Joseph’s coat of many colors came to my attention yesterday while working on the fireplace in my Spiritual Retreat. As I work, I like to listen to music. My selection for the day was classic country. Dolly Parton’s like-named song was playing through the speakers, and the thought of my Action Research project for Learning Theory class came to mind. When Dolly proudly wore her coat of many colors to school, made from rags her mother had carefully sewn together by hand, the other children teased her to the point she felt ashamed. In other words, they bullied her. Trying to fight back, she tried to explain how her mother had told her the story of Joseph while she painstakingly worked on the coat each night. Unable to convey the full context of the story from Genesis 37 to her peers, they continued to mock and deride her. It was no use; they just couldn’t understand.
As in the story of Joseph, his father, Jacob, gave him a coat of many colors. This was the story Dolly’s mother had told her about while making the special coat. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son since he had been born in his old age. Giving him the coat of many colors was viewed as giving him the birthright, which was against tradition. Normally, the birthright went to the firstborn son. This act of giving the coat to Joseph enraged his brothers to the point that, “They could not speak peaceably to him.” – Genesis 37:4 In other words, they began to chide him with hurtful rhetoric, much like Dolly experienced; however, this was harassment was driving the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum; that of jealousy.
Not only do we see how peer pressure can cause children to become introverted, but we can also see how appearances and dress too often dictate what is the social norm for the school culture. Sadly, this ethos can be influenced by negative factors such as Gangster Rap, social media, and overly aggressive video Games, such as Soldier of Fortune and Fortnight. When perceptions turn into actions, either verbal or physical, they have gone too far. In the story of Joseph, we find the extreme result that we fear most; when bullying becomes more than painful words.
Poverty is still prevalent in our school district. The poor of the Appalachians is unfortunately very much alive and well today. However, today they exist from diverse backgrounds; they are paradoxically the human coat of many colors. In my own classroom, I have seen bullying against the socioeconomic (both poor and rich), social status, and sexual orientation. All have come in a variety of forms and from often, the most unexpected antagonist.
Although these lyrics in Dolly’s song and the story of Joseph’s coat appear seemingly simple, if we look at them more deeply, we can find the effects of bullying on several layers (both victim and perpetrator), their triggers, and the culture they breed in our classrooms.
In an interview about the story behind the song, Coat of Many Colors, Dolly Parton revealed that the song was indeed autobiographical; the small girl in the song was her. We find in the song how Dolly was hurt by the teasing of her fellow students. Some people may conclude that this is only a natural attitude; just children being children. Yet, when we take a closer look at their actions, we can see how this type of teasing can be construed as bullying. A new step between teasing and bullying has been identified as a ‘micro-aggression.’ It can best be described as this, “Trigger material is barely a whisper away from ‘trigger words’—many of which supply the content of ‘micro-aggressions,’ and all of them might readily be placed under the aegis of bullying.”
However, even though she had been shamed, Dolly didn’t give up. Trying to overcome her attackers, Dolly took the high road and tried to convey to them a higher purpose in the coat’s meaning. As the lyrics tell us, “that a person is only poor if they choose to be.” This likely was a response to them accusing her family of living in poverty because of her coat made of rags. In high school, social status often dictates what click or circle of friends you keep. Even in Dolly’s childhood, children were already being taught, whether at home or through advertising, that it wasn’t popular to be poor. Rather, they were already trying to shed their rural traditions for the sake of “appearing” to be more city-fied. Today, we still see some of that, students trying to hide their poverty. A new status of being proud of your rural roots has risen in the past decade. Some students purposely where their square-toed boots to school, with camouflaged coats and hats to match. However, rural boots and belt buckles can lead to triggers for some students as well.
In my own classroom there is another trigger in our day that was not an issue in Dolly’s school; sexual self-identification. The rainbow colors of both Dolly’s and Joseph’s coat could easily be seen as a metaphor for the rainbow symbol used by the LGBTQ community today. Hate groups and related mentalities often seek out these representations as targets to whom they are repulsed, and subsequently attracted to attack. What is often said at home is ingrained into the child’s mind. Acting out these aggressions, as so often we find in bullying, the multi-colored coat could then easily be seen as a representation of something it was not intended; regardless, the actual intent of said clothing.
