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Sandy Banks

Peers Have the Power to Make Bullies Behave

March 27, 2001|Sandy Banks

It was not likely to raise her students' math scores or improve their reading skills. But the simple classroom exercise that Cindy Anthony performed each day with her second-graders taught them lessons just as important as subtraction or where a comma goes.

"Appreciations and Concerns," she called it. The rules were simple: Any student could rise and address an "appreciation" or a "concern" to a classmate. As in "I have a concern for Sharon, because she laughed when I fell off the jungle gym." Or "I have an appreciation for Eduardo. He shared his sandwich with me because I left my lunch on the bus."

No commentary was allowed. The teacher offered neither praise nor condemnation. The subject could say "thank you" or "I'm sorry" or nothing at all.

"It was a forum for the kids to express their feelings and to listen to each other," says Anthony, who now teaches special ed, but taught second and third grade for 10 years at Beckford Elementary in Northridge.

"They'd talk about things that were happening to them--'I don't like it when you call me names'--so no one had to suffer silently. And all of a sudden that person who is calling names is exposed, gets to see himself through other kids' eyes. Sometimes that's enough to make a child ask himself 'Is this really the way I want to be?' "

Eight years ago, Anthony was my daughter's second-grade teacher, and I was a classroom volunteer. I would watch, heart in my throat, as students laid bare feelings of pain, pride, joy, shame. I saw shy children blossom, as they were lauded for their private good deeds. And tough kids reduced to tears, as they came to understand the pain that bullying breeds.

At that age, the offenses were often small: name-calling, pushing in line, leaving someone out when teams were picked for a game. And the kindnesses were simple: sharing crayons in class, giving someone else a turn on the swings. But the lessons were large, as little kids learned the glory of goodness, and reprobates faced the stigma of public shame.

It was peer pressure at its finest. And it gave every child a chance to view the world for a moment through the lens of another's gratitude or pain.

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Empathy. The dictionary defines it as "the ability to share in another's emotions, thoughts or feelings." It is at the core of kindness, the foundation of our sensitivity to others' needs.

It is what keeps our inner bully in check, prevents us from laughing at someone else's shame, makes us hurt when we're confronted by another's pain. And it seems to have been relegated to the emotional scrapheap today.

On campus, in the workplace, at home, in the streets . . . we seem more comfortable with contempt than consideration. We laugh at the rubes on "The Jerry Springer Show," finding humor in their humiliation. We watch "Survivor" and "Big Brother" and revel in the loser's rejection. Our kids flock by the thousands to Internet sites devoted to spreading hurtful rumors. Bullies dominate their campuses, tormenting classmates, while teachers and students look the other way.

"We're in a time that glorifies name-calling and cruelty," says Anthony. "If we're going to grow children who care about each other's feelings, we've got to teach them, at home and at school. And we've got to let them know that they will be listened to, so they have the courage to speak up when something feels wrong."

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"If so many of us have the same experience, then why do we let [bullying] go on?" The question comes via e-mail from Rebekah Hendershot, a high school senior from Fullerton.

The 17-year-old is a talented writer, a candidate for valedictorian, the founder of a drama troupe at her church. "I was also the victim of bullying from second through eighth grades, as were most of my friends," she says.

She and her friends have come to realize that keeping a rein on bullies can't be left to parents or teachers. "Parents can preach, teachers can scold, and columnists can question. But only the students can make bullies unwelcome. Only peers can apply peer pressure."

For her classmates, she has this suggestion: "Grow a backbone. There are only, what, a few thousand of you and one of him. You are way louder than he is. Tell [the bully] what a jerk he's being and you'll be the hero of half the school and the idol of the other half.

"Violence is not the answer to the problem. Math is," she says. "We students need to realize there are more of us than there are of them."

So how about this version of "appreciations and concerns"?: The next time the class cutup starts picking on someone, Rebekah says, "about 50 repetitions of 'shut up' might clue the bully in that he's not the big man on campus anymore."

Let's try it, all together now: We have a concern for you. It really bothers us when you bully someone. It hurts them and it makes you look ugly, not cool. So shut up, already.

Now, didn't that feel good?

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Sandy Banks' column runs on Tuesdays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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