Response to Bullying

“Isn’t it in our DNA to hurt each other?”

The question came from Taj, a fifth grader who is getting ready to graduate after six years at Harlem Link. The occasion was an impromptu discussion I started in his class’s morning meeting on May 21, the day after a bullying-related suicide by a 12-year-old in Queens.

Although we don’t have a bullying “problem” at our school, I told Taj’s class we did. “As long as this abuse continues to happen around the country and close to home,” I said, “I feel we have a responsibility to do something about it. This problem is ours as much as it is for that school in Queens that the 12-year-old girl attended.”

After 10 or 15 minutes of whole-class and small-group discussion, Taj had the penultimate word, and it was up to me to close the conversation and get on with the day.

But I was stunned and stung by his words. I did not know how to answer.

So I told Taj and his classmates: “That’s a really complicated question. I’m not going to answer it right now. As you grow older and learn more about the world and about history in middle school and high school and college, I hope we can keep talking about it together, because it is a really important question.”

I decided I was not going to lie and say that the world is a fundamentally peaceful place. I could have provided lots of platitudes. I could argue convincingly that humans are good, and that meanness and evil are aberrations. I know that these thoughts are partially true.  I also know that the whole truth is far more complex. I don’t know if a fifth grader can understand the full picture, not as it might be drawn in a quick end-of-meeting comment.

When Taj is older, I hope he reads Thomas Hobbes and thinks about the idea of the social contract.

I hope he comes to agree with me that, yes, we all have the capacity and sometimes the will to hurt each other, but one thing that makes us human is our capacity to choose a different course.

I hope Taj studies enough history to know that war and violence seem always to be with us and that the violence he has already witnessed in his own life is only a harbinger of the lives of others that have been altered by aggressive, hurtful behavior, and nothing more than that.

I hope he comes to appreciate how damaging it is to a local community—and to the entire human family—when one person hurts another.

I hope he decides that, while violence seems always to be with us, the choice is always there, and it is clear.

“Each one of us can be a hero,” I continued. “We can summon tremendous patience, as did Nelson Mandela, to stand up to bullies and refuse to be intimidated by them. We can find within us courage, like that of Dr. Martin Luther King, to speak up when we see bullying happen and help people who feel they have no voice.”

I’m fearful that our graduating fifth graders will go out into the world and be hit with relentless evidence that the answer to Taj’s question is a simple, “Yes, of course.”

So this conversation only strengthened my resolve to keep our school dutifully involved with the lives and education of our alumni. How long will it take for Taj’s middle school to discover that he is wrestling with this choice? That he is dealing with this one particular flavor of that universal adolescent conflict, “Who am I?” And how can we help?

What would you tell him?

About Steve Evangelista

Steven Evangelista is the co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School. He is a native New Yorker with a bachelors degree in Psychology from Georgetown University and a Masters degree in Elementary Education from Bank Street College.
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One Response to Response to Bullying

  1. Ashley Welde says:

    I agree with your analysis of good/bad behavior and what I would hope for your students to discover in years to come. I would tell the kids that people are innately good, but that people have a choice in how they want to behave. Often people who hurt others have been hurt themselves, and poor circumstances influenced them to make bad decisions. However, poor circumstances are not an excuse for behaving badly. I read a study once (unfortunately I can’t find it now) that had evidence showing that people’s innate responses are often to be helpful but then our ‘rational’ side can often take over and prevent us from doing good. Anyway, I think it’s important for kids to think there is an innate goodness in people because it helps them rise to the occasion when they face personal challenges and also may help them be more empathetic to people who behave badly.

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