In Joseph’s situation, the coat represented their birthright being given to the “favorite son.” This trigger brought out the most vehement personalities of sibling rivalry.
Who’s to say that the students at Dolly’s school weren’t jealous too because of Dolly’s special coat? We could easily discern from the language of her song that the more she tried to tell them why it was special, it just added fuel to their fire, flaming their jealousy all the more. How many of those jealous students came from broken families and never had anyone love them enough to make something for them; especially a coat that took many hours to sew together? To cover for their own insecurities, they took it out on the poor, little pretty country girl who glowed in her new coat.
Another trigger that is often missed is that from cultural ignorance. In my class, there was an incident when one of my impoverished students, one that was known for struggling academically, said something to one of my other impoverished minority students. Each child was from poor families but had dramatically diverse ethnic backgrounds. The one non-ethnic male student made an off-handed statement to the other while working on a project together. The student was so ashamed, she wrote a note and gave it to me after class. It was a shining moment for her, in that although afraid to meet her bully head-on, she still had the courage to come forward. The male student who had said the remarks had only repeated words that he had heard in his home environment so many times, that he didn’t see them as hurtful. Sadly, being from some of the remote sections of the mountains doesn’t afford the opportunity to know people from other parts of the world, except through the lenses of their own rural backgrounds, which more often than not include stereotypical ideologies. After I had the opportunity to talk to the perpetrator about his language, he then understood how his words had been painfully received, and he was sorry. The victim eventually forgave him, but in her own time, and not as a result from any persuasion on my part. In a loving environment, forgiveness is possible when we set the example for others to follow.
In both cases of Dolly and Joseph, we don’t actually know the bullies first-hand; rather, we only are aware of the consequences resulting from their actions. In each circumstance, we can make some valid assumptions based on what we know about how bullies are created and how their actions are perpetuated onto their victims. As we learned in the video, bullies often take out their frustrations on easy targets. By the time most adolescents reach the secondary level of education, the bully has found the “Chronic Victim.” Both are rejected by their peers; the bully for being aggressive, the victim for being introverted and strange (the latter a more self-imposed extraction than the former). Looking at the social atmosphere from the outside, both victim and bully become connected due to their polar opposite personalities.
Personally, I can attest to this syndrome; opposites attract. Early in my own personal High School experience, I was very introverted and shy. This outcast of society mindset made me a target for bullies in school. Appearing as an easy target, they began to harass and torment me to the point I began to think of either escaping or retaliating, a common result of bullying. I eventually reached a breaking point one day when one of those bullies pushed me too far. I snapped and literally succumbed to a blinding rage that had built up inside of me for so long. At that moment, I had become like Ralphie, in the movie, “Christmas Story.”
However, unlike Ralphie, who pummeled his bully, I simply hit my tormentor once, square in the face. The blow was so great that his head snapped back, then he fell forward into his plate of food on the table; out cold. I calmly walked back to my seat and sat down. It was then I began shaking from the adrenaline rush, realizing what I had done. Eventually, the bully recovered and then ran out of the lunchroom. I was horrified. I knew in my heart that at that point I was going to be called to the office and from there, all manner of trouble would ensue. The prospects of punishment from my actions began to consume me. Fearing for my academic life, I too left the lunchroom and hid out in the stairwells until the bell rang for classes to begin. Amazingly enough, I was never called to the office. None of the teachers monitoring the lunchroom reported the incident. Mind you, this was 40 years ago, back when paddling was still a valid course of corporal punishment. It was also very likely that the teaching staff attending to the lunchroom that day saw someone, the bully, finally get his just reward; one can only guess at this point.
Regardless, looking back, it was as if God had watched over me that day.
