Friday, October 29, 2010

“I Was a Teenage Bully – and Didn’t Know It”

[Part 4 in a series]

Looking at my partner—a mature, responsible Lutheran Democrat who relays phone calls for the deaf and hard of hearing of Texas and volunteers every Saturday at a low-cost spay and neuter animal clinic—you’d never know she was a bully in school.

“Were you ever bullied?” I asked one night as I began preparing to write this series.

She paused, then said, “No, I was probably the bully.”

“Really?” I said with a surprised shriek.

She seemed equally surprised. She’d never thought much about it until all the stories of Phoebe Prince surfaced and we began to talk more about our individual school experiences.

I’ve always thought anyone with half a heart could spot a bully a West Texas mile away. Now I’m not so sure. And knowing my partner, I’m convinced that she is one of those people statistics cite who don’t realize just how hurtful and harmful their harassment is to their peers—who blow off their behavior as good, old-fashioned teasing.

Were you, or are you, a bully? Have your ridiculing words or physical actions caused others pain?

Let’s be clear: There ARE mean people in the world who find pleasure in hurting their peers. They know what they’re doing, and they do it with a powerful sense of gratification.

Studies indicate, though, that the majority of bullies were once victims of bullies themselves—many simply doing what was done to them without a second thought. Could the majority of bullies be truly that clueless about the impact of their actions? Could you have been a bully yourself and not even known it?

To find out, let’s all answer one of those dopey questionnaires. Ready? Have you ever:

• Hit, kicked, pushed, back-slapped, tripped a peer?
• Pulled someone's hair or spit at them?
• Called a peer names, or verbally ridiculed him or her in front of friends or before strangers in public?
• Mocked a person’s voice or walk, regardless of whether he or she was present?
• Knocked books out of a classmate’s arms?
• Taken property and refused to give it back—or made your peer do something humiliating and embarrassing to get the property back?
• Taken and purposefully broken someone’s property?
• Pressured others to join in on teasing or hitting someone?
• Alienated a peer from a social circle or group game?
• Threatened others so that they wouldn’t intervene on behalf of a bullied peer?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, sorry to break it to you, but you are, or have been, a bully.

It’s not too late, though, to change your behavior—to make amends. If you’re truly remorseful, here are some ideas on how to cleanse your karma:

• Apologize immediately for past behavior and DO NOT REPEAT that behavior again. If you say you’re sorry but repeat the same actions, it hurts your peers even more—and you lose integrity.
• The next time a peer is being criticized—unfair or not, present or not—say, “That’s bullying, and it’s no O.K. Not now, not ever.” Then walk away.
• Invite the targeted or alienated peer to join your group for lunch or to just sit and talk.
• If you’re in school, tell a teacher or counselor that a peer is being bullied, and that you’re concerned for his or her welfare.
• Avoid hanging out with peers who criticize others because they’re different, especially if they are intolerant of others based on race, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or disability.
• Forgive yourself for past wrongs.

Humans are incredibly resilient. Many grown adults have survived bullying in school. Some are stronger for it, but for many, it’s still a source of painful memories.

If you’ve been a bully in the past, talk to others who were bullied. Get real clear about the depth of damage your actions might have caused. Then share your realizations with others—especially the youth in the world—and use your experiences as a springboard to a more open dialogue on how to treat peers with respect.

It’s always the right time to make amends for past actions—to others and to yourself. All that is required is a sincere heart and a courageous spirit. You never know: People who have been bullied in the past, like me, might just need to hear a kind word from you today.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Memories of Being Bullied

[Part 3 in a series]

Every morning when I was in the second grade, I begged my mom to let me stay home from school.

When I was 8 years old, I was bullied.

Tears flowed from my eyes every day as I sobbed, “Mamma, I don’t wanna go to school!” My mother ignored me, diligently helping tie the shoelaces on my black and white track shoes. I had run out of stomachaches, headaches, and fake fevers. I had to go to school, and I dreaded it because I just didn’t want to face what kids would say to me another day.

