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A Child's Plea Becomes an Adult's Crusade

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Jodee Blanco's school career was not a series of joyous milestones, but a years-long sentence of misery. Blanco, who wrote a book detailing her harsh treatment at the hands of school bullies, talked about her current bullying-prevention efforts. Included: Tips for parents and teachers to prevent bullying and aid bullying victims.

Imagine going to work each day knowing you could be assaulted by fists, rocks, or lit cigarettes; knowing you would be assaulted by verbal insults that scarred more deeply than those physical assaults ever did. Imagine that nobody in authority notices anything is wrong, because you keep coming to work and doing your job.

No adult would tolerate that situation in the workplace -- yet every day thousands of students suffer similar abuses at the hands of school bullies, and too often adults dismiss the harassment as part of growing up. Kids are told to ignore bullies and they will go away.

Jodee Blanco

Author Jodee Blanco knows better, however, and she wants other adults to re-think their approach to bullies. In her book Please Stop Laughing at Me..., Blanco describes the peer abuse she endured from fifth grade through high school, and tells how her attempts to get help failed or backfired.

Blanco writes that during her school career she was punched, kicked, burned, and pelted with gravel and insults. When Blanco was an eighth grader, older students pushed her down and shoved snow into her throat until she could not breath. Blanco's offense? She was quiet and mature, spoke her mind, and stood up for other kids who were outcasts. Blanco took her well-meaning parents advice to ignore her tormentors, but her silence intensified the abuse. At one desperate point, she tried to bring a kitchen knife to school, but her mother stopped her.

Now a successful publishing executive, Blanco talks to students and teachers -- she even has spoken at her former high school -- about her experience. She encourages students to stand up to bullies, and urges schools to support the students who do.

Blanco's story has an even happier ending, though. Blanco forced herself to face her tormentors as an accomplished professional at her 20th high school reunion -- and was stunned by how warmly she was greeted by people who once made her existence almost unbearable. Many of the former bullies did not realize how deeply they had hurt her -- and some apologized for the way they acted. She even is dating one of the "cool" guys she so admired as a teen.

Blanco talked with Education World about her experiences, her desire to help kids, and her mission to convince adults that the type of torment she endured is not normal behavior.

Education World: Have you received the most responses to Please Stop Laughing at Me... from teachers, students, or parents? Why do you think that is?

Jodee Blanco: I've definitely received the most responses from kids. I average 15 to 20 e-mails and/or letters a week from kids. Most of those kids are between the ages of 9 and 17. It's inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time to learn about the enormous pain they're experiencing at the hands of their classmates. Parents and teachers also are responding to the book. I probably receive five to ten letters and phone calls weekly from them. But by far, the most visceral reaction is coming from young, broken hearts. I believe I'm helping them, and that makes everything worth it.

EW: How lasting and pervasive are the effects of being bullied every day?

Blanco: How lasting is a scar after major surgery? How lasting is the death of a loved one? Being bullied every day, especially the insidious laughter and teasing, can leave you paralyzed inside. Normally, kids who are abused by their peers end up going one of two ways in adulthood. They either become super achievers because they're trying to fill up an elastic hole in their self-esteem that never seems to close. That was me. Or, they give up on life and never realize their potential. They fade into the background, mere specks of what they could have been.

Either scenario is painful and redundant, because it's playing out the inner-torment of once having been the bullied child.

Since I've written my book, I get tons of calls and letters from adults -- some in their fifties and sixties -- who were bullied at school and never got over it. The wounds they endured are still red and wet, all these years later.

EW: Looking back on your school career, from the time the torment began in fifth grade through high school, how might you have handled situations differently?

Blanco: That's a great question. I would have handled a few things differently, for sure. The biggest one is that I would have stood up for myself like a kid, and not behaved so much like an adult. My parents loved me dearly, but like all loving parents, they made some serious mistakes. Their worst mistake (one which I fear is still being made by many parents today) was telling me to ignore the bullies and they'd go away. Mom and dad told me not to give the bullies the satisfaction of a response.

Though my parents didn't realize it at the time, they were forcing adult logic on a teen situation. Ignoring someone in an office when you are 40 is an effective approach. It doesn't work when you're 14 and at school. Instead of making the kids who were picking on me stop, ignoring them only made them that much more determined to get my goat. As a result, the teasing and abuse worsened. What I should have done is told those kids to leave me alone, that I wasn't going to take their garbage anymore. Instead, I kept on behaving like a little adult. It was a mistake indeed.

