Problems, solutions, etcetera . . .

Fag. Queer. Homo. Whore. Bitch. Slut. Retard.

Today at school, we had a presentation and Q/A from Jamie Nabozny, subject of the film Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History. In this 40 minute documentary, produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center (and Teaching Tolerance Magazine, who should totally hire me to be one of their bloggers), we learn the story of the constant homophobic harassment, physical assault, and torment that Jamie endured through his middle school and high school years in Ashland, Wisconsin. We showed this movie to (almost) all of the students at our school last week, and held peer-led discussion sessions afterward, to give them a chance to process and react. I didn’t get to facilitate one of those groups, due to some attendance issues, but apparently they went really well. And they prepared students for Jamie’s appearance at South High today.

Bullied is a great movie, and Jamie is an even better speaker. We have a large capacity auditorium – about 600 seats or so. We have to divide the school into three groups to get everyone through a presentation in a day, and I brought my students down for the third talk. Usually that means a sluggish presenter and kids who are too hungry to pay attention to anything, but that didn’t happen. He started off asking kids to raise their hands if they’d heard anyone called any of the following words in the last week: Fag. Queer. Homo. Whore. Bitch. Slut. Dumbass. Retard. Almost every hand went up for every word. And then, he asked how many students thought that everyone at our school showed up feeling safe every day. Five hands went up out of 600.

Woah. I’d never have guessed it was that bad. Given, I have a zero-tolerance policy for hate in my classroom, so the kids know enough to keep my classroom harassment-free. I don’t hear those words coming from them, but the hallways and lunchroom and bus are out of my range. I knew these kids – my kids – weren’t lying, and as Jamie told a bit of his story (for review, if anyone missed it) and went through how important it is to be aware of how much words can harm someone, there was near total silence in our school auditorium.

Silence. In a room full of 600+ hungry teenagers who would rather be wolfing down bags of flaming hot crunchy treats and plastic containers of apple juice, there was no fidgeting or side conversation or grabassery. It was magnificent. And incredibly sad – because I understood at that moment that my students may sometimes feel safe in my classroom where my big voice sticks up for everyone, but the kind of harassment and bullying that I may have believed didn’t exist there is more than occasional. It’s common.

I’ve had a handful of conversations with my friend Butch about bullying and how the worst part of being a victim in hostile situations is not being attacked by an aggressor. The worst part is knowing that there are spectators on the sidelines not doing anything to help you or stop the abuse. I spent the better part of my day post-auditorium talking with students about how important it is to say something when words are getting thrown at someone – because often, that prevents the fists. I’d like to say that the “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” speech flew out of my mouth like a glittery ribbon of wisdom and joy. I’d like to say that all of my students heard me and we’re going to have a kumbaya potluck of hummus and chamomile tea out in the quad later this month – as soon as the snow stops. But mostly, I left the day feeling uncomfortable and sad that I can’t protect them from this unacceptable reality, and that I want to do a better job showing them that speaking up is the courageous thing to do.

So thank you, Jamie Nabozny and thank you, Teaching Tolerance for a brain and heart rattling day and for reminding me that just because I can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there. And thank you for making me just uncomfortable enough to do something different in my classes tomorrow.