maleeka is being bullied. John-John is a victim himself of bullying on the streets of his neighborhood, but has figured out how to be the bully at McLenton Middle School to avoid being the victim there. He is constantly seeking the attention of girls, and constantly is trying to prove that he is “a man”. John-John repeats a song he made up about Maleeka’s dark skin throughout the book, and seems to pull it out to deflect attention away from his shortcomings. One of the turning points in the book features Maleeka coming to his defense when a group of gang-members are beating John-John in their neighborhood. Many of the identities that he and Maleeka sport throughout the book change and turn drastically at this point in the story. John-John’s identity in school seems to stem from his lack of “toughness” on the streets. He adopts the identities that his bullies have to assert control over his peers at school. He tries on a different identity to survive just as Char and Maleeka do.
Many of my students adopt this “bully” persona to hide their true pain. This year, two of my students got into a fist-fight. One student’s father is dying, and recently traveled back to Africa to die. This student is very bright, and very hard working. He is also a talented athlete and is well spoken. His parents are both from Ghana and tout the importance of his cultural heritage. Like many first generation immigrants, he is caught between identifying with his family and that of an African-American teenager. The second student receives Special Education services. He comes from a long line of brothers and sisters in an extremely impoverished family with little to no parental guidance. His 8th grade sister gave birth this year. These two boys rarely interact, and have no knowledge of their reciprocating struggles. This displaced anger and lack of ability to voice their pain took the form of a fist fight.
This type of interaction happens often. It is my hope that through this unit and these texts that students like this will find a common ground and be a source of support for one another rather than always feeling the need to make an enemy.
Locomotion By Jacqueline Woodson, Select Poems
“LaTenya II” (page 95)
In this poem, Lonnie describes an interaction with his crush LaTenya. She is jumping rope with her friends and he finally works up the urge to talk to her. When he does he notices strange scars on her hands. When he asks her about it she becomes horribly defensive and snaps some mean words back at him. He is taken aback, so is unable to tell her he truly finds her beautiful despite that, but can only muster up one word. John-John often puffs up his chest at school to fend off ravenous bullies of a taller stature. He makes fun of Maleeka to appear stronger. He is picked on relentlessly by bigger boys in his neighborhood, and therefore acts different in different parts of himself. John-John is insecure about his physical attributes and takes it out on Maleeka much as LaTenya takes it out on Lonnie. This poem helps students to understand why kids make fun of one another. If kids had an understanding of what each other was dealing with, they may not always turn to violence.
“New Boy Poems I, II & III” (pages 29-30, 41-42, 72)
In these three short poems, Lonnie documents the treatment of a new boy who moved from the south. His clothes, accent and mannerisms are different and he appears to be quite poor. The students make fun of him relentlessly much as John-John does to Maleeka. Eventually the new boy in the poems stands up for himself against some of his classmates and proves his worth on the soccer field at recess. In The Skin I’m In, John-John and Maleeka eventually work out their differences after Maleeka proves herself to John-John by helping him against some bullies. This poem would help enhance the idea that being united and getting along with your peers helps us all to feel like we belong.