You know, it's strange sometimes how enlightenment comes to you. Just last night, I was having dinner with a girl I went to high school with and her three kids. Her 13-year-old daughter is being bullied badly at school right now. I gave her some advice, after which, she asked me point blank, "Why did everyone pick on you at school?" Her mom jumped in and said, "There was never anything wrong with Jodee, just like there's nothing wrong with you. We shouldn't have been so mean to her, but she never said anything. She acted as grown-up then as she does now, and we didn't know how to interpret it, so we just attacked her for it. I wish she would have told all of us off, or at least communicated how bad we were making her feel. We just thought we were joking around." In that moment, the light bulb went off for me. She was right. That was my worst mistake.

The other mistake I made was trying to hide what I was facing at school. I was ashamed for a long time to tell my parents that I was the school outcast. Carrying the burden of that intense loneliness for so long made the scars deeper and scarier.

If there are any parents reading this, please love your kids unconditionally. Don't push them to be popular at school. Don't worry if they don't fit in with the crowd. Worry more if they do. Above all, encourage them to follow their own star, to be their own person. That way, if they are going through some of what I did, they won't be afraid to tell you.

EW: After the abuse you endured in high school, it is hard imagining wanting to attend a reunion. What was your motivation for going back and what were your expectations and hopes regarding reconnecting with your classmates?

Blanco: I never believed that one night could literally change someone's life. I never believed it, that is, until the night of my reunion. I wanted to attend for so many reasons. I've always been the kind of person who confronts her fears. I knew that if I didn't go, I'd regret my cowardice. My self-esteem depended on my attending that reunion.

It wasn't easy though. I sat in my car for nearly two hours [before going in], dry heaving into a paper bag. It wasn't that I was afraid of being picked on by my former classmates. Intellectually, I knew that was ridiculous. What I was terrified of was that the moment I saw all those familiar faces, I'd suddenly see myself the way I used to when I was a teenager. It was a horrible possibility because if I did become that insecure frightened girl, how could I survive all the demands of my career, a career that requires me to be unflappable when it comes to self-confidence?

Once I found the courage to walk through the doors, everything changed. Some of the old bullies remembered what they did, and actually apologized. In fact, they asked for my help because now their kids are getting picked on at school. Others didn't remember the torment they put me through. My archenemy, a girl named AJ, ran up to me at the reunion and hugged me, telling me she always thought I was the coolest chick in school. Can you imagine? I nearly hit the floor. When I reminded her some of the pranks she played on me, she dissolved into tears. Then we hugged and cried together.

Later that night, all the old popular crowd and I went out for a few drinks. Everyone toasted me, and said they were so proud of who I'd become. Then, the high school heartthrob, the guy I used to watch walk down the halls and fantasize about kissing, asked me to dance. I finally got the prom night I had longed for all my life. He and I have been dating ever since.

And the old bullies? They've been helping spread the word about my book.

It really is a miracle how one night can change your life. If anyone is reading this and is going through what I did, experiencing the anxiety about attending a reunion, all I can say is, go. You'll regret it if you don't. Walking away from fear is always a regret, no matter what the outcome.

EW: What do you think is the biggest mistake adults (specifically teachers and parents) make when advising children about handling intimidation and abuse from peers?

Blanco: That's an easy one. The biggest mistake adults make is telling kids to "ignore the bullies and they'll go away." That's a load of garbage. When you ignore the mean kids, all it does is make them think you're stuck up and aloof, and they will try that much harder. Adults should encourage kids to stand up for themselves. If there are weapons or violence involved, then yes, you should walk away. But if someone is assaulting your dignity with words, stand up to them. Tell them to leave you alone. Remember this: standing up for yourself in the moment of abuse is your human right. Seeking vengeance later on is the mistake. Even if a child stands up to a bully and the abuse doesn't stop, at least the child can say he or she didn't walk away in shame. That's important.

EW: What do you think schools need to do to help students who are bullied, and more importantly, to stop bullying from occurring?

