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Christian Gregory : Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying    1

As you may know, this past summer I rode my bicycle from Seattle to Boston and from Boston back to NYC, to this steps of this school in an antibullying awareness campaign. Prior to my return, I had asked Mr. Oroszlany and Mr. Lyness if I could speak about bullying at student assembly, and they graciously agreed and I thank them for this privilege. My purpose here today is to think through a problem endemic to the country and relevant to the life of teenagers. And I need your help. So listen and think and let me know your thoughts.

On the problem of bullying, my

first claim, quite simply, is this: that you, each of you, are an integral part of the solution. Here at Loyola, we actively encourage you to be a part of systemic cultural change. We want you to lead. We want you to serve as examples among your peers, and among those younger than yourself: you who are tutors, volunteer coaches, camp counselors, babysitters, older brothers and older sisters. You all exert such a great and powerful influence over communities beyond 83rd and Park. I speak to you here to remind you of your innate inclination to care for others. The genesis of my anti-bullying campaign began in discussion with my students. Two years ago, the students in my Philosophy class felt compelled to think through the complex ethical and legal issues surrounding the suicide of


Christian Gregory: Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying 

Rutgers student Tyler Clemente, after he learned that his roommate had been videotaping his private actions via spycam and inviting others to watch. The following year, I read of one middle school suicide after another: one of which was that of 14-year old Jamie Rodemeyer, who attended Williamsville North, a school 6 miles from my own public high school. This past spring one of my students chose bullying as the topic of his research paper. Thereafter, I went to the opening of the documentary film “Bully,” an incredibly moving work. It was then when I decided to take action, and so I chose to ride 100 indoor cycling classes in 30 days in a month-long awareness campaign. Several teachers here at the school and students (Gabby Celentano, Kareem Burke, and Stephanie Cianci) joined me for my 100th class. It meant a great deal to me as they rode along side me. But when that last class was done, I felt adrift. So impulsively, as I am want to do, I mentioned to my classes that I would ride my bike across the country to continue my campaign. And there, I said it. And as you well know, once a teacher tells a student that they will do something, they are bound by some strange contract to make good on their claim. But this was no pizza party or cookie day. And I guess I knew that. I knew that if I told my students that I would ride my bike across the United States in an anti-bullying campaign, I would do it – and I would never stop and I would never give up.

Christian Gregory : Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying    3

And within a week of the school year’s end, I had shipped my bike and boarded a plane to Seattle. And I was ready to begin my ride. The funny thing about riding across the country with 80 strangers is that it was exactly like the first day of school, recast with a bunch of adults from age 17 to 75, hailing from Australia, the UK, Quebec, the Netherlands, and across 4 corners of the US. We even slept on middle school gym floors. I remember going to dinner in that cafeteria on the first day and feeling the very same awkwardness I felt years ago in middle school, wondering at what table I was going to sit and with whom I was going to sit.

Truth be told, I was foolishly unprepared for this ride. Initially, my goal was to survive each day. In my first week, I rode three 100-mile rides through Washington State, up and across several Mountain passes. I rode uphill to Stevens Pass through hours of hard rain and when I reached the top, I saw snow capped mountains and ski chalets – this was June, mind you. And


Christian Gregory: Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying 

I was cold and wet. Fool that I was, I just thought I would dry off by sailing 35 miles an hour down the mountain. But I didn’t dry off. Speeding down Steven’s Pass just dropped my body temperature. You know, wind chill, and all. My teeth were clattering like Halloween Dentures. Great, I thought, hyperthermia. Relief came when the sun on the east side of the mountain beat down on all lateral surfaces of my body: my arms, knees, the nape of my neck. But that relief was short-lived: within 24 hours I had blistering sunburn on the topside of my arms. I had forgotten to pack sunscreen. And for the next weeks, each rider winced at me and said, “Ooh, that’s looks really bad. You have terrible sunburn.” I thought, Really, I hadn’t noticed those two layers of skin peeling off my forearm. But I did not roll my eyes. (A bad habit). And I did not retort sarcastically. (A worse habit). Instead, I replied, sheepishly, “I know, I know, I forgot to buy sunscreen.” I played the fool, which, of course, was easy, since I was very much the fool in those first few weeks. But I soon left “survivor”- mode and I had the chance for eight hours a day to reflect, before a sunrise, cornfield, gravel road, or a cow or two. In my mind, my job, this summer, was to ride 80 miles a day, think, write, and blog, uncertain if I had would arrive at any answer,

