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  • The Politics of Bullying

    I believe in the First Amendment, with freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I believe government should work for the people, not in spite of the people. I believe responsible citizens should have the right to bear arms if they so choose. And I believe in honest, forthright debate on platforms such as this one.

    I don’t believe in hate. And I’m exhausted by the vitriol.

    No more swastikas. No more torches. No more violence. No more trotting out the same old, same old statements about “the other side” who may be your neighbor, or God forbid, someone you call your friend. It’s not OK.

    Sadly, our leader thinks our fragile democracy is some kind of a schoolyard game, casting himself as chief bully in charge. He acts like a 2-year-old and screams at the top of his lungs (or fingertips) every time he doesn’t get what he wants, when he wants it.

    It’s what he knows how to do best. And a significant portion of the population, a portion that has been overlooked and ignored by politicians on both sides of the aisle for decades, is frothing at the mouth to join him.

    They rally behind him when he calls you:

    • “Damned dishonest” — the news media

    • “Obstructionists” — Democrats

    • “Weak” — the two GOP senators from Arizona, one of whom has brain cancer.

    • “Animals” — illegal immigrants

    All these quotes came occurred during a rally in Phoenix, when Trump went off script and on to a 75-minute rant that was all “us” (his base) vs. “them” (the rest of us). When the base was at its most boisterous, he used a familiar refrain to describe those in favor of removing Confederate monuments: “They are trying to take away our history and our heritage.”

    I get history and heritage. Members of my family have used language that would be considered racist or insensitive now.

    Were they products of their time? Yes.

    Should we overlook the fact that they had flaws, just like we all do? No.

    If they were living today, would the language they used 50 or 60 years ago be acceptable? Absolutely not.

    I have tried to teach my children about their history and their family heritage, both good and bad and always in context. I have tried to explain that the views of others are valid, even if you disagree with them.

    Hate is not valid.

    Does that level of sensitivity make me “politically correct”? Does the fact that I don’t want to go back to the days of coal, separate but equal schools, and the persecution of others simply because of their religion or skin color make me a “wimp,” an “obstructionist,” or “weak”?

    I don’t think so. You may think differently. And that’s what democracy is all about, even though the mess caused by the freedoms we have can show our worst sides.

    ••••••

    Two more thoughts from the ensuing discussion on Facebook:

    • Regarding Antifa (an alt-left group): I'm not in favor of political nihilism under any circumstances. My problem is that the elected leader of our country is failing to demonstrate leadership in any way, shape or form, and extremists are filling the void.

    • On the media’s reporting (or lack thereof) about Antifa: Extremists filling the void applies to news media as well. Fox News perfected that, and our country suffers for it because we can self select news according to our values and beliefs. (And BTW, my definition of a progressive is one who eschews violence.)

  • "Aftershock" Looks at K-12 Schools Post Election


    “Aftershock,” a story I wrote that looks at the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election and its effect on K-12 schools, has been published by American School Board Journal a week before the inauguration. Read the story here.

  • A Hometown Tragedy

    Last week, while taking a break from photographing a conference in Las Vegas, a news story from my hometown caught my attention: A high school senior had committed suicide in front of her parents. She had been the victim of relentless cyberbullying over her weight and her appearance.

    Immediately, I flashed back to Blocker Middle School and the late 1970s. When you've been bullied, your emotions are on constant standby for time travel.

    ••••••

    I was bullied as a child. What people thought were innocent pranks about my appearance, lack of style, poor social graces, and general athletic ineptitude left scars that have taken decades to heal.

    Then, when you see something like this, something that happened in the hometown you left long ago, those scars are exposed again. You time travel back to the days when you were that fat child, that pimply, awkward, uncoordinated teenager who liked books, movies, drama, and writing. It comes back like it was yesterday.

    You are thankful for your loving parents, who were dealing with boatloads of crap of their own. You are thankful for your few close friends who accepted you for who you were. You are thankful for teachers like John C. Martin, for neighbors who became your extended family. You are thankful for those who, even if they didn't understand you, didn't judge. You are thankful that, no matter how bad things got at times, you had the inner strength to go on.

    You hope that your children did not have to endure the same things you did, knowing that bullies now hide behind their thumbs and their glare-free screens. You try to treat people with kindness, holding on to the manners you were taught. You try to look at issues and events from both sides — and there are two sides to every story — and respect others' right to their opinions, no matter how different they may be from yours.

    I appreciate the steps Texas City ISD took (making counselors available, sending a letter home to parents with other resources) in the wake of the girl’s suicide and pray that no copycat incidents — always a risk with this age group — occur.

    But don’t bury your head in the sand. The temptation some have to prey on others because of their own insecurity and inadequacy has never gone away. It's part of our history that, despite twists like social media, repeats itself again and again.

    When something like this happens, we feel the need to take action, but it always seems to be too little, too late. In Texas, two state legislators filed a bill last month that would require school districts to have cyberbullying policies. The law would require schools to notify parents when children are bullied. Anyone who electronically harasses or bullies another person under the age of 18 would face misdemeanor charges.

    Why these types of policies are not already in place in every school district in America boggles my mind. Why bullying is tolerated, by adults and children alike, simply makes no sense. And yet it is.

    The wounds heal. But the scars remain. #SuicideAwareness — 1-800-273-8255. 

    ••••••

    The essay above, posted to Facebook on Friday, generated a series of heartfelt, thoughtful, and affirming responses. A number of friends shared it, more than 70 (and counting) took the time to comment publicly, and a few sent private messages. (Read the thread here.)

    Here are some of my thoughts, based on what others had to say:

    • 2016, more than any other, has been the "Year of the Trolls." I spend a lot of time on the Internet and try my best to keep things positive, but I've noticed repeatedly that people pick up on a single word you say and use it as an excuse to rip. That is terrible for us as a society.

