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Saturday, May 28, 2016

My TEDxYouth@BHS talk

Photo by Mia Celik (Flickr)
I was honored to be invited, by the terrific Jenn Scheffer, to the TEDxYouth@BHS event in Burlington, Massachusetts on April 30th. The weekend was an amazing experience and I finally got to meet some of my virtual influencers face to face. Kerry Gallagher, Patrick Larkin, Marialice Curran and Starr Sackstein are just as amazing in person as they are online. It was great to share the stage with them. 

I had a chance to talk about my personal story a bit and how I've spent the last four years trying to make our kid's world a little kinder. 

In the closing third of my talk, I try to forward the idea that we can make ourselves happier by being kinder to others; that we can't just be satisfied with tolerance, but must strive for empathy and inclusion. The script of the talk is below.

Every child deserves a life free of meanness, but man, Billy was as mean as snot. 

Bille was my wife’s tormentor. Little boys don’t always know how to express their feelings of affection to little girls and sometimes it comes in the form of a dirt-clod thrown in the general direction of that girl. The second grade interaction has stuck around. We now remember it with a smile, she remembers it for the meanness.

One of my tormentors, a boy named Yale terrorized my walks home from Maple Grove Elementary for months. He was a tall, skinny kid with white blond hair who was apparently really, really fast, because he always was one step ahead of me. And despite my cunning 3rd grade wits that formulated intricate and varied routes home, this kid always seemed to find me to beat the crap out of me.

It’s hard to think of a world free of meanness when Kurt, an overly large neighborhood boy, would never let you play outside in peace. He would, literally, and not to use the most over-used word in the english language right now, but would literally kick dirt in your face. Or steal all your marbles, or rip off the head of your GI Joe action figure,  the one with the Kung-Fu grip, rendering your Joe still able to hold onto things, but  just not able to see anything to pick them up. 

I tell you these things, because I remember.

In my hometown of Lansing, Michigan the largest sporting goods store in the area, Vandevorts,  would hold a “blem sale”. The merchandise at this sale was blemished, or blem, merchandise with small stains, tears, and such. Returns, second run, and ugly stuff. The imperfect for the perfect.

Held once a year, the “blem sale”, would give the poor kids a chance to look like the cool kids. As least as long as you didn’t look too close.

After dropping my dad off for his General Motors job, where he worked for 46 years, my mom and I would head to the front doors of the massive warehouse to be among the first in line get the best shot at the “best” stuff. Skipping school as I stood in line, we knew that we were risking life and limb at the front of the stampede, but were were after good blem!

The dream this particular year was a silky golden Adidas warmup jacket and a pair of white leather Adidas Pro-model tennis shoes. The kicks that were introduced the year in which I was born, were still popular and THE shoe to have in 1981. And I wasn’t the only one who wanted to sport these classic kicks.

The doors opened at 7am and we frantically looked for the objects of my 11 year-old desire. 

Unfortunately, reality was a bit different. Missing out on the golden jacket and leather shoes, my mom and I still managed to grab some apparel with a logo on it. 

Sure, the shoes were canvas and the jacket was nylon, but they had the swoosh. Some cool stuff for the uncool.

I proudly suited up with my new shoes and coat the very next day at school. I tried  to gain the adoration of my friends with my new status symbols, but my canvas shoes didn’t garner the respect I was seeking. The jacket wasn’t gold, but a robin egg blue, but had a cool little kangaroo-type pocket in the front where you could hide things from the teacher. So while my friends didn’t appreciate it, I loved that jacket and how it made me feel. I had never had something thing like that before. I felt cool, like the other kids. I didn’t feel like an outsider anymore. I couldn’t have a lot, but I now had something.

Older than me, Tracy, ruled our neighborhood. A muscly, knife toting, 7th grade smoker who also rode my school bus. He was just flat out mean. 

Everyday I would just try and make it to my stop, get off and make the cut through yard behind our house, down the steep hill to our family’s rented duplex before I became a spot on Tracy’s radar. 

One day I didn’t make it.

The bus was hot and the nylon pullover jacket made it unbearable, so for probably for the first time I had taken off my new robin egg-blue status symbol.

When we were approaching my stop, I went to gather up my stuff, but couldn’t find my jacket. I knew that I put it underneath my backpack, but it wasn’t there. I was in a panic. I looked in my backpack, I looked under the pack. Nothing. 

It was when I began looking under my bus seat that I heard Tracy’s twisted laugh and the laughter of those around him who were in on his brand of evil that day.