Christian Gregory : Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying    5

nonetheless winding my way through the psychic life of teenagers. For example, I reflected that years ago bullying would happen in schoolyards, witnessed by many; and in some ways, the physical and verbal attacks, contained in public space, were heard and understood, and somehow, as difficult as it may have been, students managed it. But today, cyberbullying takes on an insidious nature, and there is a psychic violence with words, and insults without source or center, that unsettle students at very vulnerable times in their lives -- middle school students, particularly. As I rode through Wyoming, a state of cattle herders, bacon cheese burgers, national parks, and guns, I practiced the technique, an Ignatian technique, of casting myself into the state and being of another: so I imagined the thoughts of teens who may have become victims of cyberhate, who dread waking each day for fear of what might happen in class, or traveling a longleg of hallway, or surveying an unwelcoming lunchroom, or logging onto their computers. Does such dread turn to self-torment? Do such kids become masters of avoidance, of hesitation, of the suppressed voice? Do they become a sketch of what they might be? A slighter version of their true-self? Would it mean nothing for them leave, to exit? In Wyoming, I learned of Alexandre Frye, a 13-year old kid from Cheyenne, who enjoyed the company of adults and loved trains.


Christian Gregory: Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying 

I rode by several trains there, some of the longest trains imaginable, carrying God-knows-what to who-knows-where. I imagine Alex would have answered the “what” and “where” of such trains. Quiet and short for his age, Alex was slow to make friends and had become repeatedly bullied in school. He had told his parents he would handle it, that everything was "cool," but his grades were dropping and he was staying home to avoid the daily taunts and attacks. In January, Alex shot himself at the tracks of the Union Pacific rails. I rode by Wyoming trains and thought of Alex. I learned about kids like Amanda Cummings, a Staten Island teenager who was bullied for her dark-dyed hair, her nose-piercing, her differences, who had hinted at suicide on-line, and who one day threw herself into the path of an NYC bus. Or 12-year old Joel Morales from East Harlem, who hanged himself after being physically bullied for months. I now see these young kids as casualties of a culture of loud and rude and cruel -- bent on an impulse to degrade at any cost -- from reality TV to political pundits. Ours may be a culture of the quick kill -- a hunger game of words, lies, texts, e-mails, and social isolation. The attack-or-be-attacked state-of-mind spreads virus-like, taking its casualties – and the casualties are the nerds, rebels, throwbacks, anomalies, and the gentle-kids.

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The isolation of these kids made me reflect that sometimes kids can come together to act to the detriment of others. But as I was riding, I noticed how in cycling, as with other team sports, the tribe bands together for a mutually beneficial effect. For example, riding into the wind is a rider's trial. It's like pushing a mattress up a NYC walk up. It billows the loose jersey, it whistles through the gates of one's helmet, it accumulates as a soft thunder through the cavities and canals of the outer ear. What you hear is resistance. What you hear is drag. And drag is only made bearable by drafting. Drafting is when a rider rides in the wake of another shielding oneself from the onset of wind. The V-formation of a flock's migration serves the same purpose. By working together, the burden of drag is considerably less. So the tribes of cyclists band together – sometimes riding together against the 40 mile an hour headwinds - in interdependence for survival.

But school tribes, amid lockers and staplers, amid hallways and paper clips are different. For there is a second school within each school -- a school of cool, with classes on social standing, and bookshelves housing thousands of pages of "like." And kids are cued to this at a very young age and are driven to achieve social rank. So, kids jockey for social order, and the means to do so can be, well, just mean.


Christian Gregory: Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying 

When prank boys and mean girls plan and plot, the cruel urge of one becomes magnified exponentially: and the end is a social slaughter for the victims and social currency to the victor. One recent victim is 15 year-old Felicia Garcia, a Staten Island teenager who was deemed a “slut” and bullied relentlessly on-line and in school by members of the football team. The taunts from the players followed her to the Staten Island Railway platform where she tweeted, “I can’t. I’m done. I give up” just moments before she cast herself in front of a train. This was October 24th. A story such as Felicia’s is a tragic, unsettling response to the cruel taunts of school tribes. More common are the experiences of young boys and girls who endure sustained degradation at the hands of school tribes bent on humiliating them. I tell the story of one young girl I tutored. She was an 8th grader and she really did have it all: she was quite bright and came from good family and she was enrolled at a good school. But she wasn’t concentrating on academics; she was concentrating on social politics. When I asked her why she wasn’t concentrating on schoolwork, she replied, “Well, do you want to know what I do every Monday morning?” And I said, “What?” And she said, “I have a morning meeting.”

“You do?”

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“Yeah, I get my girls together and I send them out to find out from the girls in the school what happened to them that weekend. And then we come together and determine how we are going to use that information against them.”

I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say. And I thought, that’s people banding together in the wrong way.

