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Education Opinion

One Is the Loneliest Number

By Anthony J. Mullen — November 09, 2009 7 min read
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A crowd of children is gathered inside the Magic Kingdom hoping to catch a glimpse of the star and get his autograph. I notice a dwarf pass the crowd and go unnoticed by most of the children. One little girl asks her mother to stop the character.

“You don’t want to lose your place in line waiting for Mickey to get an autograph from one of the dwarfs,” the mother instructed her daughter.

The little girl wearing a Mickey shirt quietly watched the dwarf walk away.

It never occurred to me that a social pecking order exists among Disney characters. Some characters are treated with a sense of reverence while others are just another foam face in the crowd.

A park employee is sweeping litter around the edge of the crowd.

“Where are the other dwarfs?” I ask.

“I think Dopey is the only dwarf we have,” he answered.

“Where are the other six?”

“I guess they’re in their cottage in the woods,” he replied sarcastically.

I wonder why Disney picked Dopey from among the gang of seven to represent the dwarfs. Sneezy, Sleepy, Doc, Happy, Bashful and Grumpy formed a slightly dysfunctional brotherhood of dwarfs, but they managed to live and work in harmony. And why break up a union of workers that sings while swinging pick axes in a mine?

I am in Orlando attending the Kappa Delta Pi 47th biennial convocation. Kappa Delta Pi has a long history of promoting quality teaching and the convocation is bursting with energy. It’s nice to see so many educators participating in over 170 workshops designed to enrich the professional development of graduate students, teachers and administrators. I meet two teachers from the Southeast and join a conversation about school cliques.

One is a middle school teacher and the other a high school teacher. Both have strong opinions about school cliques.

The high school teacher tries to connect the dots from a lunch table to Columbine.

“So-called popular cliques isolate certain students, leaving them feeling alone and inferior. So these kids form their own cliques-like the outcasts at Columbine High School.”

The middle school teacher talks about the dynamics of friendship and how students treat each other before and after joining a clique. She describes incidents in which students who were friends since Kindergarten parted ways when one joined a clique. The child left outside the clique did not look, act, or dress like the members of the clique, and was left abandoned by a former childhood friend.

“It’s really sad,” she said. “I have seen too many children treat former friends differently after joining a clique.”

“And it gets a lot worse in high school,” added the secondary school teacher. “Some kids begin to feel more powerful as a group and start to dominate the school culture.”

Cliques are social phenomena that usually begin as early as elementary school and take root in middle school. Cliques usually attract members with similar interests such as jocks, preppies, Goths, skate boarders, musicians, computer geeks, and people with purple hair. Most cliques are harmless and a temporary means for a student to feel secure before forming a more complete self-identity, but some cliques do attract dangerous minds.

And there is always the child left out.

The elementary school teacher is passionate about the need to “emotionally educate” children to address the problems associated with cliques and social isolation.

“In my school district,” she said, “we incorporate programs that promote close and meaningful relationships with peers. We make sure that no child is left out. And guess what happened?”

“Test score improved?” I answered.

“Yes! Tests scores improved.”

“What kind of programs did you implement?” I asked.

The veteran teacher talked about how teachers and support staff try to identify children—many as young as five or six years old—who appear to be socially isolated from their peers. She talked about reaching out to these lonely children and teaching them socialization skills. Not all parents or school officials initially supported the ‘touchy feely’ type school model until the test results proved the nexus between social and emotional health and academic success.

“A child’s emotional health is intrinsically linked to academic and life success—that’s common sense. But some school officials and parents did not see value in teachers spending time discussing virtue and ethics,” she added. “These people were concerned that children were missing math and science time.”

Her school’s ability to both address the social and emotional needs of children and raise test scores impressed me.

“So your school makes an extra effort to make sure no child is isolated from his or her peers?” I asked.

“Absolutely. Children who are isolated when young tend to be isolated throughout their school years. They are the children who are stigmatized and the stigma stays with them.

I wonder why Disney decided to isolate the childish and naïve dwarf from his peers. Walt Disney was a genius and visionary but he blew it on this one. Dopey appeared lost and he reminded me of the child we all knew in grade school who had few friends. The one labeled “funny looking” or “stupid” or “weird” and inevitably kept that moniker until high school graduation.

I decided to follow the dwarf.

Dopey navigated the theme park crowds, finding openings between clusters of people with the agility of an NFL running back. I needed to quickly step from the pavement to a higher sidewalk to keep better track of the nimble dwarf. Fortunately for me, the character’s large head made him easily visible and his lack of peripheral vision kept him on a linear path. A fork in the road and a large gathering of people created a pedestrian traffic jam. The crowd was cheering and fathers held up their young children. Cameras flashed from every direction.

Dopey paused for a moment and stood near the rear of the crowd. Few people noticed the dwarf because the cast of characters assembled near Cinderella’s castle mesmerized them. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto and Chip ‘n Dale stood hand-to-hand posing for photographs. It was the perfect storm of popular Disney mascots.

I wondered if Dopey would join the ensemble.

Childhood and adolescence present many physical and psychological challenges; however, it is also a time in which individuals seek strength and support from peers. Cliques develop and children sort themselves into groups that share similar interests, cultures, or provide a sense of protection or belonging. A child who does not find a peer group is left feeling isolated and abandoned and the long-term psychosocial outcomes can be devastating. A child with few friends or social support networks is much more likely to suffer from depression or other mood disorders. The developmental importance of belonging to a peer group during school years is critical to the maturation process, and no doubt the reason it has been a frequent theme of novels and movies.

Instinct surely plays a role in the human desire to form groups but nurture has an equally important part. Parents are the first and most significant arbitrators of childhood friendships, and we all remember which friends were labeled good or bad for our social circle. Or the characters worth posing with.

Dopey did not make a move to join the popular mascots. I do not know if he was late arriving or not invited. I do know that another little girl pointed at the dwarf and tried to get her father to bring her to him. The father whispered something in the girl’s ear and then quickly lifted her upon his shoulders. She now had a better view of Mickey and friends.

Social isolation may benefit a few people with monastic tendencies, but children and adolescents who do not experience the protective benefits of close relationships with classmates risk increased vulnerability to negative social pressures. The price to gain admission to the clique is often costly. A girl may become promiscuous or a boy may feel the need to commit acts of bravado or deviant behavior to earn admittance.

The dwarf did not stay long. He was accosted by a group of teenagers who found an opportunity to abuse an outcast. They began to tap on his head with their knuckles and make obscene gestures. One boy kept asking knock, knock, who’s in there? Dopey placed his hands over his heart and a security guard quickly appeared. The hall monitor had arrived and the boys dispersed.

Dopey walked away and eventually disappeared behind a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY.

I hope the dwarf had found his cottage in the woods.

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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