Bullying Three Ways


I originally started drafting this post well before last night’s presidential debate and the follow-up by Van Jones, but these events have slightly rearranged what I need to say.

This thread actually started on September 27 with four talks (to different groups) at Weston by motivational speaker Tom Thelen. Normally I’m skeptical, sometimes even cynical, about so-called “motivational speakers,” or maybe it was just that events have combined to make this one especially meaningful. Tom Thelen and Van Jones have two different subjects for their talks: bullying and Donald Trump.

But wait, are those really two different subjects?

Here’s the thing, in three parts:

  • Part One: Thelen talks to kids (and their parents and teachers) about what bullying is and how you can keep from becoming a victim even if you can’t keep from being bullied. Here’s an excerpt from his blurb:

Teens are tired of hearing the same old “Don’t Be a Bully” message, and that’s why this session has become Tom’s most requested speech – because it comes from a totally unexpected place. Tom takes students on a journey through his own life story showing how his reaction to bullying led to a victim mindset. Thankfully one teacher stepped in and helped him become “Victimproof.” Tom discovered how to stop giving bullies the negative attention they were looking for, and more importantly, how “emotional intelligence” can empower all of us to “Be The Change.”

Thelen defines bullying with three characteristics: it’s intentional, it’s a power grab, and it’s repeated. With this definition, he readily distinguishes bullying from meanness, teasing, or rudeness. So I listened to him talk about his life story in this context, not expecting it to have any special resonance with me… but it actually brought back a flood of unpleasant memories about George W. Bush and his high-school cronies. Intentional? Check! Power grab? Check! Repeated? Check!

  • Weston High School followed up the talk with discussions about bullying in advisories, but even before then I made a decision about what my Part Two had to be. Normally I wait until the day before a vacation (when kids aren’t in a mood for math and there are too many absences anyway) to devote a class to showing clips from Kevin Rafferty’s documentary movie about our Phillips Academy class of 1965. I’ve done this for several years, ever since the movie was completed. But I was so shaken by Thelen’s talk that I resolved to show the clips, in two parts, as soon as we were done with our upcoming Honors Geometry test. (Showing them before the test would clearly be a bad idea.) What comes through loud and clear throughout the movie, as I discussed in a blog post a year ago, was that Bush and his friends were bullies, given the criteria I mention in the previous paragraph. We didn’t know those three criteria then, but we were all too aware of the bullying. We were also all too aware of the Andover culture’s prohibitions again talking about one’s feelings, and no one was there to help, so we kept everything packed up inside of us. In Thelen’s talk he made a big point about needing a trusted adult to talk to; we didn’t have that. So I showed the clips, with a small amount of commentary by me and a certain number of questions by the freshmen. I hope it was meaningful and possibly even therapeutic for some kids.

  • And now we come to Donald Trump, bully par excellence. What more can I say, except that Trump’s actions must surely be having an effect on high-school students. He must surely be encouraging white male bullies and causing distress in everyone else. As Van Jones points out, the issue with Trump is not his crude language but his actions, which includes the substance of his language. If you haven’t listened to his remarks, do so.

So there we have it. Tom Thelen, George W. Bush at Phillips Academy, and Donald Trump. Makes it hard to focus on geometry.

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning, Weston