Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What have we learned from Susan Boyle?

One of my co-workers pulled up a video on YouTube last week, of a woman named Susan Boyle, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lp0IWv8QZY. She wins over her audience singing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables.

Talk about a hostile audience! The lead judge is condescending. The stagehands snigger and mock her gestures. Some female members of the audience curl their expressions in scorn.

Because my co-workers were familiar with the story and were explaining the circumstances, I don't know how I would have reacted if I’d been a viewer of the original broadcast. Would I have prejudged Boyle too, solely on the basis of her looks and her way of conducting herself?

Not since a Sebastopol bellydancing expo had I seen rude behavior that was so willfully and blatantly public. A dancer was giving a solo performance and some members of her troop had postured themselves behind her and were making fun of her gestures, nudging each other and goading each other on. Was this supposed to be part of the performance? It seemed very mean spirited and served as a pointless distraction from the solo dancer’s routine.

I didn't understand the other dancers’ rudeness then, and I was dumbfounded by the rudeness that confronted Susan Boyle when she came out on stage in “Britain’s Got Talent.” Seemingly everyone had decided that Boyle could not sing. They were expecting her to bomb! Except maybe the female judge, whose facial expression was blank.

Once Boyle began to sing, however, the scornfulness melted away. One of the members of my congregation, the local Unitarian Universalist community, said that hearing Boyle sing was an incredible blessing. And it was! Boyle has a beautiful voice and her choice of song complimented her ability.

Everybody who doubted her was shown up by her performance as a complete and utter jackass! It was a gripping and triumphant drama.

Boyle’s performance received widespread publicity. A YouTube video of her performance has been viewed millions of times. The Daily Record newspaper posted a recording of Boyle singing “Cry Me a River” circa 1999 that was also reposted on YouTube.

And the commentary! Numerous columns and blogs dissecting the implications of her triumph.

For those of us who could relate to her disclosure that she had learning disabilities and that she’d been bullied at school, her success was especially meaningful. Any of us could be a Susan Boyle, only seeking an opportunity to have someone be willing to look beyond pre-decided inability and let our talent speak for itself.

Even now, several people are saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

I wonder, however, why we need to be reminded of this axiom again and again. How long will it be before a Susan Boyle’s performance will face no prejudgement at all, and the only response it elicits from listeners will be simple admiration for its excellence?

I think it would be worthwhile if each of us took stock of where our personal prejudices lie and then ask ourselves if, like the television judges, we might ever have been wrong by making those preassumptions.

Published April 28, 2009 in the Lake County Record-Bee

Monday, April 27, 2009

I could write about bullying every week

I got a nice comment by a local teacher, Justin Braider, at church service yesterday. He encouraged me to continue speaking out against bullying because as a teacher, he knows it happens. I thanked him for the encouragement, saying that I could easily write about bullying every week and the only reason I don't is that I don't want people to get sick of the subject and tune me out.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Temple Grandin on Lake County radio KPFZ 88.1 FM

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

School play promotes discussion of uncomfortable reality

A dramatic performance of “Bang, Bang, You’re Dead” by the Calistoga Junior/Senior High School drama department offers much-needed encouragement to talk about violence and bullying in our schools.

As a consequence of speaking out publicly as having been bullied in school, I've observed an uncomfortable phenomenon: people frequently do not want to believe that bullying or abuse took place and will respond to the victim with a viciousness that rivals the original abuse.

It’s bad enough that the victims of bullying face the day-to-day reality of abuse. Even when a victim is not provoked to wreak violence upon his or her peers, the consequences can still be devastating.

Bullying is a documented factor in many young people’s suicides and has also been identified as a contributor to Complex PTSD (that’s post traumatic stress disorder caused by cumulative traumatic events rather than a short-lived trauma).

But when you examine the clinical description of Complex PTSD, there is also an identified tendency to blame the victim for repeated abuse, to dismiss that person as being of “weak character” (National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder).

Imagine how an attitude like this could compound the victim’s suffering by holding him or her responsible for having failed to prevent the abuse!

But it’s not so easy to dismiss the reality that children are bullied and abused when you are confronted with a performance such as “Bang, Bang, You’re Dead” on stage right in front of you.

I attended the final performance on Saturday, April 4, in the CHS Black Box Theater. In it, five dead students forced their classmate to explain why he killed them with a shotgun.

The playbill included a list of Web sites that have resources to deal with bullying as well as a check list for depression and suicide that offered local contacts.

Cast members also assembled on stage and read statistics about violence and bullying before inviting comments from the audience. Representatives with the Calistoga Family Center, a student assistance agency, encouraged community referrals.

So much had changed in almost 25 years since I'd graduated from CHS. Talking afterward with the Calistoga Family Center representatives, I allowed myself cautious optimism that today's students at CHS will have resources made available to cope with bullying and violence.

In an article in the Weekly Calistogan, CHS drama teacher Tyrone Sorrentino cited one of the statistics that was recited at the end of the performance: that school violence has increased 82 percent in the last five years. Both teacher and students were ready to take on a serious subject like bullying.

I think this performance is a perfect example of the power of art and drama -- to transcend our disbelief and to facilitate dialogue.

Published April 7, 2009 in the Lake County Record-Bee

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Calistoga schools finally discuss bullying

I would like to thank the Calistoga Junior/Senior High School drama class for being willing to address the controversial issue of school bullying. I am a 1986 graduate who was subjected to bullying and ostracism throughout nearly all of my K-12 career in the Calistoga schools.