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Bang Bangs Message Reverberates



Curriculum CenterFor years, students have performed William Mastrosimones play Bang Bang Youre Dead. The play, which is about how bullying destroys lives, forces teens to examine the consequences of bullying and violence. Some students even took time to write to Mastrosimone to share their reactions to the play. But that did not prepare the author the response to the Showtime movie production of the same name. Mastrosimone was inundated with e-mail messages from students who shared their own experiences and pleaded for help. Mastrosimone hopes schools use the movie as part of their own anti-bullying efforts. Included: Tips for reducing in-school bullying, resources for anti-bullying lessons.

The day after William Mastrosimones movie about bullying aired on Showtime, he was ready to move on to new projects.

Then Mastrosimone got hit with the first wave of student anguish.


More Anti-Bullying Efforts

Nationwide efforts to combat school bullying -- some in conjunction with Bang Bang Youre Dead -- continue to grow.

Staff members and other consultants from the Health World Childrens Museum, a child and health and safety museum in Chicago, are completing a series of five curriculum modules that tie in with the movie. The curriculum is scheduled to be available on the museums Web site by January, either for free or for a nominal fee, according to the museums executive director Peter Rusin.

The museums board of directors took up the cause of school violence after seeing a student performance of the play Bang Bang Youre Dead in Chicago several years ago. The board voted to launch an effort to end school violence and develop curriculum to help teachers tackle the subject in class.

Teachers are strapped with so much to do, Rusin told Education World. We want to do anything we can to help them.

Another prominent voice against school bullying is the current Miss America, Erika Harold, who has adopted it as her cause during her yearlong reign.

State lawmakers in Connecticut also have made it known that they take school bullying seriously. According to the Hartford Courant, a state law mandates that by February 1, 2003, all public schools adopt policies and student codes to prevent bullying and investigate and document all reported cases of bullying.

By the end of the week after Bang Bang Youre Dead aired, Mastrosimone, who wrote and produced the movie, had received 1,500 e-mails. About 150 of those e-mails were from kids who said they were going to kill themselves or other people. Many begged the writer for help.

These are the e-mails that keep Mastrosimone awake at night. And keep him from moving on.

The movie, which shares a title and scenes from a Mastrosimone play, is a raw view of high school cliques and how relentless bullying can drive beleaguered students to believe violence is the only way to regain their dignity. Showtime provides a study guide for the movie on its Web site.

In the movie, Trevor, a student shunned by other students for making threats the previous year to football team members who bullied him, is cast by a caring drama teacher as the lead character in a school production of the play Bang Bang Youre Dead. The play presents the reflections of an imprisoned teen who shot up his school -- and who is haunted in his dreams by the classmates he killed.

The drama teacher knows the sullen Trevor still seethes with rage and feels like an outsider. He hopes that acting in the play will force Trevor to reflect on his anger and the sweeping and long-term consequences of violence.

Mastrosimones play, Bang Bang Youre Dead, has been available free on his Web site for three-and-a-half years, and students around the country have performed it.

While Mastrosimone told Education World he is moved by how the film has touched so many people, he has been frustrated by his inability to find immediate, in-depth, mental health care for teenagers who tell him they see no reason to live.

In doing this e-interview with Education World, Mastrosimone said he hopes to encourage schools to show the movie to teachers and students and hold discussions about bullying and violence. Mastrosimone also plans to write a play about teen suicide; he intends to call on teenagers to help him with it.


Learn more about Mastrosimones plans for a play about suicide in the sidebar at the end of this article.

Education World: Tell me more about the responses you have received since the film came out.

William Mastrosimone: All the reviews I saw really got the moviewhat it was about. But all of that pales by comparison to the e-mail response from the kids -- the audience the movie is directed at. The day after the movie aired, I personally got 500 e-mails. The day after that, I got 350. The day after that, 250. That week, I got 1,500 e-mails. And its not just the number, but the content that was astonishing.

