Friday, May 11, 2012

The Commonality Conversation, or One Small Suggestion Toward How To Stop Bullying

Yesterday, I read about Mitt Romney apologizing for an ugly bullying incident he led while in high school. I doubt this 1965 episode will remain much of a campaign issue--although gay rights certainly will--but I am fairly certain it was never forgotten by Romney's victim, who is now deceased.

Although I have not been in high school for over a quarter century--and not substantively, or at least memorably, bullied since then--nor do I have kids of my own or any acute awareness of what goes on within high schools these days, bullying and related topics (status-based subdivisions, popularity caste systems, bigotry, hate speech, online antagonism, party-line polarization, etc.) are things I think about rather frequently.

For I believe that bullying and high school hierarchies have consequences and repercussions far beyond the acute tragedies of kids taking their own lives and, such as in the Columbine High School massacre in 1999--which is probably the event that most made me focus on these topics since my days of getting "charley horsed" in gym class--the lives of others.

Last week, I attended a lecture at a local synagogue on the topic of bullying. It was worthwhile, but I felt it focused a bit too much on how one might better cope with being bullied and how we all should communicate more kindly, rather than really addressing the causes of bullying and how it might be curbed, particularly in schools.

Last month, I made a point of seeing the new documentary, Bully. In portraying five heart-wrenching cases of kids who had been bullied, two of whom took their lives, the movie was certainly substantive and important. But I felt it could have been considerably more powerful if it had spent some time exploring bullying from the point of view of the bully.

I'm aware that in recent years school administrations have become quite cognizant of the bullying epidemic--and perhaps exacerbated by the social media, its virulent expansion--and I'm told that various anti-bullying programs are routinely conducted and many schools have cracked down harshly on anyone caught bullying.

I've never been privy to the specifics of in-school anti-bullying initiatives, so I do not mean to make critical assumptions about any program or person that attempts to reduce bullying and its effects. I would love to talk to kids, parents, teachers, psychologists, administrators and others to learn more about what is being done and anything that's proving effective or not.

But without suggesting this is definitively the case, I suspect that many school anti-bullying programs focus largely on:
1) Lectures in which students are educated about the consequences of bullying and urged not to engage in it
2) Efforts to bolster the reporting mechanisms and self-esteem of bullying victims so that harassment can be curbed well before consequences turn tragic
3) Security and training--per diminishing school budgets--to curtail bullying in school hallways, classrooms, locker rooms, school buses, etc. 
All of the above are necessary and laudable. In regards to the second item above, one of my intrinsic aims with this blog--although I don't have nearly enough traffic to make real inroads--is to instill in anyone else a similar love of cultural literacy, because for me it's had immeasurable importance. From my high school years when I was never invited to the cool parties to right now when I am writing this blog in lieu of being gainfully employed, having an emotional foundation built upon an abiding love of music, movies, art, theater, books, learning, etc.--in conjunction with great friends and family--has literally saved my life. If all I had was reality TV and alcohol, I'm not sure I'd be able to cope to whatever extent I do.

With the caveat that I don't know what the anti-bullying regimen is in any school, let alone all of them, I want to make a suggestion while A) hoping that someone more expert might pick up on it and B) really hoping something similar is already being done.

And in no way, is this a solution in itself as it's not acutely going to stop a kid from being hit--or simply intimidated, which can be nearly as bad--on a bus or in a locker room, etc.

But I suspect that one of the root causes of bullying and ostracization problems in high schools, America and the world is that we focus too much on our differences, not our similarities. And this can have lifelong effects; a generally well-adjusted relative going to her 50th high school reunion conveyed to me her trepidation in seeing some of "the popular girls."

Yet if you lined up 100 similarly dressed high school classmates from anywhere in the U.S., other than perhaps a few particularly attractive or athletic looking kids, I doubt I could distinguish which ones are popular and which are geeks; who's on the football team and who's on the chess team; who's cool and who's outcast. But they would all know the pecking order, which I think can be nearly as detrimental as in-your-face bullying.

But maybe, just maybe, if a dean walked into the school cafeteria and said, "Everyone get up and sit next to someone you've never talked to before, turn off your smart phones and have a hourlong conversation," kids might start to see that they're a lot more alike than any reasons they have to avoid each other.

The Commonality Conversation

So my proposal is that a few times per year, every high school--and perhaps even junior high--in America, take some time out from preparing students to ace standardized tests and get into great colleges, and instead help them to really learn about each other. Again, any refinements are welcome from those with more acute awareness, but my thoughts run to:
  • Separate students, probably at random but ideally so that various "cliques" are represented in each cluster, into groups of 2-6 kids
  • Tell them to talk to each other for 2-3 hours, asking and answering questions from--or similar to those upon--my list below
  • Instruct each student to write a report expressing what he or she learned from the exercise 
  • While respecting any privacy issues, have several of the reports read aloud in class
(Note: Some of my questions are intended to invoke individuality, but any collection of 10 or so should spur much common identification, regardless of popularity, appearance, ethnicity, etc.)

1) Who are your favorite musical artists?

2) What do you like on your pizza?

3) Describe a time when someone made you feel lousy.

4) Describe a time when you made someone feel lousy. 

5) What’s most important in your life?

6) If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why?

7) What might you change about the way you look?

8) Have you experienced a friend or relative dying, or suffering from a serious illness? Please elaborate. 

9) What compliment would you most like to hear?
10) Describe a time when you were extremely disappointed?

11) Who do you love and why?

12) What book would you most recommend that someone else read?

13) Describe your relationship with one of your family members. 

14) What are you most proud of?

15) Think about a friendship that no longer exists and explain why it ended.

16) Who or what makes you laugh?

17) Finish this sentence: "Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning and see myself in the mirror, I..."

18) Name a movie you like that might surprise your friends.  

19) What is your favorite piece of clothing?

20) Describe the best lesson you’ve ever learned.

21) Describe the best teacher you’ve ever had.

22) If you could do any one thing, by yourself, for the next hour, what would it be?

23) What do you fear the most?

24) What’s your favorite food?

25) Name someone famous that you admire.

26) If you could change your past in any way, how would you?

27) If you could change the present in any way, how would you?

28) If you could change your future in any way, how would you?

29) Have you ever been bullied, picked on or outcast? Please elaborate.

30) How do you wish people might see and/or treat you differently?

I like to believe any people, of any age and place, could benefit from having a conversation based around these sorts of questions. And I don't know that it would need to overtly be asked, but the point would be...

How many of your answers would be different if you were more or less popular, had a different skin color, had more or less money, were of a different religion, held different political beliefs, had a different sexual orientation or lived in a different country?

As a corollary, you may wish to see how I believe everyone should be treated.

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