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Not long ago I was visiting friends here in New York City and found out their seventh-grade son was something of a quiet hero at school. I hope many kids across America confront bullying the way Christopher did, but what makes this story different is that he later wrote about it. I was deeply touched by the simplicity of what he said and decided to publish it here.
I thought of another friend, Paul Coughlin, who years ago started a group called “The Protectors.” Paul focuses on teaching kids to speak out against bullies. After all, a school’s real culture is what happens when the teachers’ backs are turned. And kids define that culture.
What I’ve learned from Paul Coughlin over the years seemed fully realized in young Chris’ actions to protect a fellow student. I hope this seventh-grader’s story will inspire other children to speak up once their parents explain to them why it’s so important. It’s their school. It’s their conscience. It’s their life.
Chris’ experience speaks for itself, and is the heart of this commentary. But I think this introduction is necessary considering the tragic news that cyber-bullying has claimed another young life.
Twelve-year-old Gabrielle Molina hanged herself last week. She was about Christopher’s age, but her hopes and her dreams are now gone.
None of us can comprehend what little Gabrielle suffered before committing suicide, nor can we comprehend what the Molina family is suffering now – all because no one acted to end the bullying.
Maybe adults didn’t know (or know clearly), but the kids surely did. Apparently too few children have Christopher’s sense of justice. I am proud to call him a friend.
I remember bullying from decades ago when I attended private school here in New York City. So two more things should be said:
First, bullying is not new, although the Internet gives it greater power; learning to stand up to bullies is one of the great lessons for any generation. Second, it cuts across all race and class lines. It’s a problem for public schools and private schools, even the most elite among them. Your child is not immune.
When a young life is lost due to bullying it properly makes the news, but the quiet everyday terror that is experienced by millions of children is the larger story. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, 43 percent of teens experience cyber bullying.
Ironically, it is the kids themselves who must ultimately solve the problem by speaking up. Here’s Christopher’s description of his own experience. I hope it will inspire others.
When I was little, the concept of bullying was alien to me. I thought the world was filled with people like me and that arguments and feuds could be resolved with a simple “I’m sorry.” Much to my dismay, I soon learned that the world was not such a happy place and that bullying and violence did occur, and in many forms.
With technology growing, and social emailing and networking becoming mainstream, cyber-bullying had arisen. I had never seen or had to deal with it until recently, when a new student came into my school.
Overnight things seemed to be focused on him, but not in a good way. Rude comments were being posted about him like, “He thinks he is so cocky, but in reality he knows nothing,” or “In math class today, he was totally kissing up to the teacher!”
At first, I let everyone else’s opinions sway my view, and I started to avoid him. But once I finally decided to see for myself if he was bad, and I talked to him, I found out he was actually a nice person. He had a great sense of humor and knew about tennis, one sport we both love to play. After that, I did not let anyone else sway my point of view, and I remained good friends with him.
However, others did not see eye to eye with me, and their comments were getting nastier. All of the tiny mistakes the new kid made were blown out of proportion, and a “Quote of the Day” was created, focusing on the mistakes he made. This was the tipping point, and I finally decided to do something about it.
I mustered up the courage to write a four paragraph email to everyone who was involved, participants or not. In it, I stated that this bullying was to stop and that I would not tolerate it any further. I explained that the new kid had come to our school only two weeks ago, and that everyone should cut him some slack.
When others argued that he was acting cocky and self-centered, I told them that he was just trying to make new friends and was probably feeling intimidated by the whole situation. He was away from all his friends and did not know any of us. I finished by saying that I would talk to the new kid, saying that people felt that he was overstepping his boundary, and that they would appreciate it if he could tone it down a little bit. I emphatically stated that the conflict was to be resolved, and never spoken of again.
After I sent the email, I was a bit scared about the reactions of everyone at school the next day. Maybe I was the one who was going to be targeted next, and maybe I would be put in the position the new kid was in. However, I knew that deep down I did the right thing, and I did not care what anyone else said about me.
Much to my surprise and delight, the next day nobody acted like anything happened. I told the new kid what I had promised to tell him, and he happily agreed to tone down his “cockiness.” Everyone had stopped talking about the new kid, and all was well. My mission was accomplished, even though at the time the new kid knew nothing about the whole incident, or how I supported him. Though my actions were not realized by the recipient, I feel it positively impacted me for the better, and helped me to become a better person.
I imagine the reader is curious about the contents of Christopher’s email to his fellow students defending “the new kid.” Here it is:
“Even if you are still mad or upset at _______, I just wanted to tell you guys that you should give him the benefit of the doubt. We all were once that new kid, and most of us found fitting in hard or difficult at first. I even did things that were polar opposites of my personality.
“All I am saying is to lighten up on him. It is not your place to judge every little thing that he does. I am not saying that he is a saint, or that you shouldn’t hold him accountable to his actions, but I AM saying to cut him some slack, and start being nice to him, instead if mouthing “pain in the butt” behind his back.
“If you have any problems with him, you should talk with HIM about it, and not conspire behind his back. Needless to say, tomorrow, I will pull him over and inform him that some people (I won’t mention names) feel that his actions are cocky and self-conceited. I hope to resolve this problem so everyone can get along. – Christopher
“P.S. Send this email to anyone else you feel needs to see this in our grade. I want this conflict RESOLVED by tomorrow.”
Thanks, Chris. We all needed that.