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Taking on bullying

March 21, 2011

“I remember in seventh grade, at the beginning of the day, there was a boy named Roger standing in the hallway, and I adored him. He never gave up, even though he had a challenge, Down Syndrome … There was a girl named Nadia who would shake her hips and twirl her curls; she thought she was all that. I was walking to class, and I saw her and (others) throwing dirt (from a plant) in Roger's eyes, and he was smiling. He smiled because he thought these kids finally wanted to play with him, spend time with him. I stuck up for Roger, and Nadia said to me, 'Jodee, nobody likes you!' Later that day, I found rotten, smelly food strewn all over my locker. There was a note that read, 'Nobody likes you, freak!'”
— Jodee Blanco

PAWTUCKET — A rather upset teen-age girl, dabbing her eyes with a tissue, sat on a chair in the corner of the St. Raphael Academy Alumni Hall & Wellness Center late Thursday night, and Jodee Blanco stood next to her, arm around her shoulders.
Blanco, a 46-year-old New York Times' best-selling author, had spent the previous two hours enthralling an audience of over 400 with personal horror stories of being bullied as a child and adolescent. She nevertheless took the time to advise the girl, who seemingly had painful memories of her own.
Blanco promised her she would overcome. Nobody knows that better than she.
See BULLYING, Page A-2
Years ago, Blanco took the gut-wrenching anguish she had suffered to develop a presentation she calls “It's NOT Just Joking Around,” and has been delivering the inspirational part-soliloquy, part-play, part-sermon to schools, colleges and other organizations nationwide ever since.
This past week, she preached the same anti-bullying message to every student, teacher and administrator at Woodlawn Regional Catholic, St. Teresa and St. Cecilia schools and St. Raphael Academy. During her final session at SRA Thursday night, it without question resonated with students and parents alike.
“I was at a public school, in fourth grade, and there were guys who looked like they were eighth-graders,” offered Jack Coderre, a St. Teresa sixth-grader with twin brother Dave. “One day, it got really bad. A woman drove up with the bullies inside the car, and they started swearing at me.
The mom stopped and about five kids jumped out and started chasing me.
“They caught me, and one kid slapped me in the face, another kneed me,” he added. “My brother, at first, just watched, so he was being a 'bystander,' but then he couldn't take it anymore. He grabbed me by the arm and brought me to the principal's office.
“The next day, the principal called the bullies down to his office, and those guys lied like a whistle will blow. They said I was throwing rocks at the car, which I wasn't. The bullies got into a little trouble, but the principal only gave them, like, a 20-minute detention. He also told them never to do that again.
“I walked out of that school the very last day and said to them, 'Good luck in your real life!' It made me feel scared, and I wondered why they didn't like me, but now I've got more confidence. Jodee's given me even more.”
Stated Jack's older sister, Hannah, an SRA sophomore: “I heard Jodee this morning, and – at first – I thought she was kind of mean. She came across kinda stern. Thirty minutes later, I realized she was just being herself, and was trying to help kids.
“Actually, I used to be what she calls an 'elite tormentor.' In fifth grade, I knew a girl in school who was popular, and she became my friend. There was a guy in our class, and he was mentally challenged. He would do things that were pretty gross, so we'd leave him alone. We'd leave him out of conversations on purpose. We'd use hand sanitizer in front of him to show him what he was doing was crazy.
“Now that I'm a sophomore, I feel so bad about it. I realize it wasn't cool. I'd love to see him again and ask for his forgiveness.”
On Thursday night, Blanco conveyed her experiences in front of bleachers full of parents, students and teachers who had already heard her story and the four principals responsible for the assemblies. They included Maryann Donohue-Lynch of SRA, Veronica Procopio of Woodlawn Regional, Simone Kennedy of St. Cecilia's and Mary Carney of St. Teresa's.
The four schools sponsored the presentations with Catapult Learning LLC of Camden, N.J., and it fell perfectly in line with St. Raphael's adoption in September of a “Golden Rule Anti-Bullying Crusade.”
Blanco talked about frequently crying herself to sleep because of the bullying, and – when it got to be intolerable – attempted suicide. She revealed her self-esteem was so low through childhood, she chose not to brush her hair or put on makeup, and her hygiene suffered.
She mentioned the time in high school she had purchased a terrific pair of stiletto shoes, but later found them floating in a soiled lavatory toilet. Nearby she found a note, “Nobody likes you! You're a dork!”
“I immediately said a prayer; I actually prayed to God to give me cancer so I wouldn't have to go to school,” she stated via microphone. “I kept thinking all the girls, all the kids, must have been so excited to be involved in that cool drama, but never thought about how it would affect me.
“I got through middle school, but I couldn't eat; nothing would stay down,” she continued. “I dropped down to 77 pounds. My appearance got dirty and disgusting.”
She spoke of the time her biology class had been ordered to dissect a piglet, and she pleaded with her teacher to give her another assignment.
She just couldn't slice it open, as she was “the most eccentric animal lover ever.”
The teacher and class laughed at and made fun of her, though her “cool” principal helped her through it.
“The next day, Nadia brings over a bag with a partially-dissected pig inside, took it out and hit me in the face with it,” she noted. “A morsel of it went into my mouth. You know what? Some of those kids didn't want to laugh. They were scared to death, but that's worse than being a bully (bystanding)! You know what it makes them? Cowards.”
Blanco conveyed the time a girl, one who she thought wanted to be friendly, pulled her chair out from underneath her. She crashed to the floor, and everyone in the lunchroom started to chortle.
“I walked from table to table, 'Please can I sit here? May I sit here?' and all the kids were laughing,” she said. “They told me, 'Get out of here, freak! You're a loser!' I ran out and cried and cried.”
