There are times when I want to make people feel really small, reminding them that I, not they, am intellectually superior, socially superior, and, in rare occasions even physically superior. Then, I flashback to when I was in middle school and my body was as disproportional as Jonah Hill’s between movies.
I can still hear the bully deriding me for my appearance, my glasses, my stature or lack there of. He was in eighth grade and I was in seventh; he smoked cigarettes and came from a rough upbringing – your stereotypical Bender from Breakfast Club – and I remember feeling so low, wondering why my ears protruded from my head at such obtuse angles and why I had to wear glasses and look like a “four-eyed retard” (I know, so original; bullies usually aren’t the smartest, and this one certainly wasn’t).
As a teacher, I see my students ridicule one another based on petty differences like height, weight, speech, and hobbies; even in a small K-12, there are haves and have nots just as there were when I taught in Bridgeport and when I was a student in both public and Catholic school. The crucial discrepancy, though, that my students who purport themselves to be bullies fail to realize is that if they went to most other schools, they would be the ones with someone else’s foot on their back. They would be the bullied.
The one component that was missing when I was a kid is the suicide epidemic; my peers who were bullied didn’t make the ultimate decision to take their own life. I’m sure they struggled with it and maybe even considered it, yet they never actually did it. Maybe I was naïve then and didn’t recognize the problem, and the statistics available seem to be miniscule. At the same time, I find it hard to believe that prior to 2009, bullying didn’t induce any child suicides; more likely, it was not reported or not attributed to bullying. Now, however, it is at the forefront of parents, educators, and politicians alike.
According to Nobullying.com citing the Center for Disease Control, “suicide is responsible for almost 4,400 deaths of teens and young people each year. In other words, suicide ranks number 3 when it comes to what causes the most deaths in young people in America. It is also noted that there are over 100 suicide attempts for each successful suicide death. The same study speculates that students aged 10 to 14 are more likely to commit suicide than other age group.
Studies performed by Yale suggest that victims of bullies are between 2 to 9 times more likely to commit suicide at some point in their teenage years. In Great Britain, a study performed there went so far as to suggest that almost half of the suicides committed in that country were directly related to bullying.”
That’s what I remind my students when I give them my cliché spiel about the old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me” being wholly untrue (in reality, it usually further emboldens the bully to continue harassing and hurting). The stakes are much higher now; picking on someone can not only adversely affect their life but also lead to their taking their own life. Yes, bullying has reached critical mass in that regard, so it starts with the teachers giving their students some “real talk,” using anecdotes from their own lives and in addition to current events to humanize the issue.
In this age of social media, users have become desensitized to what they say because since the face-to-face component has been removed, they seem more apt to write cruel and hurtful comments about others. Giving faces and stories to victims is the first step in getting children to understand empathy, what it entails, and why, for the better of humanity, we must practice it.
Although for as long as I can remember have been sensitive to the plight of the physically and developmentally disabled, I have not always been as accepting as I am today. I can remember fourteen-year-old Andrew Chapin castigating friends for acting like “fags” and “queers.” No teacher ever once had a real conversation about how damaging that language is, and they certainly heard it. Hell, some of them even said it, I think.
First, I had some coming-of-age moments that impressed upon me the uniqueness of all humans. One, since I was conveniently and habitually sick freshman and sophomore year, I watched Hilary Swank’s Boys Don’t Cry (Obviously, it was a slow day on HBO). That started the thought process in my head that not everyone has to be heterosexual or necessarily identify with one gender as odd as that first seemed to me. Still, it was fiction, so while I was somewhat shaken by the movie, I still was somewhat negligent in my use of derogatory language directed at homosexuals.
Then, I saw my high school’s rendition of The Laramie Project and learned about Matthew Shepard. In my eyes, he was the LGBTQ community’s equivalent to the Black community’s Emmett Till. I wondered how it were possible for humans to treat others in such deprave and unconscionable ways. After that, I became more vigilant with more words and began to accept, respect, and actually get to know some of my homosexual classmates.
