Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bullied Then, Successful Now

I went to all the trouble to create a podcast in response to Clay's meme and only then, as I was browsing for the file over at Switchpod, remembered that in South Africa I don't really have the bandwidth or the speed to upload a 16 megabyte audio file.

This is the first meme I've participated in the two plus year's I've been writing here. I was never tagged, and I wasn't always sure readers would be interested. I understand part of the purpose of a meme is to let people know more about yourself. I guess since I don't write annoymously, I feel that there are some things about myself I don't share online. I don't know.

But Clay's meme has to do with the reason I teach.

I was a pretty cool kid in elementary school. Not because I listened to The New Kids on the Block or MC Hammer. I was the smart kid. If you and I were working on a project together, we were going to take out the trash.

I was so popular in fifth grade, I was even elected mayor of Ameritown. Each week we had a business professional come teach us how to fill out a checkbook and how much of your income should go to savings - basic capitalist education. It all culminated in a day at this simulated city in downtown Denver - Ameritown - where everyone had a job. There were police officers, bankers, a television studio, and city hall. And I was elected mayor.

My speeches are what won it for me. I used a famous line from one of Shakespeare's plays to lead each one. My first speech started something like "Friends, students, teachers, lend me your ears." I won the first round with that. I used another one in the final round, but I don't remember what it was. They made me sound smart enough to win though, everyone whispered "oh my, I believe that's Shakespeare, isn't it?" At least that's how I envisioned it. My inarrgural speech began "to be Ameritown, or not to be Ameritown?" before launching into a talk about how unbelieveable it was that we were there. In each of my speeches, Bill came to my aid.

Everything changed on my first day of middle school. There were about three others from elementary school joining me on yellow track at Mrachek Middle School. The rest were on different tracks (meaning somewhere else in the school or on vacation - I would never share any classes with them) or going to Aurora Middle School on the other side of town. All the friends I had were gone and I was back at square one.

On the first day, I made the crucial cultural fopah of wearing my Boy Scout uniform to school. Apparently what was cool at Tollgate Elementary did not fly at the bus stop.

Riding the bus was the worst. It picked us up at 7:00 outside Tollgate. Maybe it was the boy scout uniform from that first day, maybe it was because I didn't put up a fight, but I was the punching bag for a number of my fellow students.

It got so bad, I started walking an extra mile to ride another bus. One day, walking home, three of my old bus-mates stooped in waiting behind a parked car. One jumped up too early and I was able to run home by a back way. I don't know what I would have experienced if I hadn't been warned.

In class, I was belittled and harrassed. My grades dropped. And my reaction to all this was to put up walls around myself. I stopped answering questions in class. I stopped participating openly in group work. I didn't even try to make friends anymore.

After the worst three years of my life, my parents enrolled me in a private Cathoic high school. But I had learned my lesson. From the start I didn't do anything that put me at risk. I kept myself socially baracaded until junior year, when a really excellent retreat built enough community between myself and classmates that I started to open up again.

I saw college as a fresh start. In the first few months, young and idealistic, I rolled a trash can out in front of the student center and began collecting money for UNICEF. I held a giant sign that said "everytime the horn honks, a child dies" and distastefully squeezed a bike horn every 15 seconds. Some people thought I was combating abortion, and being on a politically charged college campus, some of the glares I got eventually deterred my efforts. But I raised $20 and $50 more when I did Trick or Treat for UNICEF in October. It was better than I expected.

In January of my freshman year I met my future wife, sitting directly behind me in a literature class. We ended up doing a lot of group work together and shared a poetry class next period. I had an assignment to read a poem for a class poetry slam. Choosing Shakespeare's sonnet 18, I read it with a little guitar accompaniment I composed myself. I made eye contact with Jennie at key moments in the poem. Of course, Ol' Bill didn't fail me then either.

Years later, a professor asked me why I was going to be a teacher, what was my philosophyof education. I told him I'm going back to middle school and I'm going to get my revenge. I will teach to help students discover the skills to create healthy social relationships. My first month in any classroom will be spent on community building. Before we go after parts of speech or young adult literature, very student will feel welcomed and safe - physically, mentally, and emotionally. And we won't fall behind in material. Because after that first month, we will be in the zone. We will learn together like a well oiled machine - we will each know each other on a level that we can discuss with respect, deliver deserved praise to each other, and admit a change in thinking without embarressment.


  1. Thanks for adding your story, Ben. You bring out another element of the dangers of school life - the bus ride - that I hadn't thought much about.

    It's nice that this well-written piece adds another voice able to laugh a bit as it looks back at what, during the time of the story told, was no laughing matter.

    If you still have that podcast, and want to experiment with trying to ftp it directly to my server, let me know. I'll try to make an ftp account for you to access, and you'll be able to take as long as you need to upload it. Then I can upload it from there to wherever you want me to put it.

    Thanks again, and much respect for stepping up to take on the *ahem* "excellent foppery of the world." (Old Bill is always a sure bet, as you say ;-) )

    By the way, if you have any links to your opening weeks' community-building approaches in your classes, I think Charlie A. Roy is looking for input along those lines. See his comment on the meme post.


  2. My question is what are truly effective ways to address bullying in schools. It seems students suffer so much and so many are unaware of this going on. How do we address it to make it stop? I've googled the bullying sites and seen the nifty programs but it still seems like to little.

  3. Clay,

    Thanks for the kind words and the offer to ftp. We pay for internet by the amount of data we transfer. Combine that with my computer's fun little trick of crashing numerous times a day, and it probably won't make sense for me to try to upload it. I appreciate the offer though. If you do decide to compile the entries maybe I can post you a CD or something.

    Great meme.


    I left some thoughts in a comment over on Clay's blog as well. Was thinking today after reading your comment that maybe I would post a few of the activities I'm familiar with to build community in the classroom. I'm a little green, the only experiences I've had with it were student teaching - my current job deals more with pedagogy development than teaching (not sure how I qualify for that either). But if we really wanted to get carried away, we could steal Clay's idea and do a classroom community building meme. One step at a time though. I'll post some activities here in the next few weeks.

    Thanks for the comment.