I’ve been doing presentations and leading discussions in middle schools on bullying for almost 10 years — but an interaction I was part of, last week in New Jersey with 1,000 middle and high schoolers, may have been the most powerful I’ve yet experienced.
I want to summarize what we did here, because it’s an approach to affecting school climate that any school or organization can adopt or adapt. It involves a piece from True Shoes, my new YA novel on cyberbullying, that may be controversial — but I hope you’ll find the approach we took to be worth considering.
Last October 24 the Sussex County, N.J., Technical Center hosted the 12th annual Anti-Bullying Summit, organized by the nonprofit Center for Prevention and Counseling of Newton. This was the third time I was part of the event, which drew delegations totaling 850 students from public and private middle schools all over Sussex County, plus 160 high-school peer leaders.
The day’s theme, “It Only Takes One,” was blazoned on t-shirts — black for the peer leaders, white for the middle schoolers — and the program in the big auditorium featured inspiring talks, music, and presentations on bullying and anti-bullying efforts in schools. I’d been asked to do an interactive workshop, first to half of the students, then to the other half. The approach I was about to take, which I had brainstormed with Becky Carlson and Meg Samuel-Siegel of the center, was an interactive idea I had never yet tried.
On stage, I said the day had so far been so positive — but I couldn’t blame some of the students if they had a negative or skeptical thought. “What,” I asked, “does ‘It Only Takes One’ mean? Does it really mean anything?
"You may be thinking, ‘I’m just a kid. What can I really do?’” And that, I told my 500 listeners, is what I wanted to explore.
Here’s what we did:
1. The organizers had put batches of pencils and large, neon-colored index cards in ziploc bags, each one marked for a participating school. I asked each delegation to send up one volunteer, to pick up their group's packet.
2. When that was done, I said: “Okay. At this time of incredible change in your lives, and of confusion, intensity, and pressure to fit in, it can feel dangerous to be different. In fact, it can be dangerous — because those who are different tend to be those who get targeted. So I want each of you to take an index card and a pencil. In a few words, using no names, write down one way you have seen or experienced differentness being treated negatively. Ridiculed, isolated, hurt, whatever. You have five minutes. Go.”
3. When time was up, I asked each original volunteer to collect the cards and join me on stage. When they were in a long line beside me, I asked them to read quickly through their cards. “Choose one card that really strikes you,” I said.
4. I went down the line with the microphone — and what the volunteers read was striking and real. Kids said they’d been hurt, or had seen others hurt, because they were heavy, skinny, short, tall, smart, learning-disabled, autistic. Kids had felt targeted for being racially different, for liking to read, for having a malformed hand, for speaking with a lisp. One said he, or she, looked forward to Halloween — “because every day I feel like a ghost.”
5. Every one of these examples relates to being different, I observed to the crowd. Then, as we applauded the volunteers off-stage, I said, “Now I want to turn this idea around.” And I introduced a short piece of True Shoes.
This is a conversation between Russell, my eighth-grade narrator, and his friend Turner, a talented young filmmaker who has galvanized their school with his powerful video report on a violent attack that was triggered by a rumor, spread by text messaging, that Turner and another boy are a couple. The other boy had attacked the classmate who had forwarded this text to him. The attacker faced expulsion, and the one he’d hurt had gone to the hospital.
As far as anyone knew, the rumor was totally untrue, spread by two popular girls for revenge because Turner and his friend had played a prank on them. Turner’s video had asked which was more violent — the physical attack, or the texted-around rumor that sparked it. Posted on YouTube, his video had drawn a quarter-million hits. Then Turner and Russell had this conversation, which I’ve edited down slightly for this article:
His shoulders were clenched, like water was going down his back. As I caught up, he kicked a pebble, staring down. He said, “There’s something I’m sort of ... I don’t know. Messed up about. If I mention it, with all this crap going on, I have to know you won’t say anything. To anyone.”
“I have to know,” he said.
“I won’t say anything. To anyone.”
He kicked another pebble. The rain made darker circles on his black sweatshirt. He said, “I just ... I don’t know how to say it. Girls are like friends to me, okay? But they’re just ... I mean ... I don’t know. I really don’t.”
I didn’t understand. And then I sort of did.
“Oh,” I said. “I think maybe I get it.”
He looked up. “I just feel really ... I mean so far, I haven’t really felt ...” He turned red and stepped away. “Never mind.”
“No. It’s okay. It is.”
“I just don’t know,” he said again. “But this year, it’s kind of gotten weird. ... Russell ... I’m just ... kind of ... confused.”
His eyes were pleading. I knew that whatever I would say right now would be really, really important. And, of course, I had no idea what it should be.
“Hey,” I said. “People our age get confused about stuff like that.”
“Yeah, but ...”
“It doesn’t matter.”
But that wasn’t right. It did matter. That’s why we were talking about it. So I started babbling.
“Look, I don’t mean it doesn’t matter, but ... I mean ... okay, the sneaker thing, what’s that about? It’s like people are finally tired of being scared they’ll get pointed at and called different — that someone’ll say something’s wrong with them and everyone else will laugh. But I mean, if you just are who you are — if you say this is me, this is my color or whatever — then you’re all right. You know? It’s like ... it’s like a power.”
I was pretty sure I hadn’t made any sense at all. But Turner’s face relaxed.
“So,” he said, “if I was ... different ... we could still be friends?”
“Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?”
I shoved him. He kicked another pebble. He said, “Thanks, man.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“That’s what you think.”
The auditorium had grown silent. I said, “Can you see that this is a key moment in this boy’s life? And the most important thing for Turner is not whether he’s gay or straight. It’s whether he believes it’s okay to be who he is.
“If he decides it’s not okay to be him, what happens to his talent? What happens to the impact he can make in the world? We’ve seen that Turner’s films can open people’s eyes, make them think. That comes from his individuality," I said — "from the uniqueness of who he is.
“So Russell’s in the situation where he can help one person understand that it is okay to be him — and you may be in a situation like that," I said. "If you sit with the person no one will sit with at lunch, you could change that person’s life. If you look in the mirror and say, ‘Okay I hate my hair today — but it’s still okay to be me,’ then you can make a difference in your own life.”
“Because the long-term truth for your life, for everyone’s life,” I said, “is that your differentness is not your danger — it’s your power. Your uniqueness is your individuality, and your individuality is your potential. Nobody ever got to be successful or very happy in their lives by imitating everyone else. If you can help yourself understand that it’s okay to be you, you can have a successful, meaningful life. And when you take the chance to help another person understand this — well, that is how one person makes a difference.”