“What Does it Cost To Be Kind?”

            This past Thursday at school, we held an anti-bullying assembly along with some small group workshops.  I had been training the kids to lead the small group workshops, and as Thursday approached, I was increasingly nervous about their potential success.  Would the kids be OK on their own?  Would the rest of the student body take the workshops seriously? 

What an inspirational day!   We started the assembly with a scene from Carrie: The Musical, which opened at ARGS last night.  The musical really highlights the problem of bullying — it was the perfect segway to the workshops.  Jason (Campbell — musical theatre director) also showed some power point slides with powerful statistics about the numbers of kids nationwide who are subjected to bullying in schools.  I think they were sobering for our kids, who really see very little of it, comparatively-speaking.

Next, came the small group workshops. The entire student body was divided up into groups of 20, across grades and focus areas.  Off they went with the student leaders and one teacher per classroom– there to be sure all hell didn’t break loose and to help out if things got sticky in any way.  I almost cried watching all the kids head off to their respective classrooms.  No one made a fuss. No one complained.  In fact, all the kids quietly got up and left the auditorium as their names were called.  It felt like a miracle. 

In each workshop, student leaders read a series of statements such as “It’s OK to say ‘that’s so gay’ with my friends if they know I’m only kidding” Or, “ARGS is a safe school for everyone.” Or “If I see someone being bullied in person or in cyberspace, the best thing to do is stay out of it.”  Or, “It’s important for girls to care about how they look but less important for boys.” There were more statements, too — about gender, about the connection between gender and sex, about the use of the word “nigga,” about sub-tweeting.  After each statement was read, students were asked to come stand on a line marked with “Agree,” “Disagree” or “Neutral.” Several students were then asked to talk about their opinions.  No debate just listening.  After all the opinions were aired, kids were given the chance to change their position on the line.  For this portion of the day, I was nervous.  I just didn’t know how the workshop would be perceived.  I had done similar workshops years ago at another school that had been very well received, but I just wasn’t sure this time.  But as I wandered around from classroom to classroom, I saw and heard a range of opinions, kids participating honestly and openly.  And afterwards, I heard from a bunch of kids about how it was all interesting and worthwhile and good. 

The best part of the assembly, though, came next.  After a colleague talked to students directly about bullying in general and the bullying she saw first hand last year when she was our Acting Assistant Director, author and friend Meg Medina took the stage to talk about her book Yacqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass, a book inspired by Meg’s own run-in with a bully when she was fourteen.  The book is powerful, and Meg’s discussion of it was inspirational.  She had the kids riveted.  They gave her standing ovation–two of them in fact.  And now, one senior English class has begged their teacher to please let them read Yacqui Delgado.  A guidance counselor came to see if I had an extra copy she could buy. We raffled off ten copies of Meg’s book after her talk and the entire audience was hoping, hoping that they would be the lucky winners.  I had kids tell me they cried when they didn’t win a book. 

What hit me the most about Meg’s talk was her insistence on the power of art as a way to make sense of our experiences.  When I think about my school and about how little overt bullying we do see — there is bullying, that’s for certain, but nowhere near what many kids describe in their schools — I think that maybe it’s because we are a school for the arts.  I always say, you can’t workshop someone’s writing if you hate them –or critique their art, create music together, act, etc.  Doesn’t mean you have to be friends with everyone, but it’s hard to make art with people you actively hate (just one more argument for including the arts in every school).  And then I think about how many kids do that very thing Meg describes –they take their experiences, all the hard, messy, complications of their lives, and they turn them into art.  It’s a wonder and enough to keep me coming back day after day.  Thank you, Meg, for reminding us all what’s truly important. 

I’m not sure where I’m going with this blog post–I’m pretty rambly here–but I wanted to write about the experience if not to make art then at least to make sense of it, to get it out there and see what it all means. 

And if you’re reading this and you’re in the Richmond / Petersburg area, make a point to come see Carrie: the Musical, 11/22 and 11/23, 7 p.m. and 11/17 and 11/24 at 2 p.m.  You can buy tickets at the door — Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, 512 W. Washington St. Petersburg, VA.  23803.  It’s fabulous. Music is incredible and the kids are pretty fantastic. 

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