I think actions such as these are bred out of the glorification of gossip and the valorization of cruelty, as if that’s a value we have to emulate, where power is the only end, not kindness. So these past examples – the band of boys and the pack of girls – are tribes bent not on kindness but harm, and my worry is that this sort of abuse infects the victim, and the victim themselves replicate the abuse. My fear is that the bullied student may soon become her or his own bully. Suicide is the most extreme example of self-abuse; but verbal abuse – that daily, persistent cycle of thought that you are worthless, or ugly, or stupid, or insignificant -- is also a form of self-attack. So too is what is now referred to as Non- Suicidal Self Injury: injury inflicted on the body with no intent to die, such as cutting, burning, or self-hitting.

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Christian Gregory: Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying 

Add to that the abuse alcohol and drugs, where the teen wishes to escape the self, to medicate against the abuse they perpetrate against themselves.

So what is deeply unsettling is that the bully, or a tribe of bullies can transform victim into their own victimizer.

I know this is a bit sad and depressing. And I was often saddened as I rode and as I continue to reflect on this. But I wanted to remind you of what students might be feeling at younger and younger ages. And how you might act to reach out, to teach, and to guide within your own communities. So how do tribes, such as teams or schools, operate collectively and supportively? What can we do together? Well, I return to philosopher Hannah Arendt’s notion of plurality: a philosophy of inclusion predicated on following paradox: that while we are equal, we are not interchangeable. That is to say, we are cognizant that we share an innate equity of rights; while at the same time, we are fully aware that we are distinct individuals. And part of the challenge and high school, and in life for that matter, is to come to an acceptance of distinction in the world. This is not to relieve people of responsibility. This doesn't mean that we are all distinct and so we all get you whatever we want. Arendt does note a moral code we must live by.

Christian Gregory : Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying   

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She is, of course, writing in the wake of the Holocaust, where there was an abuse of rather than acceptance of distinctions; further, there was neither tolerance nor equality -- rights were taken away from group after group after group: foreigners, gypsies, the mentally ill, the disabled, gays and lesbians, and, of course, the larger population of the Jewish community in Germany. Her philosophy was bred out of that history. I think this idea of equality in full recognition of distinction is a useful philosophy for the environment of high schools. It is often taught at a very young age in kindergarten and first and second grade, and sadly forgotten somewhere along the line in middle school. Kids lose site of differences. They really want do everyone to conform. So as a community we can think about such distinctions of race, gender, cultural difference, sexuality, economic and class distinctions, learning capacities and differences and both mark and honor those distinctions, rather than reduce and degrade those differences into some convenient joke for our reckless pleasure. To honor our distinctions, therefore, is a means of forging connections, meaningful connections within each tribe or community. And it seems to me that the more meaningful connections we have to one another, the less likely any member will be to sever those connections or cause themselves injury or harm.

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Christian Gregory: Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying 

All this action is intimately tied to our purpose in life, and I agree with Aristotle when he posits that our ultimate goal in life is to flourish. And to flourish means to cultivate virtues, building habits of mind and action as if we are training our souls the way the coaches here train our bodies. So we practice honesty, integrity, kindness, and moral judgment. As with the practice of any skill, we may falter, we may misstep, but we must continue.

What would it mean for you to practice honesty with your teachers, with your parents?

Or integrity: that you follow through on what you say you will do as often as you can?

Or forgiveness: the habit of mind that if we knew more, if we knew all, we might see our adversary as someone like ourselves, flawed, occasionally misguided, error-prone, just trying to eek out a pathway to good? And perhaps then we can forgive more easily.

Christian Gregory : Don’t Stand By/ A Teacher Against Bullying   

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Or justice: To steel ourselves so that we intercede to stop acts which violate the rights of those around us. To voice our concerns over comments and actions that perpetuate sexism, racism, homophobia, that alienate students with learning disorders or differences or those suffer from anxiety or depression. In being just, forgiving, integrated, and honest, you are becoming whole. You are becoming good. You are flourishing. And more importantly, you are building communities to which others will attach and in which others will flourish as well. So I rode across the country and back to the steps of the school to say this to you: Build your communities. Promote each other’s growth and happiness. Cultivate yourself. Put down the weapons and words of selfattack. Take up some act of self-creation. Make something great. Make something last. A friendship. A skill. A virtue. A talent. A passion. A love. -- VIDEO -You really do serve as models of the just and kind. Know that any time `you may start the start of you. Your own virtues. Your own passions. You will forgive. You will forge justice. You will right wrongs. You will care and protect. Want more – for yourself and for others. And don’t stop and don’t quit. Thank you.

A Teacher Against Bullying  

Mr. Christian Gregory's Anti-Bullying Talk to the Loyola Community

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