    • School districts and state legislators have hesitated to push policies and laws through on this topic out of fear of liability. I understand why, but a policy that requires schools to notify parents when they receive a report of bullying should be a responsibility that districts are willing to take on. In the grand scheme, doing everything you can to keep parents in the loop and invested in the well-being of their children is a baby step.

    • We’ve got to stop looking for simple, knee jerk answers (zero tolerance policies, banning all cellphones) to these types of problems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this type of behavior, which has been perpetuated for generations.

    • No place is immune from bullying, whether you’re in an industrial town in Texas, a rural community in North Carolina, or the hallowed suburbs of Washington, D.C. It won’t go away without a concentrated effort on everyone’s part, and that means support from schools, parents, classmates, community leaders, and politicians who have the chutzpah to stand up for changes. The problem sits in all our laps.

    • For many young people, compassion is not innate; if anything, the exact opposite is, especially when you're trying to find your way. It truly is heartbreaking to see a kid who's obviously struggling socially, because you know how others have the capacity to be so cruel in those types of situations.

    • Late elementary school and middle school is where so much of this damaging behavior begins. (Middle school was my personal “American Horror Story.”) Like many kids, I thought I could handle it myself, not knowing the damage I was doing to my psyche. I wish I had felt comfortable enough to talk to someone; I would have been much better off.

    • As an average, run-of-the-mill teenage boy who was a barking seal when it came to girls, the power they had was fierce. For the most part, I saw it for what it was and didn't let it bother me. But there were a couple of cruel heartbreaks along the way, where I thought, hoped and prayed that someone was different and was severely disappointed. That's why so much of this cuts so deep and so hard. I realize how much of my life I wasted trying to get the approval of people who didn't give a shit.

    • At times, I feel like we’ve thrown bullying into the same category as poverty — “Can’t do anything about it. Those people just need to step up.” We all need to step up.

  • Defeating Bullies with Positive Outcomes

    Anyone who has ever struggled with weight or been ridiculed for not fitting in should smile at the outcome of this story about the "Dancing Man." It definitely made me tear up and have middle school flashbacks...

    Here is a 25-minute documentary that tells the story in more detail. Incredibly inspiring.

     

  • Bullying: Please STOP!!!

    This sort of crap has to stop.

    For the past week, I have been immersed in discussions and debates about how to improve public education. So immersed, in fact, that I didn’t take the time to watch and read the stories surrounding the recent deaths of five teens that were subjected to anti-gay bullying.

    Today, I finally saw the heart wrenching video posted by Ellen DeGeneres and read the stories about the deaths of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi and four others who took their own lives over the past month. With each story I read, my jaw dropped further and my heart bled a little more.

    Why is this happening? Are our heads buried so deeply in our own navels that we can’t look around and see the damage that bullying causes? When are we going to wake up and accept the fact that tolerance is something we need to instill in our children? Or that our so-called morals should not be a mask for intolerance toward others?

    For some reason, adolescence and the onset of puberty only seem to heighten the cruelty gene. Trash talk becomes a form of bonding for kids who want to be edgy and cool but aren’t mature enough to have an actual conversation about the confusion they live through every day. And the environment is ripe for bullies who find power in the vulnerability of others, whether its sexuality, ethnicity, disability, or religion.

    As a kid, I was bullied and harassed over my appearance, my nerdiness, my inability to connect to my peers. Why?

    Because I was — God forbid — “different.” I loved theater and movies as much as football — just like my dad did. I did not go cruising, to the roller rink, or get to make out with girls in cars on the Texas City levee. I did not get invited to parties; to this day, even though people think I’m an extrovert, in a crowd I still look for the one-on-one conversation. People perceived me as arrogant, but being a smart ass was a mask for my fears. I could not beat you with my fists, but I could with my words.

    Looking back, the smartest thing my parents ever said to me was, “We don’t want you to grow up with our prejudices.” They recognized that they grew up in another era and a different time, and they were smart enough to encourage me, with their guidance, to develop my own set of values and sense of judgment. Even though we disagreed on politics, they taught me that respecting others’ views is just as important as having my own.

    Several years ago, I spoke on a panel in Columbia, South Carolina, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. (The first of five cases that were combined into the Brown ruling occurred in Summerton, a small town about two hours away.) During the Q&A session, a woman asked me why I thought bigotry still exists in our schools.

    My answer was simple: “First graders aren’t bigots. They’re parrots.”

    Somehow, I managed to not succumb to the pressures and taunting I still remember, and today, I’m the proud parent of four very “different” children. But I didn’t grow up in a world where bullies lurked behind video cameras and computer screens, hiding behind a new and very dangerous layer of invincibility.

    I begrudgingly became part of “The Social Network” when my children started showing an interest in it. Now, I love Facebook and the opportunities it provides to connect to far-flung friends and acquaintances, but a primary reason I’m on it is to monitor their pages and accounts vigilantly.

    My kids are in four schools in three states, but fortunately, I think they’re in the places that suit their personalities. We are trying to raise them as individuals, without the prejudices we have.

    That’s why, tonight, I let Kate go to a church lock-in wearing a borrowed Halloween costume. She called it her “Lady Gaga Taco.” Yes, I cringed and wondered about the social repercussions she would face, but then I realized it was her expressing her personality. I admire her bravery.

    Before we left, she showed me a piece of art she is working on as part of her community service project. On a canvas marked with x’s and o’s, she had written: “Live with Love in Your Heart. And Mend a Broken One.”

    My heart breaks for the families of the boys who committed suicide, feeling there was no other way out of the lives they led. The anger I feel toward their perpetrators is at a boil.

    This bigotry and hatred has got to stop — now. We must start mending broken hearts.