When readers first meet 14-year-old Ishmael, his only goal at school is to be invisible. This is because he’s the favorite target of the school bully, Barry Bagsley. And the only way to deal with Barry’s bullying, Ishmael reasons, is to keep his head down and stay out of Barry’s way as much as possible. But as Year Nine progresses and Ishmael starts to make friends at school, he starts to rethink his approach to Barry’s bullying crusade—and he realizes that when Barry targets Ishmael’s friends and other kids with less power, it’s worth the possible pain and humiliation to stand up to Barry. Don’t Call Me Ishmael presents bullying as an issue that’s difficult to fix because the true extent of bullying is often invisible to authority figures, which leaves it up to victims and bystanders to defend themselves. The novel also suggests that while it may be impossible to totally stamp out bullying, simply standing up to protect one’s friends, and exposing bullies as the fallible humans they are, are good first steps in depriving bullies of some of their power.
At first, Ishmael believes bullying is just an unpleasant fact of life that can’t be stopped. Ishmael explains that upon starting secondary school at St. Daniel’s, all students realized they had only two options: to avoid Barry Bagsley’s bullying by joining Barry’s crew of bullies, or to avoid Barry altogether. This frames bullying as something inevitable—the only choices kids have are to try to evade it or to join in. This also suggests that the students themselves believe they are incapable of standing up for themselves or for others. Ishmael regularly expresses his belief that he can’t do anything about bullying when, at various points, he mentions Barry daring Ishmael to force him to stop bullying others—and Ishmael notes to readers that they both know he can’t do anything.
The novel shows that this situation persists, in part, because adults in charge of protecting students are ill-equipped to either find out about, or put a stop to, bullying when it happens. Though the vice principal, Mr. Barker, eventually states the school’s bullying policy outright (that the administration won’t tolerate bullying of any sort and wants to hear about it when it happens), Ishmael’s explanation of his and his classmates’ options to avoid bullying doesn’t involve confiding in adults. This gives the impression that while the bullying policy might be a nice idea, it’s not one that the kids can believe in or trust. This is evident when Barry begins a concerted effort to bully Bill Kingsley, and Bill refuses to go to Mr. Barker. Both Bill and Ishmael understand that looping in an adult will make things worse for Bill, as being reprimanded will only make Barry more intent on making Bill’s life miserable. Ishmael’s teachers’ ineffectiveness at stopping bullying also stems from the fact that a lot of the bullying Ishmael witnesses or experiences takes place where teachers can’t see it. Barry taunts Ishmael during passing periods and lunch, when there aren’t as many adults around, and he waits for the teacher to leave the room before starting to torment Scobie on Scobie’s first day. Especially since most teachers (Miss Tarango seems to be a notable exception) also ignore it when Barry calls Ishmael “Le Sewer” audibly in class, this gives the impression that teachers don’t understand the full extent of how, and where, Barry is tormenting his classmates. Given the bullying policy, after all, teachers should be reprimanding Barry for these taunts.
While the novel ends with the implication that Barry will continue to torment Ishmael and his friends into the next school year, it also suggests two methods for dealing with bullies: refusing to play their power games, and seeing them as fallible humans like anyone else. James Scobie demonstrates the first option on his first day at St. Daniel’s. When Barry begins to throw paper at Scobie and threaten to beat Scobie up, Scobie doesn’t rise to the bait or give in to Barry’s power. Instead, he insists he’s not afraid of Barry and, indeed, that he can’t feel fear at all. In his narration, Ishmael notes that this is not what’s supposed to happen when Barry bullies someone—victims are supposed to take the abuse and stand down. It’s revelatory to see that at least pretending to not be afraid and refusing to give in can actually make a dent in Barry’s hold on the school. After a failed attempt to frighten Scobie, Barry’s reputation tanks, and he stops bullying people for a while. Then, toward the end of the novel, Ishmael starts to see Barry as human when he finally comes up with his plan to humiliate Barry in front of the entire student body, students’ parents, and the teachers. He plans to read a prayer that Barry will stop bullying people, and before taking the stage, he gives Barry a copy of the prayer and lets on what he’s going to do. In this situation, Ishmael finds himself with all the power. He realizes that he can ruin Barry’s life in an instant—and Barry knows this too, as he furiously mouths at Ishmael to not do it. But when Ishmael sees Barry looking defeated and humiliated in the audience (and sees that Barry has parents who look perfectly nice), Ishmael can’t bring himself to read his prayer. Barry, Ishmael realizes, is human too—and Ishmael doesn’t want to become a bully himself, even if doing so might save the rest of the student body from Barry. But simply having this power over Barry for a few minutes gives Ishmael the confidence to realize that he can stand up to Barry in the coming months and years at school, and that he doesn’t have to stoop to Barry’s level to make a dent in Barry’s power. Essentially, the novel encourages readers to see bullies as people, albeit ones who can do a lot of damage to their victims—and because they’re people, it’s possible to call their bluffs, just like one could with anyone else.
Bullying and Courage ThemeTracker
Bullying and Courage Quotes in Don’t Call Me Ishmael
“Ishmael? What kind of a wussy-crap name is that?”
What could I say? Up to this point in my life I hadn’t even known it was a wussy-crap name. No one had warned me that I had a wussy-crap name. Why would my parents give me a wussy-crap name in the first place? Was Herman Melville aware it was a wussy-crap name?