In the three-and-a-half years that the play has been on the Internet, I had 11 kids write to me that they had hit lists, and that they changed their minds when they saw the play. Well, now the movie has done that exponentially. I have about 150 out of 1,500 e-mails from kids who said they were going to kill other people or themselves.

I got about a dozen suicide confessions from kids who are clearly hanging on by their fingernails, and who felt understood by the movie. About a dozen of those kids, I feel, need immediate action. Those are the e-mails that have really kept me up at night. Ive been calling around trying to get help from some organization that can offer some real help, not just some friendly, earnest voice at the end of the phone, because some of these kids are in real trouble.

It was amazing how many (kids) said they felt understood. They felt that somebody out there really cared. They wrote to me and a lot of them ended with please help me, I need your help or please dont forget about me.

Another thing kids have said about the movie -- they feel it did not condescend. It focused on who they really were.

EW: So you are about as far from moving on as you can get.

Mastrosimone: Out of all of those e-mails, some were congratulatory, and a nice percentage of them were from parents and adults who thanked me for bringing them closer to their kids One mother said they watched the movie as a family. She said their oldest son is a bully who has been in trouble, suspended from school, and they dont know what to do about him. He even molested their daughter And the movie made him cry. The mother said they hadnt seen him cry since he was a baby. Before the movie was over, he walked over to she and her husband and hugged them and said he wants to get help. Thats something. A psychiatrist could work on somebody for three years to bring them to that point.

That reaction vindicates my belief that theater can change a life; that art can heal I think theres an aspect of this play and especially the movie that brings about some type of healing. And that mother was just one example. There were many more. There were many from older people too. All sent pretty much the same e-mail. They said I saw the movie, and I just broke down crying. The movie made me realize that those high school wounds never healed. And I realized how much of my life has been controlled by those very hurtful things that other kids did to me.

One kid said, I think about suicide all the time, but the movie made me feel hope for the first time I can remember. How can I get a copy of this movie? If I have these feelings, I can play the movie and feel okay.

And here is a kid who cant talk to his friends or his parents. Theres a school counselor, and he walks by the office every day. He cant talk to any of those people, because he knows what the response will be. Or thinks that he does. But the person who wrote the movie he knows understands.

Im just venting here because Im feeling really frustrated, that I cant pull up a number of some organization that will say yes, we have psychiatrists on a hotline and theyll happily talk to these kids. Theres nobody like that. Nobody wants to take a chance. A kid might go off and commit suicide, and then theyre afraid they will be sued.

EW: What prompted you to write Bang Bang Youre Dead the play? Did you have hurtful experiences yourself in school?

Mastrosimone:I wrote an essay about why I wrote the play on the Bang Bang Youre Dead Web site. It does not come out of a personal experience. We lived in Washington State and there was a threat of violence (at one of his childrens schools), and it was just the helpless feeling of sending my kids to school that prompted me to write this play. I wrote it in one day. I didnt know what I would do with it -- I thought I was going to give it to the local drama teacher. But three days after I wrote it, there was a shooting in Springfield, Oregon, and I realized that schools probably could better use the play if they didnt have the experience (of violence.)

EW: We only see parts of the play in the movie.

Mastrosimone: Its confusing because the play and the movie have the same title, but they are completely different stories Its more important for kids to be performing the play than it is for them to sit passively and watch it. In performing the play, they are discussing issues, they are interacting. They are standing before their peers and speaking directly to the kids they sit next to on the bus or in the cafeteria.

Kid-to-kid communication is the most powerful form of communication there is. I am absolutely convinced of this. I really think that people who are in positions of power must realize they are not using the most potent resource at their fingertips, which is kids talking to other kids and solving this problem themselves. I think kids are going to solve this problem themselves because I think the adult world has mostly failed them.

EW: How do you think schools identification of and response to students like Trevor has improved in recent years?

Mastrosimone: I dont know, because Im not there. I can tell you what I hear. Just from what I hear, I dont think that it has. My connection with schools is very limited.

EW:From what youve heard from kids, what do you think is the biggest factor in preventing bullying?