Not long after that incident, the bully began to change. He began to say hello to me in the hallways; being nice instead of intimidating. In fact, the other bullies in the school that had previously targeted me now treated me with a renewed sense of respect; not something I had looked for, but rather, something that was a result of something which I am not proud of, even today. That former bully, a year later, became a friend, and in a positive way. It was as if that moment had also transformed his life. It was much like that point in Joseph’s life when he looked up from the bottom of the well, realizing he could have easily been killed by his brothers, he realized that his life was about to change for the worse. However, as we know the rest of the story, through his forgiveness, he eventually was reunited with his brothers in dramatic fashion; one of best tear-filled scenes of the Old Testament.
Unfortunately, not all victim’s incidents turn into happy endings. Eventually, both victim and bully reach a breaking point. The bully releases their frustrations out on their victims. Meanwhile, the victim has nowhere to release their anger but inward. This combustion of emotions leads to greater “breaking points,” which we have seen turn into deadly consequences in recent years (most of the school shootings were a result of bullying victims acting out their aggressions.)
In my own classroom, I’ve seen bullies of varying degrees. One that I came to know was haunted by the loss of his father. As part of literacy in Math exercise, I had students write a Glide-Reflection of their lives. We were covering the unit on Transformations. As part of the assignment, the students were asked to write about something in their life that they lived through, that when they looked back (reflected), the could see where they were changed. The bully wrote about losing his father only a couple years before entering high school. When I read it, the stories of how he acted out against other students and teachers in other classes began to become understandable. As time would go on, I would notice days that he would appear agitated. On these days, I would pull him aside and take him out into the hallway where we would “Go for a Walk.” These are the moments that students often think they are in trouble, but after we walk out the door and I tell them they aren’t in trouble, rather, we need to walk and talk, they are instantly relieved and sometimes become emotional. It was the latter with this young man the day we took a walk after I had read his story. From that day forward, I was able to address his aggression from a different perspective. Often giving him someone to open up too allowed his frustrations to be released instead of having them build up and then vent them on another victim. We began to see a change in his attitude, and eventually, his academics began to improve.
The victim in all of these stories, Dolly, Joseph, the minority student in my class, and myself, eventually, partially, if not fully given the time, come to understand why they were being harassed. In Joseph’s case, he finds himself at the bottom of a dry well. From the very start, he had to have felt uncomfortable when their anger began to seethe over into their language toward him. He fueled their flames, even more, when he told them of his dream, in which their sheaths made obeisance to his own sheath in the field. It was at that point that their anger reached critical mass. We might ask ourselves, “Was Joseph blind to their anger?” “Was he perhaps afflicted with some form of behavior deficit, like Asperger’s or ADHD,” or was he simply so trusting in God, that he feared nothing to the point he cared little if they were mad or not? Had he reached the point of giving up, like the video, “How to Make a Bully (from Scratch)” depicted?
Consider Joseph’s plight further when he was sold into bondage and carried away into a strange land (Egypt) to become a slave to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, a captain of the guard. The essence of the victim hitting bottom could have easily been expected at this point. He could have given up. Yet, unlike what is expected of the typical victim, that of reaching a critical point of snapping, we see an unexpected twist. “And his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand.” – Genesis 39:3.
In the case of Dolly, we don’t know if she continued to be bullied by the other students or if someone stepped in to stop it. We know that although she was victimized not only for her socioeconomic status, the color of her coat, and the fact that she was loved by her mother, she did not give up. Like many victims, she fought back by trying to explain the reason why she proudly wore her coat of many colors. Yet, like most situations of being bullied, they had no intention of listening to what she said; it wasn’t the point. Their feelings of insecurity were taken out on the poor, country girl who was loved enough for someone to hand-sew together a coat made of many pieces of cloth.
Psalms 82:4 tells us, “Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.”
In my classroom, the poor minority student I had mentioned previously that had been inadvertently bullied by the other impoverished student was not left without being supported in her reporting of the incident. She had been aware of the harassment and wasn’t going to take it. As was necessary, and prudent, in my school’s administrative process, I made a discipline referral for the bullying student. Before turning in the paperwork, I met with both students separately and talked to them. As expected, the male was unaware of what he said. Yet, we followed through with the punishment to be consistent (our certainty) with our severity. Each student understood that what happened was avoidable, but each child had learned from the incident, knowing that Mr. Tron was going to stand up for them, and reach out to them when they made mistakes in an effort to help them grow and to feel loved.
