Thursday, April 1, 2010

R.I.P. Phoebe Prince

The January 2010 suicide in Massachusetts of Phoebe Prince prompted investigators to accuse nine of her fellow students with the bullying that may have prompted her suicide. Phoebe Prince was the latest casualty in a war we are not winning; the war on bullying.
 flickr photo via trix0r

How many of these incidents will it take before we realize that our typical reactive response does nothing to prevent future tragic incidents from occurring? The odds stacked against our sons and daughters are overwhelming if they find themselves the subjects of bullying behavior, and we need to stop the cycle. I have written in this blog about the importance of learning bullies' stories, and for those kids on the bully-victim spectrum, I sincerely believe this needs to be done if we are to help ease whatever pain is causing their actions. This proactive approach is necessary to curb the influence of bullying, but it won't bring back Phoebe Prince or any of the others who have succumbed to one of the biggest social challenges educators are facing today... kids tendency to want to share their personal pain.

As a former counselor in middle school, and having worked with kids from at-risk environments for 16 years, I have heard stories that upset me to the point where I have had to take the long way home after a bad day at work in order to avoid displaying my grief to my family. I have been reduced to tears hearing kids stories about their home environments, what they deal with socially at school and how this affects their ability to function in even the most basic ways. Our kids are hurting. They are hurting more profoundly than they ever have before. New faceless tools to inflict pain toward others like text messaging and other social media outlets have produced a desensitized generation of perpetrators that has raised the threat of bullying to epidemic levels.

What are we to do? There are no doubt infinite opinions regarding how to deal retroactively with cases such as Phoebe Prince's, and the vast majority of them will default to an eye for an eye perspective. I honestly have nothing to say about that. What should happen to the individuals involved as perpetrators in cases like this will be decided by the courts, and that will be that. You know what though... I'll say it again; it won't bring back Phoebe Prince.

Our kids are lost... how can we make a statement other than this one in attempting to make any sense whatsoever of incidents like the Phoebe Prince bullycide? There was at least one case in my high school twenty-five years ago, and it's still happening. We need to do what we do in schools differently if we are to curb this most devastating problem, and as I said before, we should start by knowing kids' stories. Teachers must make it their business to connect with kids on personal levels; to reclaim them. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his foreword to the book , "Reclaiming Youth at Risk- Our Hope for the Future,"
The reclaiming environment is one that creates changes that meet the needs of both the young person and the society. To reclaim is to recover and redeem, to restore value to something that has been devalued.
Teachers, and anyone else who works in schools, it's our most imperative moral and ethical responsibility to reclaim our lost children. We need to establish a most basic awareness that children are our gift to the future, and that we are not packaging them very well as of late. We need to truly provide safe and nurturing environments in our schools for kids to thrive without fear and anxiety regarding their emotional, social and psychological well-being. As educators, we tend to underestimate the value of those regular day to day things we do in schools for kids who are in so much personal pain that they feel they can't live another day. In the words of Carl Jung,
An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.
Teachers, there are no emergencies in education; we get so worked up about trivial things on a daily basis that we forget, or perhaps some of us never realize that behind the faces of our students are vulnerable young souls dealing with what to them could be life or death problems that overshadow any test, assignment, lab, bit of unfinished homework or any other minor delay in the learning process. Our greatest challenge in contemporary education is to reclaim kids; all of them. Their problems are real, even if they are only real to them- they are real... make no mistake about that. Do not shirk your responsibility to acknowledge this fact, and take the appropriate action to be there when a student chooses you.

That student will choose you because in some way, on any given day, you have provided just a glimmer of hope in the dark and damaging world he/she endures.

Don't be the last person a student came to before doing something bad that cannot be reversed... be the first person a student came to and will never forget because you were willing to share the pain as you held hands without judgement taking those first steps through their grief toward healing.

In the brilliant words of Professor Herbert W. Vilakazi,
"The problems of children and of youth, giving rise to child and youth care programs, can only begin to be solved in that society of humankind’s dream; a more collective-oriented society than at present, when the father of the child shall be every man as old as the child’s father; when the mother of the child shall be every woman as old as the child’s mother; a society of responsibility of the entire community..."
Is there any more important responsibility than this?

Rest in peace Phoebe Prince.



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