When I popped my head up from my search and turned around, my jacket met my face. It had been launched at me, given back in a forceful way. Well, I was just glad to be holding it again. 


Then time stood still. 

My eyes pulled back and refocused on the coat in my hands. Much like the long pull away shots in the movies where a solitary figure stands motionless as the reality of the situation is revealed to them. My internal cinematographer pulled back to reveal the shreds of fabric that used to resemble my prized jacket.

The laughter reemerged and as I isolated the source, Tracy had a bead on me. I had made his radar screen.

He was holding up his butterfly knife and was pointing it at me and with words that I can still hear today said, “You’re next” 

He had taken his knife and shredded my coat. With a few flicks of his wrist and slashes through the fabric, he had taken away the item I wished to define me. 

I managed to escape the bus and run home unscathed. I told my parents that I had lost my coat or something. I made up some story to keep the truth from them. I never told them the truth of what had happened.

I remember.

This was not trauma on the battlefield. It’s not the kind of trauma that Jean-Paul Mari talks about in his 2015 TEDxCannes talk where he talks about the the ‘void of death’. An image forged in your brain from seeing something you are not supposed to see or experience and the importance of talking about that experience.

There wasn’t a type of PTSD associated with these minor childhood events. People have had much more dramatic events occur in their lives, but these are events I remember. Do you remember your Tracy?

Nonetheless, they were a loss. For me, a significant loss. A loss of innocence, a piece of my childhood cut away.

We’d probably qualify Yale, Kurt, and Tracy’s behavior today as ‘bullying”. An imbalance of power, consistent aggressive action to control or harm others, whether socially, physically, or emotionally. Back then, the conventional wisdom was that it was part of growing up. What did you do to make him mad? Everyone goes through it. It’ll build character, they’d say. 

I tell you this story, because I remember. I remember those boys and their meanness. I tell you this story because in my 6th grade classroom thirty years later, these feelings were familiar and I wasn’t going to let meanness become a memory for my students.

As a teacher for Room 216, we spend a lot of time establishing and building a community. I know that in order to learn we have to feel safe, so we don’t learn a whole lot of the stuff you’re supposed to learn in school the first couple of weeks. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are not our primary focus. Instead, we learn about each other.

It was an amazing school year, a memorable bunch for sure. But when we returned from Spring break that year, I noticed a change. There were more tears, more arguments, more frustration. I couldn't put a finger on it, but there was something occurring. Maybe it was the fact that in their 12 yr-old minds they were already on to the next step in their lives, our middle school. Maybe it was the fact that they had been looking at the same set of faces for almost seven years and they were just getting tired of each other. 

Whatever the source, there was an erosion of community. An undeniable appearance of meanness. 

And I panicked. I didn’t want to remember this group this way.

I knew the signals that the calendar and warming weather were sending, but we still had two months together. We still had to learn and grow. Together.

So I went for a bike ride. A good friend of mine likes to joke that I think that any problem can be solved by a bike ride. He’s not too far off with that characterization. 

I think if we could just get Captain Hook and his nemesis out for a ride someday, there wouldn’t be hostilities on in Neverland.

I set out to think about how I could support my class. A way I could help teach them that the choices they make today, will impact how they will be remembered. When I got home I had a plan. I jotted down the ideas that had spun around my head in unison with my pedals over the three hour ride and I impatiently waited until Monday morning.

When the kids were in the middle of their morning routine I started clearing our largest whiteboard. I took down all the learning reference posters, magnets, writing, everything. This was strange to my kids, because they had never seen me clean anything in front of them like this. Learning time is too precious and I’ve always done tasks like this when they weren’t there. Today was different however and we were still going to learn, just in a way that Room216 wasn’t accustomed to. 

I deflected questions as to what I was doing and the board remained clear. Until the next morning, when meanness made an appearance. 

We talked a couple of times that Tuesday about what meanness meant to them. How it made them feel. Why we were familiar with it and where it might come from.

On Wednesday morning they were surrounded with meanness. I spent most of my morning writing every mean word that I could think of on the previously cleared space. I wrote  words of every length and level of vitriol I could think of. Well almost every word I could think of. 

Symbolic by happenstance, since they were the most common colors of dry-erase markers in the tray, the colors supplied by my school’s supply room, the words were written in black and blue. Through our discussion that day, those black and blue words came to represent the physical pain that meanness can lead to. We felt their presence throughout the day. We talked. We listened.

