When Urbanity first thought about presenting a brand new show with an anti-bullying message, I started investigating bullying. Sure, I could go back to sixth grade Betsi, when I was being teased by a group of boys for getting a perfect spelling score each week. When are you gonna mess up, Betsi Bug Eyes? (I had unusually large eyes even then.) One day I found a typed note inside my desk which threatened to harm me physically, even death. I never knew who did it, or if it was related to the spelling teasing for sure. I kept the paper but hid it. I never told any one, not my parents, not a teacher, not a friend. I did not want to draw attention to it for fear that it would escalate. If I ignored it, maybe it would go away. So I just hid it and tried to ignore it. Even today I try not to think about this paper, it causes pain twenty-five years later, that one of my classmates would have done this. The paper threats stopped there but the teasing continued for the rest of that year.
Yikes… middle school was tough. But my personal experience is now charged with hindsight, biased, individualized perspective and the lens of my thirty-four year old brain. It felt important to me that if we were doing a show for a middle school audience that the material felt relevant and true for them.
I started asking my teen students, “Does bullying happen at your school? Have you ever experienced bullying?”
For me, the word “bully” almost belittles an individual’s experience. When I think of a bully my brain sends me the image of the big brute bully forcing his scrawny victim’s head into a toilet bowl. A lot of the youth I spoke to said that their less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the word bully is because they have had a bit of an “anti-bully overdose” – lots of required anti-bullying assemblies and lesson plans. The thing that the students told me is that these assemblies are often boring, disengaging, and often through the lens of “adultism” (adults talking down to youth) or using the “what-not-to-do” approach, instead of talking to students about what they can do.
I had a phone meeting with some anti-bullying experts over at PACER, and while noting that their are significant differences in definition, they helped me find some clarity around the word bully, noting that most definitions include:
- Behavior that hurts or harms another person physically or emotionally
- An inability for the target to stop the behavior and defend themselves
- An imbalance of power that occurs when the student doing the bullying has more physical, emotional, or social power than the target
- Repetitive behavior; however, bullying can occur in a single incident if that incident is either very severe or arises from a pattern of behavior
When I asked my students if they had ever experienced teasing that causes another student to be hurt, the answer was yes. When I asked if they had ever witnessed behavior that leaves someone out on purpose, they slowly nodded their heads in agreement. Had they ever experienced the spread of bad rumors? Again, yes. My students specifically opened up around cyber-bullying… texting, sending hurtful messages or embarrassing photos, mainly on social networks. I found it interesting that bullying is in fact rampant, but there is a reluctance to call it by it’s name.
Regardless of what you call it, bullying, harassment, micro-aggression, or just being mean, I think it’s fair to say that we still have a major problem. According to the National School Climate Center, one in three students report being bullied, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention affirmed that bullying is a public health problem.
My bullying investigation continued… I watched movies about bullies, read books, googled the heck out of anything bully. I found some seriously good material – who doesn’t love a good entertaining bully? Bullies provide some good creative fodder. It’s easy to relate to characters when we feel empathy for the weak victim when they are getting teased or beat by the bully or bullies. Then there is the story where we learn that the bully is acting out because they were the victim of a bleak bullying situation back home.
As I started to frame a contemporary dance performance around bullying, I knew I wanted to give light to authentic stories of today’s youth. I found eight stories from sixth graders who had published essays about bullying in The Max Warburg Courage Curriculum‘s 2016 anthology. These stories include perspectives from the bullied, the families of the bullied, the upstanders, and my personal favorite… the bully herself.
Writes Gleidys, “I bullied a girl. I made her life so miserable just because I didn’t like her, the way she acted, and the way she was treating other people. I didn’t care how she felt. I didn’t care if she cried or anything… I had friends that bullied her too.” And later she writes: “I decided to make a change in my life with my attitude and my actions. When people came up to me to tell me to bully someone, I said no.”
I personally found Gleidys’ story the most courageous of all… The courage it takes to admit that you were a bully. I mean, although it’s painful to remember the death threat inside my desk, it feels even more painful to admit that I played a part in ostracizing a classmate from the popular lunch table because she wasn’t “cool” enough. Maybe that’s a big step in breaking the bully chain… recognizing and admitting when we ourselves have been a bully. And I believe most of us have, and do bully. Once we recognize our behavior, we can then change our actions.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “bully”?
I’m more interested in the flip side of bullying. How can we combat this negative, mean-spirited, and arguably not-even-profitable power struggles? How do we promote a community of upstanders and prevent mean or cruel behavior? Let’s get kind. You never know when someone feels alone and reaching out a hand, looking someone in the eye or just saying hello can make a huge difference. Let’s look at being inclusive in a group setting, and keeping our eyes open for the “line” – let’s be more aware at including our fellows. I believe in my heart that it will actually make your day to make someone else’s day. I believe that kindness has power.
When I watch the dancers in rehearsal for Call of Courage, I have a visceral, emotional reaction. I can feel the impact of cruel and intolerant behavior. It makes me want to be a secret agent for kindness, and an upstander whenever I have the opportunity. I believe the universal language of dance gives it an unmatched ability to build empathy.
As we approach next week’s election, and are amidst the biggest political hate campaign the U.S. has ever seen, I fear that many adults have become numb to bully behaviors like what we have seen with Mr. Trump. When we give light to politicians who galvanize a racial mob spirit, it brings out destructive fear-based biases. By demonstrating that political power can be gained by discriminating attacks, it not only normalizes bully behavior but actually encourages it. What feels especially dangerous is that human emotion often clouds the line… when have we gone too far, and are beating a dead horse with verbal aggression? What would happen if Mr. Trump could admit he is exhibiting bully behavior? I wish he would be able to see Call of Courage. I argue that kindness, tolerance, and unity is a more effective sword.
I believe that the eight young voices in Call of Courage will inspire us adults too, to recognize when something is wrong, the line may be crossed, and the responsibility we all have to be upstanders and make it right. Let’s build strong streets of tolerance.
By Betsi Graves
Seventh grader Liana Joy, a Max Warburg Courage Curriculum essayist, records her story with Call of Courage composer Ryan Edwards.
URBANITY DANCE’s Call of Courage debuts November 18th 7pm at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester, MA. In collaboration with The Max Warburg Courage Curriculum, Ryan Edwards, and sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Tourism.