It soon became obvious to every Year Eight that if you wanted to survive your stay at St. Daniel’s Boys School relatively unscathed, there were only two courses of action open to you: either avoid Barry Bagsley at all costs, which was what the majority chose to do, or risk the road less traveled and seek out the dangerous safety of Barry Bagsley’s inner circle of “friends.”
Every atom in my body told me that this was one of those times when the sensible thing to do was to make myself small. A few backward steps and I would be out of sight. Then I could forget all about Barry Bagsley and his mob. But that was just it. I could forget about the rest of them, but I couldn’t get the kid out of my mind. I won’t lie. I’m no hero. I wanted to turn around and run. I wanted to make myself small. I wanted to disappear. The problem was, I had the terrible feeling that if I did, I might not ever be able to find myself again.
The class stared at James Scobie. Something wasn’t right here. This wasn’t the way things went. When Barry Bagsley threatened you, you backed down. That’s just the way it was; the way it had always been. You couldn’t just go changing things—just doing what you want. The whole room was one big furrowed brow. Something was happening here—we just weren’t quite sure what it was.
As for Barry Bagsley, rumor had it that Brother Jerome had given him the “last warning” speech. In any case, when he finally returned to class, he was as sullen as a caged animal, a bit like the T-rex at the beginning of Jurassic Park, trapped inside that steel enclosure with a zillion volts of electricity zinging through the wires (which was fine by me). The only trouble was, I kept thinking that when you watch a movie like that, you just know that eventually, for some reason or another, someone or something will turn the electricity off.
“Now, some of you may feel that debating is for wimps. I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. Research shows that most people are more afraid of speaking in public than they are of dying. Debating is not for wimps. It’s for boys with courage. That’s right, courage—the courage and commitment to stand up and perform under pressure.”
“Sort of…the tumor, the operation…they’re true. The other thing…not being afraid…Well, it depends on how you look at it. Maybe it wasn’t a scalpel that did it. Maybe…when you’re lying in an operating room and someone is cutting into your brain…and you don’t know whether you’re going to…”
For a few seconds all I could hear was Scobie breathing. When he continued, it was almost in a whisper.
“Well…maybe there’s just so much fear you can have…and in that one moment you use up all the fear you were ever supposed to feel…and it’s the fear that cuts you…and it cuts you so deep that you decide that nothing else is worth being afraid of…and that nothing is going to scare you anymore…because you just won’t let it.”
“Well, I guess you could say that part of it’s about how power can be used in a good way or a bad way, and you could tie that to things like the power that big companies or politicians or dictators have today, I suppose. And Harry himself faces a lot of problems that I reckon would be relevant to a lot of people—you know, like coping with death and trying to fit in when you’re different…and bullying.”
I looked at Bill. I remembered his face after that last debate. Now he looked numb and broken.
I ripped the certificate from the desk. “That’s it. I’m taking this to Barker.”
“No, Ishmael, don’t!”
“Why can’t you just leave him alone?”
“Maybe I don’t want to. Are you going to make me?”
And there it was. The question we’d all been waiting for. The question whose answer I knew, and Barry Bagsley knew, was no. I looked at the smug, arrogant face before me, a face without a shadow of a doubt that it had nothing in the world to fear. I hated it and I hated how it was making me feel. I wanted to blow it away.
And then it happened. Kelly Faulkner laughed, and her beautiful pale eyes melted my heart like ice cream in a microwave till all that remained was an awful empty feeling. That’s when I knew. Nothing would happen between us. I’d been kidding myself. It just wasn’t possible for eyes as beautiful as that to see anyone as ordinary as me. For the first time, I didn’t feel like a nervous wreck in Kelly Faulkner’s presence. What did I have to worry about?
But there was someone else onboard the Pequod who I could relate to. Maybe I hadn’t lost my leg to a great white whale like he had, but I understood what it was like to have a part of yourself torn away, and I also knew how much you could grow to hate whoever or whatever it was that had taken that part from you. I knew all about that, because every time Barry Bagsley taunted me and ground my name into the dirt, and every time he paid out on Bill Kingsley and I did nothing, it felt like there was much more of me missing than just a limb. But was I really like Ahab? Did I crave revenge like him? Would I really like to hunt down Barry Bagsley and harpoon him and make him suffer for what he had done?
I let my eyes drift over the words. They seemed so simple, so harmless—just marks on a page. I read them to myself for the hundredth time.
Let us pray that Barry Bagsley can learn to let other people be themselves instead of bullying them and putting them down all the time.
I could tell she was asking if he was alright. It had to be Mrs. Bagsley, but it didn’t seem possible. It was hard enough imagining Barry Bagsley with a mother at all (surely he was thrown together in some dingy rat-infested laboratory) let alone one who looked…well…nice.
But there was another reason why I couldn’t go through with it. It was that look on Barry Bagsley’s face, the one that I had put there, the one that reminded me of Kelly Faulkner’s little brother, of Bill Kingsley, and of myself. I didn’t want to be the kind of person that made people look like that. No matter who they were.
I heard a strange noise come from deep within Bill Kingsley. It took me a moment to realize that he was laughing.
Razza looked back at me, flashed that deadly smile, and gave me the thumbs-up.
They were right all along. The Razzman really did work in mysterious ways.
But do you want to know the really weird thing? Well, I’ll tell you. The really weird thing was that as I lay there with only the raspy sound of my breathing filling my ears and with the spongy grass of St. Daniel’s playing fields buoying me up, I could have sworn that I was floating and bobbing on the surface of a vast green ocean. Remind you of anyone?
Go on—call me Ishmael if you like.
After all, as the Big Z would say, I’m da man!