Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Hand Was Slapped

The room froze, every eye was on me. In the little theatre in Simcoe we are coming near the end of the workshop on bullying and teasing. It's going well, probably over 90% of those there have participated actively by getting up and coming to the front at least once. There are always a few hold outs, a few who just don't want to be in front of a crowd. I ask twice, then leave them alone. One fellow, about 40, struggled with the decision and then told me that he didn't want to come up. I saw that it had been a difficult decision and then made a decision myself, I'd not ask him again - no means no.

These workshops are exhausting and I begin to glance at my watch, there's only 10 or 16 minutes to go, I need to start bringing it to a close. Then the 40 year old guy gets up and leaves the room to go to the washroom. On his way back down to his seat, someone calls out, "Chicken!". I could see, in an instant, that he was stung by this word. I was simply furious inside. Good God, this workshop was about teasing and bullying and here it is happening right in front of me.

They all wanted to know what I was going to do. This has never happened in a workshop, I wasn't sure what I would do. It's not like I had any time to sit down and think it through I had to respond to what just happened. First things first ... I spoke to the man who had been teased. "I'm really sorry that happened to you, this should have been a safe place for you. Being called a name really hurts." Everyone nods because everyone knows.

Everyone knows.

Everyone knows.

Everyone knows.

Forget the name caller, I decide, at this point she isn't the point. Bullies are never really the point. For the second time in the workshop the room grows very quiet. Hushed. "It's always wrong for someone to call someone else a mean name, isn't it?" The rapid nodding of heads caused a slight breeze. They all know this, Everyone knows. "Why is it more wrong here, today?"

"Because we just learned about bullies!" calls out a confident voice.

"Because only mean people call names!" calls out another.

"How many people here have been called a name?" One hundred percent of the room raises their hands. "Look around," I say, "everyone has been called a name."

"Oh, I get it," a young woman says, "We should know better because we know it hurts."

"Yes," I said, "we have no excuses. We should all be nice to each other because people out there aren't always nice to us." For the next several minutes we talked about community, about taking care of each other, having each other's back ... 'he ain't heavy, he's my brother' kind of stuff.

Shortly after it's over she apologizes to me for having called a name. I look at her coldly, "It's not me you need to apologize to."

Tears form in her eyes as she leaves. I want to comfort her for a second, but more than that I want her to remember this feeling.

So I don't.


Cecilia said...

I guess I feel a bit sorry for bullies too... Because if they are mean to other people maybe it's because they feel insecure themselves... And maybe that person who name-called at your workshop was nervous about standing in front of a crowd too?
But I know it's no excuse.
Thanks Dave. :)

Kei said...

I am stunned that it happened in the first place, but I also believe that everyone in that room will never forget the depth of the workshop that day.
I hope she did apologize to the fellow.

Feminist Avatar said...

In Scotland, as part of the culture, we engage in friendly banter or teasing and this sort of communication was part of the work culture. As a student, I worked in a number of supermarkets alongside people with intellectual disabilities. They often experienced this form of teasing, as a form of friendly behaviour and a sign that they were part of the work community. And most people, disabled or not, could give as good as they got. Yet, what struck me was that for many people with intellectual disabilities, this was the only engagement people made with them. They knew they were welcome and part of the community, but people never made an attempt to get to know them on more than a shallow level. I realised this when I tried to get to know a couple of the guys and they never really answered my questions, but responded with banter. And it made me wonder whether they had ever had the opportunity to really talk to someone and share their experience and, as a result, they didn't know how, or perhaps were scared, to engage in that way (at least in a work environment).

When I heard this story, I wondered whether the women who called out 'chicken' did so because, ultimately, this was the only way people ever engaged with her. Because we had failed, as a society, to teach her that there was another way to communicate. Because we failed to realise that she was a person.

Behaviour after all is learned.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher, and it is really, really hard to know how to react when these things happen, and even harder to apply the knowlege. Especially when you're in a room full of teenagers and admitting wrongdoing or allowing themselves to be vulnerable are not things they do readily. Luckily the person doing the name calling in your setting felt regret, but it doesn't always happen that way. It feels like experience teaches people to discontinue this kind of behavior eventually, and teens don't have much experience. Only time gives people experience.