Legendary Bully (page 2)
Anti-Bullying: The State of the Art
To slow the rising rate of physical, verbal and cyberbullying among students of all ages, educators are employing new strategies that range from anti-bullying rules posted at school to awareness campaigns and teacher trainings about both victim empowerment and bystander responsibility. Numerous other programs––films, school plays, children’s books and websites––ask bullies in a straightforward way not to be bullies, and victims to speak up. However, by their very nature, as long as they are safe within their cliques (whether they are boys or girls), many hyper-dominant children who bully other children simply do not care, and either wink at these pleas or ignore them out of hand. Combine anonymous social media, video games that extol violence and the natural tendency toward pecking orders that are part of human nature in the first place, and even ordinarily kind-hearted kids are eyeing the bullying bandwagon in ever greater numbers.
Recently, this has led to teachers and administrators who find themselves facing parents on the front lines forced to turn to the law. For instance, according to the Anti-bullying Act enacted on an emergency basis by Massachusetts on May 3, 2010, the Commonwealth directs schools to “develop procedures for immediate notification by the principal or person who holds a comparable role to the local law enforcement agency when criminal charges may be pursued against the perpetrator.”
After the Phoebe Prince tragedy, with the stroke of a governor’s pen ,young bullies became perpetrators. This is a completely understandable reaction, of course, after a long litany of national tragedies from Columbine to Matthew Shepard to 11-year old Carl Hoover’s suicide in 2009. Still, as a new class of criminals, young bullies are now subject to fines and imprisonment up to five years if convicted of stalking or making a death threat. Nowadays, if a child says to another child, “I’m gonna kill you,” the child who threatens has stepped over a new, potentially life-changing line in the sand, whether or not he or she actually intends a serious harm.
Although the drafters of the Massachusetts Act took great pains to define bullying, upon examination, the definition is unnervingly broad:
“the repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof, directed at a victim that: (i) causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or damage to the victim’s property; (ii) places the victim in reasonable fear of harm to himself or of damage to his property; (iii) creates a hostile environment at school for the victim; (iv) infringes on the rights of the victim at school; or (v) materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school. For the purposes of this section, bullying shall include cyber-bullying.”
At first glance the Act may seem fair in a time of increased bullying among children. However, even if such a law is necessary, superimposed as it is on the hurly burly of growing up in today’s world, it is far-reaching. “Repeated” is very important qualifier, of course. A one-time school yard tussle where a victim’s notebook (his property) falls in a puddle and the victim emerges with a black eye (harm) would not rise to the level of bullying. However, does that mean that when a second incident happens between the same two kids, according to the Act, bullying has occurred? “Repeated” remains undefined in the Act. The aggressive child can swiftly be classed as a perpetrator and made the immediate subject of legal action.
Almost every adult who has grown up anywhere in America has, at one point or another, suffered emotional harm. It can easily be argued that exclusion from a popular clique of boys or girls causes emotional harm to an excluded child. As potty-mouthed as many children are today, as they roam hallways where expletives fly back and forth (as they have done, frankly, for generations), is emotional harm done by repeated verbal insults? Yes and no. Among some groups of children, insults are part of the endearment and bonding process. Words that in one situation, if repeated, are actionable acts of bullying may well build camaraderie and team cohesion in another. What high school sports team does not use expletives routinely? What group of girls doesn’t trade four letter words on occasion? “Gay” is a term used by middle schoolers for just about anything they don’t like, unfortunate as that is.
Mentioning these gulfs of interpretability within one hastily drafted statute is not meant to criticize the intention to put an end to the sort of bullying that so devastates a young girl that she takes her own life, or the callousness that drives boys to assault strangers with the goal of recording the assault for video-sharing fun. Indeed, categorizing hardened bullies as criminals and locking them away is, in certain cases, the only solution. However, when used across the board as a tool to control children’s behavior, especially fairly well adjusted kids jockeying to find identity in groups and who may carelessly say the wrong thing to the wrong child, the criminalization process appears wide open to misuse.
Whether or not we like what they do, bullies are kids, too. And it is with them in mind, both the genuine bullies and the bystanders who follow these often-popular children down the path of repeated cruelty, that a new solution to the problem is offered here, one that addresses the psychology of the bullies themselves. It is designed not so much to reach sociopaths––theirs is either a physical brain deficit or the result of early trauma ––but rather to reach the teachable, natural leaders and the normal kids who are eyeing the bullying bandwagon. Of course, many kids in their formative years are already jaded by movies, chat rooms, video games, smart phone apps, books and lectures. What remains, you might ask? What other learning avenues can we tap?