Blanco mentioned the day she turned the first of her two best-sellers, “Please Stop Laughing At Me” and its sequel, “Please Stop Laughing At Us” into her publisher. Her mother called with what she deemed exciting news.
A letter had arrived at her old homestead, inviting Blanco to her 20th high school reunion in a Chicago suburb.
She promised she was terrified, but went anyway to prove something to herself.
“(The guys) walked up to me, and said, 'Jodee Blanco! We never thought you'd show,' and one said he was sorry for all he did to me years before,” she stated as if she still was conversing with them.
“It's OK.”
“No, Jodes, it's not OK. We heard you're writing a book about us. Are we in it?”
“Don't worry. I changed the names.”
“We still deserve it.”
The bullied woman then saw Nadia, the elite tormentor, who told her, “Oh, my gosh! Jodee B.! I always thought you were the coolest kid in school! I thought you were so amazing!”
She replied, “No, you guys hated me. I was nothing but a stupid joke to you.”
They then explained they thought she was so mature and sophisticated for her age, they didn't know how to express it. Tears welled up in Blanco's eyes as they begged her to go dancing with them after the reunion.
At the club, she saw a man named Mitch, a guy she had secretly gushed over since grade school. She admitted being amazed when he asked her to dance, and thrilled when he kissed her in the moonlight.
They eventually married, though that came to an end years later, as he had been bullied by his family, and she by her peers. The crowd groaned when she made that comment.
After more play-acting, Blanco offered several tips to her listeners. To students, they included:
Realize there's nothing wrong with you. It's all the things that are right about you that makes you stick out from the crowd.
React in the moment, not later. The time to speak up and defend yourself is in the moment. Stand up and look the bully right in the eye. Tell him to stop and leave you alone; he'll get the message.
Reach out to a parent or other caring adult for help. Don't go through it alone. (“When I was getting bullied, I tried to hide it from my parents because I was so ashamed,” she said. “Eventually, I confided in them, and it was the best thing I could have done”).
Start a journal.
Find alternative outlets, such as something you've always wanted to pursue outside of school, be it at a YMCA, community theater, Parks & Recreation activities, etc.
Don't be afraid of professional help. (“If your parents want you to see a psychologist or counselor, ask if they would attend the first few sessions with you. Explain how it would make you feel comfortable because you'll feel like you're dealing with the situation as a family”).
Among tips for parents:
Never say to a bullied child, “Ignore the bully and walk away,” “They're just jealous” or “Twenty years from now, those bullies probably will be in jail and you'll be successful.”
Instead say, “I don't know how you feel. I can't imagine what you're going through. It must be awful.”
Then say, “Let's talk about an action we can take together today to help you with this problem.”
Contact a park district, library or community center one town over and ask them to send you a list of their youth programs. Then review the information with your child and help them select something he or she finds fascinating.
Contact the child's school counselor and calmly explain what's been happening; “My child's been encountering some challenges with his classmates, and I'd like to sit down with you and discuss possible solutions with you.”
Be alert to warning signs that a child is being bullied, among them:
Lethargy, depression, self-mutilation, extreme makeover attempts, diminished personal hygiene, lack of interest in social activities, sudden changes in weight, inexplicable fits of rage, sudden increase or decrease in grades, faking illness, etc.
“If you suspect your child may be an elite tormentor but aren't quite sure, casually have a conversation with her about who's popular in school and who's not, coaxing her into revealing those students who may struggle to fit in or strike the child as lonely,” she indicated. “A week later, ask if she would like to host a pizza party, and suggest it may be nice if, along with the friends, she invited some of the forgotten ones, too.
“If she agrees, despite what friends may think, she's probably an Elite Leader. If she won't because she's afraid her friends would freak but feels badly about it, she's most likely a bystander. If she recoils at the thought, or acts indignant, perhaps even laughs, chances are she's an elite tormentor.
“Traditional punishment doesn't work,” she added. “It only makes an angry child angrier. Try more compassionate and creative forms of discipline.”
(She admitted one may be taking the child to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter to volunteer, to get a taste of what being lonely and downtrodden is like).
“Jodee's presentation is very thought-provoking, comprehensive, powerful and hopeful,” SRA Principal Donohue-Lynch admitted. “It's one heckuva story … She shared her own personal journey and struggles with bullying and gave specific examples of what it felt like to be bullied. “She also touched on the mindset of the bullier, and didn't offer blame but stated there are reasons why they chose to act that way,” she continued. “It's very important not to dismiss the negative behavior of the bully, but to approach it in a very comprehensive way.
“This has been a week of raising awareness about this issue in all four of our city Catholic schools, and we're continuing to try and create the culture and climate of positive relationships. I really think her message sunk in … After the presentation, a lot of students engaged Jodee in conversation, and thanked her for putting into words what they may have been feeling, but unable to vocalize.”
Bob Coderre, who attended with his three children, admitted he had attended the event with some trepidation.
“I didn't know how applicable it would be to my kids, but it seemed to resonate with everyone,” he said. “I thought she was great. She brought an emotional side to a real problem. I thought the audience was really connected to her. I thought she spoke from the heart; I know I felt it in my heart.
“She mentioned the goal of this journey through life is for all of us to be connected, how we need to come together. At first, I thought she was really emotional, but then it dawned on me the reason why: It was to wake us up to what's happening. She really captured our minds.”

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