Blanco: Every school should have a peer abuse support group. I've created Please Stop Laughing At Me support groups in many schools. It's part of what I do as an anti-bullying consultant. Every school should have an anonymous drop box where kids can report being victimized or warn the school if another Columbine is brewing. There also should be an anonymous e-mail address, accessible through the school library, for the same purpose.

Teachers and parents also should be trained on how to teach students empathy.

And schools should start honoring the bystander who stands up for the underdog. Schools honor all the wrong things. They celebrate the athletes and the straight "A" students. What about the kid who stands up, sometimes against his cool friends, to defend an outcast? Do you realize how much courage that takes? Every week, every school in America should hold a Hero of the Week program, in which bystanders who defend underdogs are celebrated, acknowledged, and rewarded. If schools started implementing such programs, the internal dynamic of what's perceived as "cool" at school would start to shift in the right direction.

EW: What are your views on schools adopting "zero tolerance" policies, which require punishment and/or arrests for students who assault other students or faculty?

Blanco: I think zero tolerance is too much and not enough all at the same time. The problem with zero tolerance is that it punishes someone just for defending himself or herself. Additionally, when you punish a bully, you turn the bully into a martyr whose "cool" friends only look up to him or her even more.

Zero tolerance is a horrible, horrible mistake because it doesn't take into account the nuances of peer-on-peer abuse. Worse -- and something no one ever thinks about -- zero tolerance punishes physical assaults, which only motivates bullies to get more creative about how they hurt the outcast without being caught. The bullies just get smarter about how to perpetrate abuse. Instead of punches or kicks, they turn to psychological abuse; more taunting, more teasing, more laughter. And it's the psychological abuse that turns good kids into killers. Believe me, I know because I was almost one myself.

EW: In your presentations at schools, what sort of reaction do you get from kids? Teachers?

Blanco: The reaction I'm getting from schools is amazing. I can hardly believe it. I do two kinds of presentations at schools. I meet with students, and I also do parent/teacher workshops. Both presentations are similar. I speak for 20 minutes about my own experiences, sharing some of what happened to me. Then, I open up the floor and inspire a 'town meeting' kind of discussion. Afterwards, when there's been some healthy, productive venting, I talk about solutions and offer advice.

I've spoken at elementary, middle, and high schools. The most remarkable part is that no matter how old the students are, dozens of kids always approach me after my talk just for a hug. They're the outcasts who are so relieved to know that a grown-up understands. A few students always come up to me, after everyone else has left the room, and tell me they're bullies, but they never realized how much pain they were causing until I came to their school. They promise they'll never pick on anyone again. Those moments fill me with a sense of accomplishment and pride that words simply can't express.

Most of those kids still communicate with me. In fact, some of the rehabilitated bullies are helping me start support groups in their schools and are contributing essays for my next book. There's no such thing as a kid who can't be turned around or a hurt heart that can't be soothed. I never would have believed that until I got out on the road and started bonding with those kids.

EW: How did teachers react to your talk at your alma mater?

Blanco: Would you believe that the moment I walked in the door (not easy -- I hadn't been back to my high school since my graduation 20 years earlier), the assistant principal came up to me and told me that a lot of people protested my coming and didn't want me to speak. I nearly flipped. Here I was terrified to begin with, and now this? She explained that many of my old teachers were still on faculty and were nervous I was going to get up on stage and teacher bash. I told the assistant principal that either she trusted me or not. It was that simple. She handed me the microphone and told me get on stage. I remember walking the three steps to the podium -- it felt like climbing a steep, slippery mountain.

As I started to speak, the tension in the auditorium eased. I was honest as I always am. I explained that I loved my teachers [when I was a student], but I hated going to school because I was so picked on and so lonely. Sneers of distrust quickly turned to tears of understanding. I was shaking the whole time I was up there. But I had to serve truth, and the truth was that I honestly did adore most of my teachers. I just wished they had been more involved and stronger. When I said this out loud on stage, I really thought the you- know-what would hit the fan. It didn't. Instead, my history teacher and a few others stood up and applauded. I'll never forget it. After I was done talking, I got thunderous applause. Then, the principal asked me if I would like to come back and address the student body in the fall. I can't wait until school starts! I never in a million years thought I would ever say that...

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

This e-interview with Jodee Blanco is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2003 Education World

09/25/2003


 

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