Enter a rugged adventure myth with unexpected elements that kids imagine, rather than watch. Stir in probing questions about it that are answered aloud, face to face with other kids––bullies, victims and bystanders. Cook under peer pressure. Let simmer. Don’t test them on it and see what happens. See if conscience grows, as naturally it should.
Young Hercules: The Legendary Bully, A Program for Learning Empathy, a learning process available online, may well provide that new learning avenue.
How an Ancient Tale Can Help Now
Years ago The Art Institute of Chicago commissioned the author of this program to create a spoken-word tale about the Greek hero, Hercules, to highlight a gallery exhibition. Having performed The Odyssey at the Art Institute for years and being a devotee of Hercules movies as a boy, the task seemed straightforward. Always the hero was portrayed as just that, a genuine hero––a strong, good-hearted demigod who traveled the ancient world slaying monsters and evil kings, always there to help the helpless. He was a good guy.
But after researching the myth of Hercules, it became apparent that Hollywood had left out a significant part of Hercules’ story, namely that Hercules was a teen bully and that his famous Twelve Labors were performed to atone for terrible deeds he had committed as a youth.
What deeds? Well, firstly, his murder of his music teacher, Linus, during a lesson on the lyre. Hercules hit Linus over the head with a lyre and killed him on the spot. Linus was the brother of Orpheus, the mortal who played the lyre so magically he was able to gain access to the Underworld to save his lost wife.
Other deeds? Well, mass murders. According to the myth, Hercules slaughtered his young wife and children while possessed by a “madness.” Hera, the ever-jealous consort of Zeus, sent the madness because Zeus had fathered Hercules by a mortal woman. Zeus then disappeared, an absent father. According to the story, Hera jabbed mercilessly at Hercules all his life. Whether divinely caused or not, though, the genuine myth does tell us that Hercules suffered from uncontrolled rages for years. From a modern point of view, however, it can be argued that Hercules was what we would nowadays call a sociopath, a bully and a very scary fellow. Was Hercules mentally ill? Was he missing mirror neurons? Did he have ADHD.? As a mythological character, such questions about him don’t really matter, of course. Still, his story is fascinating.
And so a version of Hercules’ story emerged that paints a portrait of a highly intelligent but emotionally unstable hero who begins his life without empathy but who over the course of time learns to feel it. Why? Because according to the legend, he does just that. Once free of his despised and weak cousin’s control, in the moment Hercules is set to kill his tormentor, he instead spares him. And his cousin may well be gay. There are accounts of how Hercules spends three years living as a woman in the court of Queen Omphale, and afterwards marries again, living happily for many years until his strange demise. A question in the program asks: How do Hercules’ attitudes toward women change during his three years of servitude? Why do you think the ancient Greeks, who created this myth, included this experience in the life of a super-masculine strongman?
The story neither submerges the negative details of Hercules’ life nor ignores the positive ones, but instead explores them. That, and how a bully learns to feel empathy. With a dramatic character voice the mythic hero tells his own tale in the recording, essentially confessing and reflecting on his behavior. The audio version of the story, The Rage of Hercules, won The Golden Headset Award, a national audio book award.
Fast forward a decade. The Columbine tragedy at the hands of two outcast, bullied boys begins a national dialog about middle class kids who kill. Other school shootings follow and American schools install security systems and police walk hallways. The word “gay” becomes a common pejorative. A growing national furor over out-of-control bullying in schools by both boys, whom you’d expect it from, but more troublingly, increasingly by girls, spawns an anti-bullying movement in schools across America. A juggernaut of incivility sweeps a generation of young Americans, mostly due to detached cyber-life, marketers of killer instinct video games, unbridled crudeness in movies and an uncontrollable explosion in social media technology. Working with kids all the time, the author concludes that if anything can slow this juggernaut down, it’s not adults lecturing about it. In techno-America, increasingly few pre-teens and teens listen to what adults have to say. But they listen to each other. So it has to be an adolescent peer process. A forum with consequences. A social experiment, if you will.
