I woke up this morning filled with gratitude for the opportunity to speak with students at Olympic and CK High in the Central Kitsap School District on Tuesday. I’m always more nervous speaking with students than with adults. I guess because I have more experience with the latter, though I also think it’s because as students pile into the auditorium they are less likely to engage me, less likely to send a smile my way and more likely to walk in with all the awkwardness that being an adolescent brings, triggering in me some of my own feelings of inadequacy.
There is a recent rise in overt bullying behavior in our nation’s schools particularly as it relates to race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Regardless of our level of comfort with these and other diversity related topics, it is imperative that we engage students in these types of courageous conversations and help them to develop the very skills we were not taught growing up. As many adults are becoming emboldened to speak their truth at the expense of others, so too are our children.
In the 45-minute keynote I briefly taught about microaggressions and shared a message about treating one another with humanity, dignity and respect. I solicited their ideas and shared some of my own when dealing with bullying behavior, particularly related to diversity. If you’ve ever heard me speak you know it included lots of storytelling. I’m not sure if I was more like Beyoncé with my head mic or Ellen DeGeneres as I ran up and down the gymnasium bleachers handing the microphone to students. I was probably truer to myself, out of breath, thinkin’ I’m passing for cool with the students, trying to walk around with a bit of swag, dressed in my combat boots and army fatigue colored jacket.
I opened with my Where I’m From poem and a story about having to move to Myrtle Creek Oregon during my 5 th grade school year for a couple of months. Every morning as my younger sister and I walked onto the school grounds, we would become surrounded by several older boys who shouted the N word at us. Teachers pretended they didn’t hear and the relatives we were living with told us to ignore it. No matter how much I tried to adhere to the sticks and stones will break your bones verbiage, it hurt deeply. My older sister Kelly had just passed away, we had to leave our grandmother’s home because she had a stroke and couldn’t take care of us, and my mom was away working in Alaska. It was a tough time for me and my younger sister. I wanted the students I spoke to, to consider what might be going on in a peer’s life. I also wanted students to know that I understood what it is like to be bullied because of my difference.
But the next part of the story was the most important in my mind. One day, my sister and I walked onto the playground and a group of older girls started protecting us. Each morning they would surround us, encourage us to keep walking and told those boys to leave us alone. I talked with Central Kitsap students about the courage it took these girls who we did not know, to stand up for what was just. Following are 5 questions I asked students and key points that were made about talking with young people about doing the right thing when others are doing wrong.
1) What are some things you can say to the person who is committing the microassault?
These are things people do and say that are not okay, they know it’s wrong, so they tend to do it in private or hope that when they target someone they won’t get caught. I talked with students about how attacking that person will only make things worse and is more likely to land them, the person responding, in trouble. This is the Two wrongs don’t make a right adage. Lots of great ideas were generated: Stop that! That’s not funny. It’s not okay to say hurtful things like that, if you continue I’m going to report it to a teacher. I encouraged them to come up with anchors they can say that doesn’t involve them trying to educate the person doing the harm, but rather an approach that sets boundaries and conveys the message that they don’t condone the behavior. Even if what they say has no effect on the bullying behavior, it is far better than silence, which sends a message that you agree with them. I shared with them that silence is a form of action.
2) How do you think the person who is being bullied because of a difference feels?
Some of their responses hurt my heart as they weaved their own experiences into their responses. Some pretended as if they were speaking about someone else, while others openly shared personal stories. I thought they were being very brave, and reminded the audience as students spoke they were showing courage by taking risk. One girl stated, “I used to cut when people teased me, but I haven’t done that for four years.” Another student stood up and stated a matter of fact, “There are a group of boys who are teasing me, and I don’t like it.” Other feelings were named like depressed, sad, lonely, isolated, worthless, frustrated, and suicidal. Big heavy sigh. So much our young people are enduring.
3) If you know that bullying makes people feel this way, and you know that this is happening at your school, what can you do to mitigate the impact?
I prefaced this with the fact that they can’t solely rely on their teachers and administration to create a culture of inclusion. There are more of them than there are staff and there is power in peer to peer interactions. The students again generated great ideas and I shared some of my own. These included, sit next to that person, give them a compliment, just be with them, invite them to join you and your friends. I ended this with, We just came up with great ideas about what we can do to make someone who is being targeted feel better, but the real question is what will you do?
4) Impact vs. Intent: Micro-Insults:
My last main point was how we sometimes do harm without meaning to. This type of microaggression can still have a powerful negative impact even when we have good intentions. I used examples of phrases like That’s retarded, That’s so Gay and the use of the N word. I made the point that even by putting an “a” at the end of the the N word, it still has a negative impact; the N word is still the N word no matter how you package it.
I closed with a story about a kid I went to elementary and high school with named Dennis. Dennis was a skinny White kid who in those days was picked on for being a “nerd”. During our 10-year high school reunion Dennis came up to me and thanked me for not being one of the kids who was mean to him. I looked for Dennis during our 20-year reunion only to learn that he had died. As I shared this story with the students, I told them no matter how many years pass, hurtful and hateful behavior stays with the victim for a lifetime. While I was glad that I was not one of the kids who picked on Dennis, my regret was that I didn’t stand up on his behalf and do what’s right when others were doing wrong.
My final comment was, What will your peers remember or say about you 10 years from now?
I’ll admit it was exhausting doing two repeat keynote addresses at each of these schools. But by the end of the day I was reenergized by the connections made with the youth. Many students came up to me afterwards, some with tears in their eyes, other asking deeper questions and making connections, and some who wanted to take a picture with me (Thank you Olympic H.S. students for letting me share this photo. From left to right: Mavenna Hoffman, Tyzaih Williams, Amiya Jameson, You J, Aaliyah Williams, Taylor Unger, Cyrus Alejandro, Ella Rathmann, Brittani Christensen).
Thank you JD Sweet, teacher at CK High who started planting seeds in his classroom long before I ever got there. You made my job easier. I appreciate Central Kitsap administrators and staff for giving me the opportunity to engage their students and for their willingness to embark on this difficult journey to create welcoming and inclusive spaces for all their students.