From first grade until about ninth grade, I was teased for a variety of reasons. My peers said:
• I was gross. (Truth: I had a gum disease that caused my gums to spontaneously bleed. This drew the disgusted “Eews!” jeers of my classmates.)
• I wore ugly dresses. (Truth: The dresses were discount-store-bought cheap, but pretty. I wore them with black and white track shoes and knee-high white socks—a big fashion no-no, but, come on, I was just a kid.)
• I was a nerd. (Truth: I was book-smart, and I loved learning.)
• I was a teacher’s pet. (Truth: I thrived on pleasing authority figures—and still do.)

Students also mocked my last name with a similarly sounding Spanish slang phrase that was a gay slur.

I played the part of a super-stealth ninja for most of my time in school. I tried not to cry when kids said hurtful things because I learned that if they didn’t think they hurt my feelings, they lost interest and went on to bully someone else.

That worked until the sixth grade, when an older classmate threatened to beat me up after school—for no reason. Again, I was scared and didn’t want to go to school. But while I didn’t breathe a word about the bullies before, I did tell my mom about this girl. Mamma’s solution? Wear jeans and loop on my sister’s thick leather western belt.

"If that girl lays a hand on you," Mamma insisted, "you pull that belt off and whip her with it!"

I snuck around school, changing my routes to avoid the bully, and eventually she forgot about me. For the rest of the year, though, I had a whole new group of kids making fun of me and that big leather belt, calling me “Hee Haw Cathy.”

Eventually, around 10th grade, my peers stopped picking on me. I still excelled in academics, except by the time of my induction into the National Honor Society, being smart was considered an asset. My classmates could call me “nerd” all day long and it didn't matter: I knew I was bound for college. (Stick tongue out here.)

Today I’m a grown woman who still loves to read and has made a career out of working with words as a writer and editor. I also have much higher self-esteem and inner strength. Studying martial arts has been a true gift. It saddens me and makes me angry when I hear what comes out of the mouths of today's bullies. But today through martial arts, I have a chance to help youths build self-confidence as a way to combat the bullies I know they run into at school. I get to give them the words I never knew to speak and the courage I didn't yet have to stand up for themselves.

Surviving bullying IS NOT a rite of passage. Bullying is WRONG. No kid should have to grow thicker skin or toughen up so that they can weather classmates’ taunts and torture. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Until our judgmental and violent-prone culture changes, though, the best I can do is to pass on the following wisdom to those who still suffer the wrath of bullies:
Don’t listen to or believe your classmates’ hurtful words. The mean things a bully might say to you and about you aren’t true anyway. Imagine you’re Teflon cookware: Let nothing stick to you.
Stand up for yourself—and others. Repeat this simple mantra: “Bullying is not O.K.—not now, not ever!” Then walk away.
Stick with the winners. Find a good, solid group of peeps and stay close. Avoid those fair-weather friends who abandon you when the bully comes around or who join in on the bashing because they themselves are afraid of what the bully might do or say if they don’t.
Talk to someone. Don’t suffer in silence. Adults can and will help if you ask—even parents.
Give it time. Remember that school life doesn’t last forever. This, too, shall pass, so please hang in there.
Avoid taking bully-prevention fashion tips from your mother at all costs.

Friday, October 22, 2010

We Interrupt Our Series on Bullies for a Word on Peer Pressure

Another young man bit the character dust this week and suffered the unfortunate consequences of taking action on a bad idea. And it wasn’t even his.

Through aggressive intimidation or by the threat of being ostracized, peers can seemingly wave a Hollywood, Phoenix-feathered Harry Potter wand and make smart kids with low self-esteem do really dumb things. From name-calling to outright dares, peers-in-power have an uncanny ability to push the right social-status buttons to ensure that their insecure fellows act as powerless puppets.

For many elementary- to high school-age youths, it’s vital to look good on the outside—to be liked by their peers. (Heck, this is true for many adults.) However, that desperate need for acceptance oftentimes leads to lackluster decision-making.

Jake is the latest casualty of peer pressure gone wrong.

In my office after Taekwondo class earlier this week, Jake fidgeted while sitting in a cold metal folding chair. Long straight locks of brown hair fell onto his forehead, covering his eyes. His hands nervously rubbed his thighs. Finally he began telling me why he was suspended from high school and sent to an alternative learning center in town.