Mastrosimone: Ive read statistics that 86 percent of all bullying incidents go unnoticed. And out of those that are noticed, that 14 percent, about half are prevented by other kids Looking at these e-mails, I would say there is an epidemic of bullying. I think its part of human nature. These e-mails would indicate this.

Look, very few people have Showtime. If these kids (who write) are a reflection of a small sliver of the population that has Showtime, what would happen if this were shown on network television? I think we would be horrified at what you would see in the e-mails that come to me. I really believe that. These are from kids all over the United States. These are written right from the heart.

I dont know how to prevent bullying. Look at the cause of it. It does start at the top. I do think that schools favor the football players who are scoring touchdowns over the kids, as the girl said in the movie, who are just trying to get through the day. There is a pecking order in school. Cliques are the source of it I think the general rule of thumb is when kids horse around within their own cliques, thats okay. But when they do it outside their cliques, its clearly at someone elses expense. Its clearly to dominate and to keep people down, to keep people in their place.

I just think there needs to be more watchfulness on the part of the school, more people who are aware of this. I wouldnt be opposed to cameras in hallways and anonymous hotlines (to report bullying) because kids are afraid of reprisals. I dont think that the movie exaggerates that. I really looked into this before I wrote the movie, and it seems to be a reflection of what happens in most schools. The kids say that they feel invisible when they are bullied, because there can be teachers standing right there when somebody makes a little comment.

Just look at the movie -- suppose a teacher were standing in the hallway and a little kid starts singing Jingle Bells. They just may think that kid is being silly. But that kid may have been forced to do that. Some of the behavior teachers interpret as just adolescent crazy behavior might be a result of bullying. Thats what I mean by being aware -- dont take everything at face value.

So when you put all this stuff together, kids feel abandoned. They feel, why should they go to an adult? If adults are too incompetent to notice these things, and if they do notice them and let them go, they condone it. Wittingly or unwittingly. So why should kids come to them for help? Thats from the kids point of view. They all realize they are on their own and thats why they walk past the counselors office and dont tell anyone about it. Thats why they have to write to a playwright and ask for his advice on what to do and how to get through the day and why they should not kill themselves.

EW: So how do you think schools should use the movie?

Mastrosimone: I think the movie should be shown in every school to teachers, administrators, and kids. Everybody in the same room at the same time. They should have an open discussion about it. Its like I saw [at one school where the movie was shown] -- it was so cathartic for me. How the movie made those kids shut their mouths. Because they saw themselves, and they didnt realize the harm they were doing. Its just like one of the jocks in the movie; he says I think hazing is a good thing -- it makes you tough and helps you get over stuff -- but I never realized what we did. And hes the one who apologized.


Kids Reaction Inspiring Next Play

Bang Bang Youre Dead author William Mastrosimone talked with Education World about his plans to have kids help him write a play about suicide.

Mastrosimone: I have a clear mandate to write a play about suicide. And I dont have much time to do it. I have to get this up on the Web site in a month or two. I tell you now, almost every minute of my day is spent (wondering) What am I going to do about this?

Im reluctant to write about suicide because Im not qualified. But if I dont write this play, I will confirm their (kids) view of the world that nobody cares about them.

I also thought I could ask for help with the play; ask for some contributions from kids. Maybe publish the play as I write it, scene by scene, and get their comments. Im thinking of doing something like that because I can do that as a playwright. I cant talk to them directly about suicide because Im not qualified. But I can talk to them about a character whos in the same position, and I can learn from them, and put them in the position where they can teach me.

I want the play about suicide to parallel the play Bang Bang Youre Dead. The play about suicide should address the kid whose thinking about suicide, and draw the kid in through the process of identification. It will invite the kid into the play.

If I can design the play so that its a cathartic experience for the kid -- so that it takes the kid through all of the emotions that led up to the thought of suicide -- that would be a very difficult thing to doIve got these e-mails on my desk that are making me crazy. Kids who are appealing to me for help and I cant turn my back on them.


Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2002 Education World