Thursday morning, I asked the question I would ask countless times over the next four years, “How Do You Want to Be Remembered?” 

We talked about how it seems easier to to remember the bad things in our life and harder for the joy to shine through. I talked about what I remember about being twelve. I didn’t want to hit them over the head or pound a message home, I wanted my kids to make a connection that would stay with them. 

Brain research tells us that we remember things better if we attach an emotion to something, so 
on Friday, for the first time ever, with anyone, I shared my stories of the Yales, and Kurts and Tracys in my life.

I still remembered.

I grabbed an eraser and a colored marker, erased one of the words of meanness and replaced it with the word love. I asked my kids for help and then handed the marker to one of them. 
Over the next fifteen minutes or so, one by one, then again, we literally erased meanness and replaced it with kindness.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of my kids. So respectful, so powerful. They were amazing. 

Noticed by a student, we didn’t get rid of the meanness that surrounded us, but we made a difference.

I shared the experience on my blog. Teachers from all over the world told me how they loved the little series of lessons and how they adapted it to their classrooms. Touching stuff! I was glad that so many people found value in the lesson. I was happy over the next couple of years to simply land the message with the next few classes of my sixth graders.

Then, in the summer 2014, I unexpectedly found that I had some time on my hands.
I went out for a bike ride and didn't come back intact. Man and machine, I weigh 200 pounds and I was broken by the impatience of a 4000 pound vehicle that invaded my 44cm wide space. And left on the side of the road. 

Apparently a bike ride isn’t the answer to all of our problems.

The ambulance, the cops, the CAT-scans and X-rays, getting stitched up or the following four hours.

I don’t remember.

So with most of a summer left after that early July day, I figured it was time to maybe broaden my message. 

And even though I couldn’t easily raise my left arm for a while, or remember where I put the dish towel despite the fact that I was holding it in my hand, and I never found one of my watches, I started a non-profit. 

I bought a domain, created a website. I shot artsy photos of pencils on the floor of my dining room. It was risk to be sure. I didn’t know what I what doing, but I had a chance to make the world just little kinder, so I jumped off a cliff. 

I wanted our efforts to be for something. For kindness, for empathy,… for love.

I love any organization or effort that is trying to make the world better for our kids. For you. I didn’t want to be an an anti-organization. There’s too many people out here telling us what they’re against. 

These kinds efforts are well intentioned , but what does it say to Tracy or Yale?

In the documentary REJECT, we learn that social rejection almost always leads to shame and rage” We can’t isolate the bully. Their meanness comes from somewhere, from someone. The bully needs our support too. We can’t just reject them, cast them aside. They need to be shown another way. Kindness, empathy.

I wanted Erase Meanness to be an eraser of meanness. A promoter of kindness. An organization of kindness curators and creators of kindness.

I believe that everyone is capable of kindness and the choices we make on a daily basis make a difference.

Meanness is universal, but so is love and kindness. Like that Friday after we stood back and looked at our whiteboard and we realized we couldn’t possibly erase all of the meanness in our lives, but we can make it better. Little by little.

We know this intuitively, research has found that we are happier when we do or give for others. 

When we’re nice to others, we feel happier.

Researchers at Harvard and University of British Columbia found evidence for increased personal happiness by making others happy, creating a positive feedback loop between kindness and happiness. The happier we are the more likely we are to be kind.

What a great place to get stuck, right?

It’s not about combating meanness. The way to make us happier is by being kind to one another. 

We have to erase meanness by pledging to take action. Make a commitment to be kind in some way. Our choice has to be personal. Purposeful.

Random acts of kindness are great, but we can’t depend on random. Kindness has to be intentional. Choose kindness. Be remembered for your kindness.

We cannot be worried about statistics or the perception of reported bullying incidents in our schools, we must be worried about our kids.

We can’t isolate the bully or address mean behavior be filling out a form or checking a box. 

We must not wait for the toxic words of rejection and meanness to be digested and then treat the symptoms of their poisoning. Communities of kindness are formed by communities of parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders that work to extend hands of inclusion, instead of pointing fingers. 

We have to move beyond tolerance and towards acceptance. We have to strive for empathy. We need to start with kindness, always kindness.

For that is how you will be remembered.

Every child deserves a life free of meanness. Billy was as mean as snot, but he didn’t have to be. 

Thank you

Thanks for reading (and watching) Follow me on Twitter: @YourKidsTeacher


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