As you would expect, Fairfield University wasn’t the most diverse place when I attended from 2005-2009, so I had very cordial but oftentimes few interactions with members of the LGBTQ community simply because they weren’t there. I remember, at the time, that I still didn’t necessarily understand what a transgender person was. Still, there was room to grow.
Then, when I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to sit before a panel of LGBTQ students and adults, hearing their firsthand stories of being physically and emotionally tortured. One fifteen-year-old kid’s account particularly struck me: he couldn’t even enter or leave school without being beaten by classmates because he was a transgender and branded as a freak. Can you imagine if that were every single day of your life? Even when you go home, you can’t escape it because you’re getting text messages and Tweets and Facebook messages that remind you that you are not accepted and you do not belong. On some levels, it gives credence to the suicide epidemic.
I teared up as he painstakingly outlined his day because I could not fathom bearing that burden. Growing up is hard enough without being told daily that you suck. Then, I finally understood what should’ve been as self evident as inalienable human rights (that apparently are pretty alienable): kids (and humans in general) need to witness firsthand the plight of those who differ from them so they can understand. It’s a similar realization I had to arrive at in my first couple weeks teaching in Bridgeport (but that’s a discussion for another day).
Last year, through one of my student’s parents, my eighth grade class met a living and breathing testament to acceptance and empathy in Bernard Carabello, a survivor of the now-shuttered Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, NY. Carabello, who has cerebral palsy, was mistakenly placed there for 18 years when he was misdiagnosed as developmentally disabled. According to the March 10, 2014 press release for the event, “Carabello…champions the cause of the developmentally disabled for New York State OPWDD.”
As he sat before the class, I observed as some students who previously had no misgivings slurring the physically or developmentally disabled gave deference to someone who they wouldn’t regularly interact with. Their judgmental natures disappeared, their bully-ish mentalities dissipated, and everyone in that room, regardless of social status, money, physique, or intelligence sat next to each other as equals. That’s the kid of authentic experience all students, all people, need.
It’s very easy for teachers to tell their students what they should and should not do. What’s difficult is starting the discussion and then maintaining it in a form they can understand, moving it beyond the superficial level of prosaic statements about accepting everyone to a more concrete understanding through listening and engaging.
Students are malleable when given the chance to learn knowledge and apply it, and so are adults. I watched my grandfather as a young boy use the word “queer” to classify anyone who had an earring, a tattoo, long hair, or even a funny walk (I still walk like a duck impaled by a stick from the rear-end). However, as he was nearing his final day, he told my mother that if he had a child who was gay, he would love and support him, not cast him away.
Bernard Carabello gave my students insight into the life of a physically-disabled man, an education no textbook could ever offer. That’s because he was sitting right in front of them. He had a face and a voice that could not be anesthetized by a computer screen. The perspective was as real as the kids themselves. From that day on, as I’m sitting here observing many of the same students as ninth graders now taking their IOWA standardized tests (discussion for another day), I can’t help but think that their lives have been irrevocably changed for the better as mine was by the LGBTQ panel.
Will there still be bullies? Absolutely because people will always be so insecure they have step on someone else to get a better view at the lonely top of the social stratosphere. Will people still judge others? Sure, it’s in our nature to try and classify others in relation to ourselves even though life would be pretty boring if we all looked, believed and acted the same (Read The Giver).
However, if more people, in particular children, had a chance to meet the people they so commonly demonize, degrade, and then disregard without ever knowing, they would not have the audacity to ridicule; better, they would not have the urge, for they would finally see that underneath the skin color, the religion, the sexuality, the gender, the political beliefs, and the aesthetics is a human being. Everyone deserves that right above all else: to be who they want to be, whoever that might be, whoever they choose to be, whoever they are.
Education is where social issues start and social issues end. Never forget that the next time you have the opportunity to make someone’s lapse in judgment or speech a teachable moment, for we all can learn and change. Together.