By Tessa Raebeck
When two girls in Jodee Blanco’s high school English class began to chant that she “should have been an abortion,” her teacher stopped the class and sent the bullies to the principal’s office, where they received a 10-day suspension.
But despite the teacher’s good intentions, the torment did not stop for Blanco.
“At the end of the suspension,” recalled Blanco, “they cornered me in the parking lot after school, took a tiny shard of cement and they cut my face. I still have the scar.”
Incidents like this inspired Blanco to dedicate her adulthood to educating others on bullying prevention, recognition and response.
Prompted by a Sag Harbor School District parent who felt their child was being bullied, Director of Pupil Personnel Services Barbara Bekermus hired Blanco to present her workshop, “It’s NOT Just Joking Around!” to the entire faculty and staff on Tuesday, the teachers’ first day back at school.
“My adolescence was a living hell,” Blanco told the room. “I’m 49 and a half years old and from fifth grade through high school, I was the kid that no one wanted to be caught dead hanging out with. I cried myself to sleep every night for the same reason I suspect some of your students who struggle to fit in do — simply for being different.”
Alternating between addressing the crowd as her adult, expert self and her tortured, adolescent self, Blanco described how there were certain things parents and teachers did that helped and certain things that “made my life way more miserable.”
According to Blanco, common examples of what not to say to a bullied child include directing them to ignore the bullies and walk away, telling the child that if they leave the bullies alone they will then be left alone and, the worst response, saying that the tormenters are simply jealous of the victim.
“We blithely feed them a cliché that didn’t work when we were kids and doesn’t work now either,” Blanco argued.
Acting as her former teenage self, she said, “Who cares why they don’t like me? I don’t want any more intellectual explanations; I just want them to like me. We don’t care why we don’t fit in, we just want to have friends.”
Blanco differentiated between the obvious victims, who are publicly ridiculed daily, and the less apparent victims, who no one is specifically cruel to, but no one is nice to either. These “invisible students” suffer from exclusion and extreme loneliness.
Blanco alleged that because 95 percent of bullying victims fit into the mold of the “ancient child,” in that they have a more mature mindset and sophisticated tastes not evident in their peers, adults often try to rationalize bullying using adult logic.
“That’s the single biggest mistake adults make with kids in the school system — they assume that students can think like adults,” she said.
In order to effect actual change in the bullies and the victims, adults must work to establish emotional credibility, said Blanco. By carefully choosing language that validates kids, rather than dismisses them, students are encouraged to open up and trust the adults who actually help and to listen to them. Instead of using the word “problem,” for example, Blanco would say “challenge” and address it not as the child’s fault, but as a common challenge they are going to confront together.
“Say to the student, ‘I don’t know how you feel, I can’t imagine what you’re going through, it must be awful,’” Blanco suggested. “Resist the urge to interrupt, let the child vent.”
She also advised embracing silences as periods where some of the greatest revelations can happen and to give the students your full attention and time.
“Make sure the student knows that you are there to help them and that no one is getting up off that seat until they’ve talked to you, even if it takes all day,” she said. “If they know this, they will eventually open up, if for no other reason than to be granted escape.”
Teachers hoping to intervene should always have an adult partner, usually another teacher or a counselor, and choose a neutral location to talk to the student. Rather than a principal’s office, where bullies may be on the defensive and victims may be nervous about getting others in trouble and thus facing more retaliation, interventions should take place in an empty classroom or the teacher’s lounge.
Blanco insisted that the focus when working with bullies should not be on punishment, but instead on finding the source of the problem and instilling compassion, not fear, into the tormenters.
“If you really want to eradicate bullying in your school district,” she maintained. “You have to have compassion for the bully and not just the victim. True intelligence, especially in education, is a derivative of compassion.”
For the victims, the chief priority is working to heal their pain and finding them a positive outlet immediately.
“This is the suicide point,” said Blanco. “The single biggest mistake that teachers and parents make that leads to more bullying related suicides than any other mistake is this: you find out a student is being bullied and, with all good intentions, you immediately jump into action.”
“You talk to the principal, the superintendent, set up a meeting with the parents of the victims and the parents of the bullies and it all becomes this focus on the institutional level: how are we going to punish the bullies?” she continued. “Meanwhile, lying over here bleeding emotionally from loneliness is that bullied child. Every night that an invisible student cries themselves to sleep from loneliness, they’re one step closer to a desperate act.”
Remembering kids who took their own lives due to bullying, Blanco said, “In each case, the parents knew about the bullying. The school knew about the bullying and the school was doing everything it could to help and yet, the child still took their own life.”
The first step, according to Blanco, is to perform triage.
“You’ve got to stop that emotional bleeding from loneliness,” she said. “Triage consists of one simple, simple action: it’s called interim social life. You need to help the student find a brand new social outlet completely separate from school, where they can make new friends with new faces outside of school.”
For a hurting Sag Harbor student, a teacher or parent could look into clubs and programs in East Hampton or another nearby town, she suggested. Blanco has seen this emotional triage work firsthand, when her parents signed her up for teen community theater four neighborhoods away from her hometown.
“It saved my life, because at school I was spat on, beaten, called names, told I should have been an abortion every day walking down the halls,” she remembered. “But after school, I got to see all my friends at play practice. That’s the only reason I wasn’t successful at suicide.”
Emphasizing the importance of teachers and school personnel, Blanco was insistent upon the effect a caring, or careless, adult can have on a hurting child and the lasting impact of positive, informed action.
After the presentation, Nina Landi, a teacher at Sag Harbor Elementary School, said, “Ms. Blanco did a wonderful job reminding us all of the child behind the student and how you never know how a simple interaction can affect a child for a lifetime.”