The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, N.Y.

The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, N.Y.
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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Empathy Can Eradicate Bullying

Published in the May 6, 2007 edition of The Times Union

By Stacey Morris

There is nothing that will ever excuse what Seung-Hui Cho did when he viciously snuffed out 32 lives, and then his own, in an orgy of violence, the hideous dénouement of his long-simmering, and apparently quite noticeable internalized rage.

But it’s time we wake up to something.

As a society, we can no longer afford to sweep school bullying under the rug.

The questions remain: was Cho a self-absorbed psychopath with a persecution complex; a castigated man-kid who took one emotional hit too many; or a toxic blend of both? It will take months to piece together his psychological history.

But let’s look at a few things we know so far:

High school classmates have been quoted as remembering the unrelenting ridicule directed at Cho over his accent, and it eventually left him terrified to speak. Sometimes the verbal taunts would escalate into physical aggression. Not exactly the way to lay some tracks for a positive self-image.

Since this mirrors similar accounts from past school shootings, isn’t it fair to say that there’s enough smoke here to admit there is, in fact, a spark or two causing it?

Can we finally acknowledge that it’s no longer viable to dismiss the shredding of children’s self-esteem with a kids-will-be kids shrug? And aren’t we resourceful enough to change the equation?

Granted, reactions like Cho’s are thankfully rare. But we need to become as wary of bullying as we are of cheating in our classrooms.

Because a) do we want to go through this every few years and b) what about the picked-on and mistreated who fly under the radar their entire lives?

The damage manifests in varying degrees, from settling for an unchallenging career or a bad relationship, to numbing the ache with substances, to the ultimate headline-grabbing response.

You don’t have to be Dr. Joyce Brothers to connect the dots.

I, along with other less-than-flawless members of my class, was bullied at school. But this was during the ‘70s, when the media menagerie was as tranquil as a Monet painting. The edgy TV crime dramas were “Columbo” and “The Rockford Files.” Space Invaders was as rough as it got with video games, and my lone brush with cinematic violence was the attack scenes in ‘Jaws.’ Looking back, Spielberg’s account of a hungry shark on a rampage is G-rated compared with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its ilk.

I think I speak for most of my generation when I say how profoundly grateful I am for never having my mind exposed to the psychological filth that’s spewed across the psyches of today’s youth.

School teasing coupled with Molotov cocktails of celluloid violence might not be the total cause for Cho’s coming unhinged but it certainly could have tipped the scales.

Do we want to continue to take chances with this? Is there anyone out there who objects to a culture of respect being born in the school system?

And let’s not pretend we don’t have an inside track on some of Cho’s demons. No one reading this hasn’t experienced it either via witnessing, perpetrating, or being on the receiving end of school-yard cruelty.

Whether it’s because someone is fat, buck-toothed, ethnically different from the majority, bespectacled, shy, tall, short, skinny, or is simply designated by a power-clique to be a target, it seems most of us have been ripe candidates at one time or another.

Maybe it’s time to make Peter Yarrow’s “Don’t Laugh At Me” program a mandatory part of the curriculum in all schools.

Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, founded Operation Respect in an effort to make classrooms more conducive to turning out well-rounded, happy individuals.

Operation Respect’s goal is “to assure each child and youth a respectful, safe, and compassionate climate of learning where their academic, social, and emotional development can take place free of bullying, ridicule, and violence.”

How tired I am of our national fetish to turn kids into mean, lean competitive machines, starting with T-Ball, while our humanity skills are atrophying by the day. In simple English: teaching children to be competitive is putting the cart before the horse.

Wouldn’t there be a bigger payoff in the long run if we groomed children into thoughtful, compassionate human beings who are given explicit instructions and concrete examples of how to be considerate and empathetic toward others?

Instead of buying into the win-lose mythology of the sports world, why not give kids trophies for practicing The Golden Rule? No genetic gifts or talents required to win this one. Simply tapping into one’s innate ability to care is enough.

Clearly, this isn’t just a teacher issue (they have their hands fuller than ever these days); it’s society’s issue.

And spare me the sticks and stones rationale.

Anyone who’s not lobotomized knows that ridicule does, in fact, damage.

And we should be so lucky were it only sticks and stones…nowadays, the range of weaponry is far more sophisticated.