Sunday, June 25, 2017

What can I do? How reading can overpower a bully.

Today I was compelled to write after reading a Facebook post about a young lady who committed suicide because she was bullied.

It ended, "In lieu of donations, be kind to another person."

In my heart I'm still hoping that it's a hypothetical situation.  Someone who sees the writing on the wall for another person and wants to jolt the reader into action.

The action of being kind.

Unfortunately, the actions behind this story still happen.  This leads me to wonder why?  and what can I do?

As an educator, I am fully aware of bullying.  It's the repetitive actions that cause others intentional pain where the aggressor has more power than the person receiving the actions.  It's verbal, physical, cyber . . . and exclusion. It's done for many reasons -- and I've evidenced most of them.  The most common three that I've experienced are listed below.

1.  Jealousy -- wanting what someone else has, so you put the person "in his/her place."  By tearing someone down, you belittle the skill in which they excel.

2.  Insecurity/Fear -- a need to find a group to fit in and wondering if the group would accept you if you stood strong in your beliefs.  Many who fit in this group become so self-absorbed in being accepted that others lose their "humanness."

3.  Feeling pain -- some have such a deep pain inside them that they need to make sure others are in pain as well.  I see this when someone who has been bullied turns on others when given the chance.

These categories put a blinder over the bully's eyes.  Instead of seeing the person on the receiving end, they see their own internal motivation.  This allows the person to disassociate with the other person and remove their "humanness."  One perfect example was found in the Diary of Anne Frank when groups of people hated others because of religion -- or in To Kill a Mockingbird when race dictated how one was to be treated -- or in Wonder where a physical disability cause others to hate. This theme is explored throughout literature as well as real life.

Knowing this helps to figure out the root of the cause.

But it still stinks if you're on the receiving end of mean looks, whispered words, rubbing exclusion in another's face, isolating, targeting.

So what can I do to help?

In class we often discuss the concept that once you get to know someone's story it's hard to hate that character.  We often look at the protagonist and antagonist through the same lens.

What has happened to this person to make him/her act this way?  What provides the motivation behind the actions?  Even if you don't "like" the character, understanding him often leads to a different perspective about that person.

We read a short story called "Clean Sweep" by Joan Bauer every year.  At the beginning, the students identify with the fact that the protagonist doesn't like a "mean old lady" who happens to be her customer.  They agree that the main character (Katie) should be put out by Mrs. Leonardo's behavior - until a simple action shifts their perception.  Finding simple items -- a lace tablecloth and an old book -- in the attic lead to the sharing of a story.  It was a story of loss and bitterness.  Suddenly Katie doesn't see the mean, but she does see the lonely.  She sees the treasure in Mrs. Leonardo because she learned her story which in turn helped Katie in her own struggles.

The fact is, we can have a similar discussion in many of the things we read.

You see, reading is powerful.  It gives the reader a safe way to experience these actions without feeling too vulnerable. The act of reading gives insight into the thought patterns of others and uses imagination to fill in the gaps.   It allows people an opportunity to explore motivation without looking at direct actions. It's part of why the teaching and reading of fiction is so important.

Until it's time to look in the mirror.

You see, everyone has a story, much like the ones we read about.  Once we take time to listen and learn those stories, it's so much harder to hate.  The blinders tend to lift.  Enough people learn to step out and support others.

Not because they are forced to.  It's because they see the human on the other end.

In conclusion, I contend that it's important to read and explore fiction. Ideally sharing the same experience (class novels, book groups, etc). Gives people a chance to share, explore, listen, and learn. It provides coping strategies, a common vocabulary, and a safe way to explore inwardly.

I teach 8th graders, and this works.  There is a lot of growth by the end of the year.  Kids figure out who they want to be, and how they want to be remembered in 20 years.  Kids step up, speak out, and make a difference.

Try reading a book with this thought in mind, "It is hard to hate others when we learn their story."  See what happens.

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