From Joseph’s story, we might examine how a child caught in the downward spiral of being bullied might recover once they are removed from the caustic environment. In other words, Joseph began to blossom and flourish to his potential once he was removed from the impact of being bullied.
Sadly, the bullies in Dolly’s school likely had lives torn to shreds, like the rags of Dolly’s coat had once been. Unlike Dolly, they had no one to sew their lives back together. Lost in a loveless home environment, they became bitter at the world and sought to take out their pain upon an easy target.
In Joseph’s story, we explore the context of bullying within the family and how it is not just an academic institutional problem. In Joseph’s case, we see the extreme of a mindset that not only physically acts out on their victim but further perpetuates their aggression on their victim by seeking to destroy his life and his father’s connection to his most beloved son. In so doing, they unknowingly are doing the will of God, placing Joseph in a place that will eventually save their family from starvation. Unlike many victims of bullying, Joseph’s story ends in triumph rather than tragedy.
In my own experience, I was fortunate. The effects of bullying are complex, “How bullying impacts a child is holistic.” My life could have turned out differently in many aspects; had that incident been reported, had the bully been seriously injured, or if the bully not changed. At the time, it made me painfully aware that I was not in a healthy environment. Although the bully changed, my home life did not. Eventually, I would move to a strange land, like Joseph, where I too would begin to blossom. The removal from the caustic environment, which was most of my own making, would allow me to start over. I was and am blessed beyond measure.
In my own classroom, when my co-teacher and I identify the bullying activity, we address it from both perspectives. We support the victim and offer them the guidance they need to recover. We also seek to prevent them from feeling as if they might experience the issue again by creating an environment of safety and love. In the same token, we also reach out to the bully, not only to correct the behavior but find the source of the aggression and disarm it before it grows into something that cannot be controlled. In both cases, we offer a new seating arrangement if it is necessary. If counseling is needed, then we offer those resources. If simply showing love to both parties, then we do that as well.
As teachers, being made aware of the effects of bullying, we can become the intervention for our students before they hit rock bottom, and before they reach that deadly snapping point. When we notice bullying, we can seek out each party, reaching each student, both bully, and victim, and provide the element which they both have so often been neglected: Love. To reach beyond the curriculum, we teach and seek to know the person behind the face sitting in that seat each day can make all the difference.
Often, those victims of bullying seek refuge. Our classrooms can become that safe-haven; a place they know they can find shelter from the storm of life. The cycle of being bullied can be broken, if only we seek measures to stop its continuation. It is imperative that we not only make ourselves aware of this monstrous epidemic but also educate our peers and those around us. As it has been said, “It takes a village to educate a child,” we must also come together as an academic community to halt this disorder for once and for all.
My path in life has led me back to the place that I once struggled socially; high school. From having been a survivor of bullying, in some respects, I have a keen awareness of those “micro-aggressions” as Dr. Martocci pointed out. However, my role now is not that of a victim, but that of being the light to those who live in a world of darkness. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesians, “For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light.”- Eph. 5:8.
In my own classroom, being cognizant of all aspects of bullying, I’ve sought out the approach of loving both parties: bully and victim. Correcting the problem while show compassion for each has led to quick resolutions and an attitude of respect. My students know where I stand and appreciate that they are protected and loved.
My passion is my position in life; to serve. In that capacity, I now seek to be the light to those who are facing the darkness of persecution from aggressors, be that at home, school, or anywhere in between. In essence, God has put me in a place to help those in need.
In summary, bullying, if allowed to go uncorrected, can have devasting, if not deadly, results. “Inability to develop socially and emotionally is affected by the bullying and impacts the child’s life in a holistic way, which is expressed in this quote, ‘It is the impact on the target and not the intent of the aggressor that matters.’”1 In today’s “Zero Tolerance,” environment, my personal experience would have resulted in me having a minimum of three days Out of School Suspension (OSS). The results from that type of punishment would have had an extremely negative, and possibly tragic, rippling effect on not only my academic world but my home life as well.
