Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hard News: The Bully Pulpit

As of late, there has been a great deal of media discussion on the plague of bullying. The reportage intensified in recent weeks when a young Massachusetts student died after receiving persistent attacks. This is not the garden-variety intimidation many of us grew up with. Cyberspace has provided even more overwhelming and sinister venues for cruelty.

There is a zero tolerance policy in the Shakespeare Club when it comes to bullying. In our third year a member was invited to leave the club as a result of his meanness.

In our first year the kids absolutely would not perform in front of fellow students. By year two they allowed a few after-school children to watch and now the actors perform in front of the entire school, but not without reasonable trepidation. It is a fearful thing to act publicly before one's peers. I deliver a speech beforehand outlining the job of the audience. I point out that even though they are seated in darkness the actors can see and hear them. Therefore walking around, chatting or calling out would be rude behavior.

At the final performance of "Twelfth Night" last year, three young fellows shouted out "Kiss her! Kiss her!" to an actor and his partner on stage. The actors did their best to signal them to stop, to no avail. These boys were drunk on their own power and their intoxication kept them going. They could not seem to stop themselves.

A few days later, I visited second- and third-grade classrooms to speak about the performance. I asked the kids what they remembered and liked about the play. I avoided all eye-contact with the culprits. I asked the students if they remembered my talk about the audience's job and they replayed what I'd said.

"I'm here to teach you a new word," I said, and wrote HECKLE on the board.

Under that word I wrote NO NAMES and then shared what I'd witnessed by the boys in the audience. I told them that "heckle" was a cousin to "bully."

"I was so proud of the actors because they kept doing their job and I felt so much shame for those boys because they forgot their job and behaved badly."

"Who was it, Ms. Ryane? Are they in this room, those boys?"

I pointed out: NO NAMES.

"I have three stamped envelopes," and held them high. "Those boys can write letters of apology to the actors and to me, if they choose. And when someone takes responsibility for their actions, what do we do?"

"We say 'okay'?"

"We believe them?"

"We forgive them?"

"Yes, we forgive and we forget and we move on."

I received one letter of apology from one boy. The actors did not receive any letters.

My classroom conversation did not sit well with everyone. In not-so-subtle reactions by certain parents, that has been made clear. And I do not care.

The media is abuzz these days, arguing over who's to blame and who's responsible as bullied children sink into depression and tragically sometimes die. Parents, teachers and school authorities who ignored signs of trouble are listed the root causes. I'm going to suggest it's up to all of us to be vigilant.

I think if you're old enough to behave cruelly, you are old enough to learn not to. I never wish to hear "Kids being kids" or "Boys will be boys" or "Just having a little fun."

I do not want to hear it.

Zero tolerance.

Zero defense.

"Speakers Corner, Hyde Park" by Anthony Grima

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