Back in 1989, when I first read Ender's Game, I read it in five hours, totally wrapped up in Ender's character and the story. I've discovered since then that many people just don't get this book. They dislike the characters, or don't understand them. They feel that the situations are unrealistic, especially the bullying, vulgarity, and manipulation that takes place. Or they think that since the characters are young, that nothing heavy or painful will, or should, happen to them.
Be aware that this post is going to get painful and real, and I'm going to tell you a bit more about my life than I usually do. It's a bit long, but if you want to know why I think the kids in Ender's Game are portrayed realistically, read on.
When I read Ender's Game the first time, I was 17 and had just graduated from a public school system where I had been bullied on a nearly daily basis from first grade through graduation.
Why did I put up with it?
Because back in elementary school, when I complained, the teachers thought I was a tattle-tale, that none of it was that bad, or that I didn't understand being teased because I was an only child and wasn't used to normal kid-to-kid interactions. For some reason having friends didn't count.
I told my parents about what was happening. They came to the school. Teachers and administrators seemed somewhat concerned. My parents went home, and it turned out that I was in trouble for "tattling" again. At this point I wasn't complaining about being called names (daily), I was complaining about being pushed, shoved, pinched, held down and groped. I was in second grade. I decided that I had to handle it on my own. And crying in a corner wasn't an option, because that just made me a bigger target.
Another girl at my school told me that her dad was a martial arts teacher and that she could show me some basic self-defense moves. By the end of second grade, I was leaving my bullies behind with bruises.
Unfortunately, there were other not-so-great things going in my life at that point. A friend of mine who had three older siblings was violently raped by her oldest brother. Her two middle siblings were also raped. They all tried to swear me to silence with threats. I decided that for once, I would be a tattletale again. An investigation took place, and I lost my best friend . . . who went and told the entire school that I was a liar.
I felt guilty for telling, and yet ashamed of how long it had taken me to tell. I didn't want to talk about any of it with anyone for a long, long time. I started avoiding contact with other kids by spending all my recess time in the school library. A few years went by with few friends and few incidents of bullying other than the mild name-calling that I was getting used to at that point.
During this time, I learned the Lord's prayer and started struggling with that phrase, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us." That was really a tough phrase for me, and I started praying about it. I think, now, that praying for help with forgiveness kept me healthier than I could have been at that point.
In junior high (that's middle school in modern terms), things heated up again. I had decided to be more social: I gained friends who seemed blind to anything bad that happened, and more enemies again. The bullying grew physical once more, and included things thrown at me, tobacco chew spit at me and on my locker, and the inevitable attempted groping. I fought back, usually with just a few kicks or hits and then a swift run that took me away from the bully/bullies. I started taking creative routes from class to class, sometimes going outside in the rain to avoid certain hallways.
One day, I decided to walk inside. A boy jumped on me from behind and started groping me while saying nasty things. In a split second, I lost my temper in the worst way imaginable. I felt like the only thing I wanted in that moment was to hurt him as badly as I had ever been hurt, to hurt him so much that he would never hurt me again. I don't really know how long the fight lasted, because red rage was pretty much my world during that time. I didn't start to come out of that until a couple of other kids shouted at me to stop. I had been kicking him repeatedly while he was on the ground. He needed help to get up and couldn't stand on his own. I found out later that he went to the hospital and had bruised ribs. I was so shaken and frightened of what I had done that I promised myself that I would learn to handle my anger, and that I would never hurt anyone like that again. The kids at school started to stay outside of arm's reach. The tobacco chew spit, name-calling, and thrown objects still kept coming, but no one touched me. I was thankful for it, and yet ashamed of my temper.
Does anyone see yet why I felt like Orson Scott Card had taken notes from my life for Ender's Game? I understood Ender's dilemma in a gut level way.
In addition to the bullying, I had been separated out by teachers who told my honor class friends and I that we were special, smarter, etc (baloney, baloney), and for a while I believed them even though I had friends who weren't honor students who I knew were just as smart as I was. (Again, see any Ender's Game similarities here?)
The only incident I had with my temper in high school came when a friend of mine was picked up by two guys in varsity jackets, thrown into a bay of lockers and punched in the stomach. Angry that no one else did or said anything to stop them, I cursed them, threatened them, and went into attack mode. They ran. I looked around, and I didn't have any back up. My friend told me she had never see anyone as scary as I was when I lost my temper. I felt that strange mix of horror, shame, and yet thankfulness again.
I prayed daily for God to heal me of my anger and bitterness, for help forgiving others, and for help staying calm and positive.
After a spectacularly disastrous decision on my part to run for class office (during the class assembly before the vote I was booed by at least 100 of my 300 classmates), my opponent (who was far more popular) told me he would try to make sure that I was never harassed again. He had actually witnessed some of the name-calling, etc. in the hallways and it bothered him. The harassment lessened.
During my senior year, one of my friends witnessed tobacco chew being spit on my locker. When he found out that it happened at least weekly, he helped me take revenge. Yes, revenge. I wasn't losing my temper with angry words or fists at that point, but I wasn't very mature. We broke into the tobacco chewer's locker, threw out all his tobacco cans, drew on his posters, and moved his books around. Then we waited across the hall and watched him find his locker in disarray. He was horrified. My friend, to my terror, made sure the guy knew we had done it. Thankfully, my friend happened to be a black belt fighter, and the son of one of the football coaches. The harassment went down to name-calling, and usually happened quietly.
Unfortunately, I wasn't the only kid harassed or bullied at my school. One of my friends was surrounded by a bunch of guys and beat until he was hospitalized with broken bones. The bullies never got in trouble. Another friend was knocked down by two football players in front of the vice-principal, who, instead of helping my friend, merely told the two players he'd be rooting for them at the game that night. When my friend stood up and started verbally protesting, the vice-principal threatened to suspend him for threatening our school's prize players and our team's chances of going to state. I could go on with more stories, but I think you get the picture here: school administrators only protected varsity players and the popular, rich kids.
The kind of bullying portrayed in Ender's Game is realistic. The feelings of Ender for his enemies ring true for me, even the loving part. The guy who I hurt back in junior high, came up to me a while later at a Young Life meeting and apologized to me with the help of one of the leaders. We had a long talk, and I apologized for hurting him. We prayed, and we forgave each other, and it was real forgiveness - a miraculous healing of the heart that I know only Jesus can give. Another guy who had verbally harassed me for years apologized at a senior party and I forgave him. Since then, at every high school reunion I've attended, I've made peace with one or more of my old enemies. My friend who had called me a liar after I told the school counselor about her family actually thanked me ten years later.
So, for me, oddly enough, the reason I love Ender's Game has less to the book itself than it has to do with my own experiences. A story may start in the heart and mind of a writer, but it finds completion in the heart and mind of the reader.
When you meet someone who loves Ender's Game, ask them why . . . and you might hear a story like mine.