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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The scalding messages of cyberbullying — and one student group's antidote

I write for middle schoolers, and here’s a sample of what millions of them are reading:

honestly no one cares for you even your parents don’t want you, there gunna put you in care

That was one of the messages sent online to a 15-year-old English boy, Josh Unsworth, before he hanged himself last week.

Here are some comments and questions, all of them real, posed online recently to a pretty teenage girl who’s a cheerleader, along with her responses. These are a just sample of what this one girl has been dealing with:

You need to go on a diet:)


Fat fat fat fat fat:):):):)

     Yep yep yep yep yep

Fat skank


People are so mean to you

     I know

Go die thanks


Ugly whore


I don't like you, your fat and ugly:)

     that’s nice

Go die in a hole now

     no thanks

No one likes you

     I know

How many teeth do you have?

     all of them

Your like the size of a elephant


If your a cheerleader spell this. U.G.L.Y do you know what that spells UGLY you are UGLY


Why do you get so much hate?

     I don't know

Yesterday I was visiting a middle school, and we began the day with grades 7-8 in the cafeteria. I read those messages to them, having found them online, which is easy enough to do. I asked the students to write, anonymously on a card, any similar online postings or text messages they had seen, sent or received. From these seventh and eighth graders came dozens of equally scalding samples of what our kids are very commonly reading, if not sending, day after day.

What’s the answer? Should cyberbullying be made a crime, as several state legislatures have done or are debating? The kids were of various minds on that — but in general, I think most felt that laws won’t do much about the current of nastiness that flows online through the lives of this first generation to grow up with the Internet.

Like all bullying, cyberbullying is a negative use of power, in this case the potent blend of safe distance and immediate impact that texting and online commenting offer. The most powerful response to it may well be finding ways to encourage and model positive, creative uses of that same power. Here’s one striking example:

On March 28 I joined 1,400 middle and high schoolers from all over New England in Boston at the annual Youth Congress of the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference (AWOD) Institute, which trains young people in safe, practical ways to take positive action that counters intolerance and bullying in schools.

A key program graphic is the “Pyramid of Hate.” At the narrow peak it shows the most life-threatening acts, suicide and homicide, while acts of bias, prejudice and bigotry — slurs, scapegoating, cyberbullying, stereotypes — fill the broadest bottom layers. The idea is that by chipping away at the bottom behaviors, you undermine and weaken support for the more violent choice-making at the top.

The student trainers in a session I saw, seniors Caroline Dabaneh and Kelsie Pace and junior Leah Lattanzi of Reading (Mass.) Memorial High School, told me about a multi-part project their AWOD team has started at RMHS. A year ago on YouTube, they posted a public service video, “Dear ____, Sincerely ____”, a series of students’ short messages to their peers, “as an interesting way to stand up for our beliefs,” Caroline told me.

After seeing the video’s impacts, she said, “we reached out with posters and emails to the rest of the school.” They got quick responses from a variety of students, and from teachers too. The peer leaders began posting those letters on a Tumblr blog, “Dear Blank from AWOD.” Then in February, someone at the school — "no one knows who," Caroline said — set up “RMHS Compliments” Facebook and Twitter pages, where people can anonymously publish positive comments about others.

Some samples of what Reading high schoolers have posted so far:

I feel that at first, Kristen Sedler may come across as quiet and unassuming, yet if you spend enough time with her you’ll get to know a girl with sass, wit, and a humor that is always so random and comes out of nowhere.

I’m just gonna tahlk about Suvithan Rajadurai forh a second heah. I don’t know if I’m doin the Bahston accent right or naht but ... First off, the kid is wicked smaht and is probably gonna go to havahd or some fancy smancy school like that. Yeh, I only said “havahd” because that’s wicked easy to say in a bahston accent, but still, it’s true and he deseves to go fah someday. He’s not just book smaht though—he’s wicked good in drahma and tennis, and has wicked pissah social skills... but most impahtantly, he’s just a wicked awhhsome guy, and so I think everybody should like this one forh him, even though my attempt at a bahston accent is wicked bad. ok.

“In high school, we are so used to being divided up into grades, teams, and cliques that it is so rare to see something like this where everyone is brought together as one community,” Caroline has written to me. “We learned that we all want the same things: to be appreciated, to not be put down, and to be supported through whatever we may face.”

And that, right there, is an insight that deserves to be shared.

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