Nowadays kids jockey themselves into groups without former generations’ key socializing experiences. Take pick-up games, for instance. Everybody played, which meant choosing teams that included the weak players (but they were only schoolyard or backyard games for fun, not the hyper-competitive, high-stakes sports teams of today, supervised by adults). Couple that with the extreme pressure of a decade of test-driven, uncreative education and a TV youth culture that extols brattiness. Add to that exponentially rising diagnoses of A.D.D. and A.D.H.D. that in some cases categorize active kids who have never had recess at school as social misfits, and a host of other cultural influences. Welcome to modern life. Somewhere along the way, a generation forgot to learn, or wasn’t taught, about treating each other with civility. It’s a small wonder that bullying is becoming normal, and that feeling empathy is becoming increasingly abnormal.
In a recent study by the University of Michigan, 40% fewer college men and women reported that they felt empathy for others than did twenty-five years ago.
So, having the Hercules story in hand and watching the bullying epidemic unfold, a series of educator’s questions arose. What educational process can make empathy heroic once again? What process can bullies identify with early on rather than ignore as too focused on them, one that is entertaining enough to hold their and their classmates’ attention, both boys and girls? How can it be designed not to preach? Importantly, how can it remove the anonymity of texting and instead brings kids face to face? And most importantly, how can it use the overarching power of peers to get kids to reflect on––and in the case of bullying, perhaps gain insight into and change––their behavior?
A child psychiatrist friend, when she read the educator’s answer, Young Hercules: The Legendary Bully, commented that the approach used displacement. Displacement happens when, by identifying with and talking about a fictional character’s problems, we really talk about our own problems, or motivations, or feelings (but from a safer vantage point). Indeed, the program encourages kids to displace feelings onto Hercules as they respond to his story by reading and answering questions aloud in peer groups. The Content Questions are straightforward and easy. They are questions about who, what, where and when. Details about the monsters, journeys, and weapons Hercules uses and situations he encounters.
However, there is a second category of questions, the Interpretive Questions, which allow students to displace their answers in some cases. In other cases, Interpretive Questions are quite direct.
As a teen, Hercules is strong, arrogant and aggressive. If you have been alive during his lifetime, would you have wanted him as a friend, or would you have kept your distance? Why or why not?
Hercules was famous, and lived a very public life. In today’s world, social networking permits everyone to live a public life, famous or not. What damage he did to people, Hercules did in person. How is that different from doing damage to others anonymously over social networks?
The process is designed to “heat up and cool off” peer discussions about issues of identity and belonging, group bullying, class and race discrimination, honesty versus dishonesty, snap judgments, love and abuse, powerlessness, male and female roles, absent parents, cheating, gay and straight, unfairness and injustice, and other issues that trouble kids. These Interpretive Questions heat up the conversation, and the Content Questions, administered at the discretion of the adult facilitator, are there to redirect and cool it down. This reflective process, as well as the story itself, takes time to experience and digest and no immediate, testable results are either expected or encouraged. Just facilitated discussions among the kids. In other words, it gets them thinking. The rest is up to their innate humanity, informed by the opinions of their peers. That and Hercules’ tragic example.
As an aside, the child psychiatrist also cautioned that by eliciting answers to some of the Interpretive Questions the process might well cause emotional crises in certain unstable students, and to be cautious about that. In the User’s Guide is a section titled, “If Counseling is Necessary.”
Beta learning materials for Young Hercules: The Legendary Bully, A Program for Learning Empathy are now available online at no cost for testing and review by parents, educators, corrections officials, counselors and clergy, and for further examination by anti-bullying experts. They include the User’s Guide, over 100 Questions and a complete Audio Script of the Hercules story. Test facilitators are invited to develop evaluation tools and to suggest improvements to the program. The 100-minute Audio is available at minimal cost, either as 2 CD’s or a download. Visit www.oddsbodkin.net.
Initial endorsements for the program include, notably, the following from Susan Swearer, Ph.D., Professor of School Psychology and Licensed Psychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, affiliated with the Bullying Research Network and Target Bullying Research Lab, and a respected anti-bullying expert:
“Young Hercules: The Legendary Bully,” told by master storyteller and musician, Odds Bodkin, provides middle and high school teachers and students with a unique approach to discussing issues of bullying, power, misunderstanding, and the complexity of relationships. Through their immersion in Hercules’ tale and the follow-up discussion questions, students can learn alternative ways of interacting with one another and can experience first-hand a life-changing tale.”
It is difficult to expect bullies to change or for kids who are basically kind to stay that way unless someone gives them a chance to imagine what happens to a bullying hero who, just possibly, isn’t a hero at all.
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