In the stories of the coat of many colors, the victims had a wide range of targets upon which bullies could prey. Sadly, in many cases, our children in today’s world are the coats. There is no one simple fix for a problem that has become pervasive throughout all levels of our society, from the home to the workplace, and everywhere in between. What we should be concerned with most is how to break the cycle. The creator of “How a Bully is Made (from Scratch), probably said it best when they said that we must show both the bully and victim love; something they have lacked. Jesus tells his disciple in the Bible when asked, “What is the greatest commandment,” “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.38 This is the first and great commandment.39 And the second is like, unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”- Matthew 22:37-39
As educators, we face a myriad of issues daily in our classrooms. Our primary focus is to educate our students. To do this, we must provide an environment that is not only safe, which allows for the Deficiency Needs of Maslow to be met, but also one that is free from all outside influences and distractions, which includes the effects of bullying. Beyond the curriculum we present, we must seek to understand and appreciate the background behind each soul that sits behind a desk in our rooms. There, before us, each day is the future of our society. We must learn to read, like a quarterback behind the center reading the defensive configuration before him, our students and be ready to act when we see inconsistencies in behavior. When we intervene, we halt the progress of the illness that could become a greater tragedy if left unattended. It is up to us, the teacher, to show love to all of our students, regardless of how much they test us. When we truly walk as Christ, we love unconditionally, and for that, there is no conqueror.
Thanks be to God.
by Dolly Parton
Back through the years I go wanderin’ once again
And how my momma put the rags to use
There were rags of many colors
Momma sewed the rags together
As she sewed, she told a story
“Perhaps this coat will bring you
My coat of many colors
Although we had no money
So with patches on my britches
Just to find the others laughing
And oh I couldn’t understand it
And I told ’em all the story
But they didn’t understand it
Now I know we had no money
Unknown, “The Effects of Bullying on School Age Children,” https://effectsofbullyingonschoolage.weebly.com/index.html
Laura Martocci, Ph.D. (Dec. 8, 2015). Trigger Warnings, Micro-aggressions and Bullying. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/you-can-t-sit-us/201512/trigger-warnings-micro-aggressions-and-bullying
Today Show, (2015) Dolly Parton On ‘Coat of Many Colors’: ‘I’ve Been Very Blessed’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9oE9qohieM
Unknown (2014) “How to Make a Bully (from Scratch), Conscious Discipline, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzftHNh7xP8
Jean Shepherd (1983) “Christmas Story,” Directed by Bob Clark.
Holy Bible, KJV, Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/
Reva Smith, (Mar. 6, 2013), Today’s Parent, “It take a village to educate a child.”, https://www.todaysparent.com/family/it-takes-a-village-to-educate-a-child/
Robert E. Slavin (2015) “Educational Psychology, Theory, and Practice,” Johns Hopkins University, Pearson,11th Edition. Pg. 345.
“Coat of Many Colors,” Dolly Parton, https://search.azlyrics.com/search.php?q=coat+of+many+colors
Curwin, R. E., & Mender, A. N. (1999). “Zero tolerance for zero tolerance.” Phi Delta ICappan, 81(2), 1 19-120
 Unknown, “The Effects of Bullying on School Age Children”, https://effectsofbullyingonschoolage.weebly.com/index.html
 Larua Martocci, Ph.D. (Dec. 8, 2015). Trigger Warnings, Micro-aggressions and Bullying. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/you-can-t-sit-us/201512/trigger-warnings-micro-aggressions-and-bullying
 Jean Shepherd (1983) “Christmas Story,” Directed by Bob Clark
Unknown, “The Effects of Bullying on School Age Children”, https://effectsofbullyingonschoolage.weebly.com/index.html
 Reva Smith, (2013), Today’s Parent, “It take a village to educate a child.”, https://www.todaysparent.com/family/it-takes-a-village-to-educate-a-child/
 Curwin, R. E., & Mender, A. N. (1999). Zero tolerance for
zero tolerance. Phi Delta ICappan, 81(2), 1 19-120
 Robert E. Slavin (2015) “Educational Psychology, Theory, and Practice,” Johns Hopkins University, Pearson,11th Edition. Pg. 345.