The novel I am currently reading in my classroom, Freak the Mighty, deals with the sensitive topic of bullying. An oversized, dyslexic 8th grader, Max, and his best friend Kevin, otherwise known as Freak due to the rare disease he possesses, are relentlessly bullied by classmates and other antagonists throughout the book. To prepare my students for these scenes, I always do a three-day bullying lesson on how these situations should be handled in schools.
Sadly enough, it always takes me back to my 7th grade school year, a year in which I was taunted on a daily basis. Back then I was ridiculed to the point of needing therapy. I remember sobbing across from my therapist, telling her I didn’t know why other people called me “gay.” That word stung like a hornet to me. It is because of that school year that I take the topic of bullying seriously. I made a promise to myself that no kid would ever go through what I had to endure on my watch.
Fast forward 24 years from that ridiculous 7th grade school year to now. Although I have forgiven my tormentors, I cannot forget them. Their words echo for all eternity in the back of my mind. I’ll never forget the day I was broken down to nothing in English class, the day I cried painful tears that flooded my cheeks like a waterfall. Two boys in front of me were whispering daggers at me, daring me to ask out the most popular girl in school who sat right next to me. I wanted to puke. It got worse when the tears came and the entire class thought I was crying because my grandma died. Even the teacher.
I wonder about that day. Which kids sitting around me heard those words of hate? Which kids knew the real reason behind my tears? Was there anyone who would stand up to the jerks that were rubbing salt on my wounds? Not really. You see, in the code of students it is unlawful to tattle on someone else. It is safer to be the quiet bystander that lets bullying happen and turn your head another way. I mean, why risk being teased by the bully to stick up for some nobody like me, right? You have to admit, it is certainly easier not to talk. Shut your face. Maybe even say to yourself, “Well, sucks to be that kid. Glad it is not me.”
How do we teach our students to stand up for what is right? I do not pretend to have all the answers, but here is how I approach that question with my kiddoes. On day one of my bullying discussion, I strictly focus on defining bullying and teaching kids what different types of physical, emotional, and verbal bullying are out there. Many times they get confused about what bullying really is. I likewise discuss cyberbullying and talk about how quickly word can spread through social media with just a single posting on Instagram or Facebook. Finally, day one ends with stories from Columbine where two young men who had had enough decided to take matters into their own hands.
Day two is quite depressing and humbling for me, leaving me feeling quite vulnerable. I share my story above, written in an eight-page narrative, and we discuss the long term consequences of bullying. I am 38-years-old, yet I remember every second of that day in English class. I remember the hideous smiles from the two boys that mocked me, taking every bit of pleasure in my discomfort. I remember the teacher telling me to go into the hallway to talk quietly with him, offering me a Kleenex. I remember him being totally oblivious to my torment, asking if I was okay that my grandma had died, which by the way was the truth. (My Great-grandma Pauline had died two days earlier.) Finally, I remember simply feeling helpless, alone on an island, nobody to empathize with or to see solace in, totally misunderstood.
That lesson is powerful because it shows the kids I have been there before. It lets them know that I have been through the same junk that still happens today, providing a powerful empathy in the classroom. And you better believe I let the tears roll that day. Showing that pain to the kids is always effective in getting my point across that bystanders need to stand up for the underdogs. This year I actually had a student visit the counselor saying she was worried about me. You better believe that made me feel appreciated! The following day, my third hour class mobbed me with a large group hug that left me feeling extremely loved yet … ummm … a little uncomfortable? But the power of the lesson, the point of it was all too clear: a bystander that turns the other cheek is just as guilty as the bully in letting evil prevail.
Finally, day three is all about leadership. How should we respond to bullying? How can we stand up for those poor souls that find it difficult to come to school, knowing their day will be filled with name-calling, exclusion, or even threats? Who can students go to? My suggestion has been done many times in my class, and it is actually a safe, anonymous way of standing up for what the kids know is right. I tell them to write me a quick note, anonymous of course, telling me what is going on, and they are to leave it on my desk when I am not looking. You would be surprised the week following how many notes appear on my desk. Some kids are bold enough to even hand it to me themselves through tear-filled eyes.
This past week my room has been busy. Countless notes have been passed to me. I have had to visit the counselor to update her on situations more than one time. I called home on two occasions, both for two gentlemen who humbled themselves, admitting to me that they have been called “gay” by classmates. One of them gets notes shoved into his locker. The other just gets the verbal taunts in the hallways from a few 8th grade boys. I pulled each of those kids aside, letting them know I have been there. And the counselors doors have been flooded with their issues and so much more. Time has been sucked away from me to combat these issues, but I can truly say that it is worth every second. Standing up for your students, treating them as your own kids, works wonders in their hearts.
So how are you doing? Do you ever find yourself rolling your eyes at the nastiness that some kids are spreading? Or are you the type of teacher that will go to bat for the underdog? Believe me, if you take a stance against bullying, providing a safe and friendly environment in your classroom for students to learn, their output will be that much more filled with purpose academically. Do you have any questions? Comments? Feel free to reply to this blog below. I’ll be happy to share with anyone the PowerPoint I use, songs I sometimes play in class for discussion, videos I share, whatever you need. Consider my classroom your classroom. It is the least I can do to fight for what God knows is right.
“With their words, the godless destroy their friends, but knowledge will rescue the righteous” (Proverbs 11:9).