A couple of weeks ago, a classmate in Jake’s chemistry class bragged that he had brought alcohol to school in his water bottle.

“You don’t believe me?” the classmate asked.

“Nah, I don’t,” Jake said.

“Here. Take a drink then,” his classmate said, holding the water bottle out in the air.

Other classmates looked at Jake to see what he’d do.

Jake grabbed the bottle and took a sip. Right as Jake took the drink, school security officers entered the classroom and busted them both.

“Really?” I asked him after he finished his story. “You took a drink of something without knowing exactly what it was? In CHEMISTRY class?”

Jake nodded yes, then added, “Kind’a ironic.”

“I’ll say,” I replied, then paused. “Smart thing to do?"

“Nah,” he said, shaking his head and smiling weakly. He’d obviously been lectured on this topic already by his mom and dad.

Jake’s grades are good. By all appearances, he’s an intelligent, well-adjusted young man who doesn’t abuse legal or illegal substances. He knows it’s wrong to drink alcohol—anytime, anywhere—until he’s legally mature. So why did he do it?

“ ’Cause I didn’t believe him,” Jake said.

“You didn’t feel pressured?”

“Nah,” he insisted. Now I didn’t believe him.

We could have danced around the issue all night, and Jake probably wouldn’t have admitted that he was afraid of being called a “woosie boy” by his classmates, of being razzed for not having the guts to take a drink. So I had to work with what I was given.

“Learned a big lesson, did you?” I asked, feeling for a second as if I were channeling Yoda.

“Oh, yeah,” Jake insisted, his eyes growing large.

“Because I don’t know if you realize how lucky you were,” I said, leaning forward in my chair. “Whether it’s a friend who tries to get you to drink something or a stranger, you don’t know what’s really in stuff these days. There are so many designer drugs out there. You are really lucky you just had two weeks at The Rock. You could have been permanently physically or mentally scarred by a bad drug trip.”

I paused. He nodded silently. Our martial arts school is a drug-free zone, and anyone who violates the drug policy risks demotion or suspension. He waited to hear the consequences of his actions.

I pulled open the side drawer to my gray metal desk. It was filled with worn, multicolored belts.

“See these belts? These are all the belts I’ve taken away from students over the years for various reasons. One of these is from a young man who got into trouble with pot, came to Taekwondo, was doing really well, but then went to hang out with his drug buddies again one night. He turned in a bad UA (urinalysis) and I had to demote him.

“He knew he had a problem coming in. You’re different,” I said, pausing.

It’s at times like these that I pray for guidance—for the wisdom to know when to be gentle yet firm and when to practice forgiveness, patience, and compassion.

“I’m not going to demote you today,” I finally said, “but you have to be smarter about this kind of stuff, because next time, if you survive, your belt’s going in here,” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” he said, then immediately added, “Yes, ma’am.”

"I would hate to not have you as a student anymore, because you're physically talented and have tremendous Taekwondo potential. But in Taekwondo, we either learn to stand tall—to have the strength to follow our own path regardless of what others think—or we are left with pain, resentment, and regret."

He nodded, we bowed and shook hands, and he left. Now it's up to him.

Will Jake learn that “no” is an acceptable and oftentimes important response to peers’ pressure and dares?

More will be revealed.

Not the happily-forever-after ending to the story you’d like? The truth is peer pressure is a cunning, baffling, and powerful force to be reckoned with. The best I or anyone else can do is to live by example: to be a strong person of conviction who not only says no when I want to, but most importantly when I need to. The next best thing I can do is to help my students develop a higher level of self-esteem as a buffer—a halo of protection of sorts—so that they stay true to themselves, on a path of excellence. Only then can the next generation create the possibility of making choices that are right for them.

Only then can our children lead fruitful, fulfilling, and serene lives.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Standing Up to a Bully: A True Story

[Part 2 in a series]

Nine-year-old “Mark” couldn’t just stand there as a bully pulled a classmate’s pants down in the boys’ restroom. Mark intervened, telling the bully to stop. The bully immediately backed down and left the restroom.

Let’s be clear: Mark is not a big boy. He’s not aggressive. What makes this an extraordinary act is that he is a sweet, kind, and gentle young man who still has his own struggles with occasionally being the target of bullies. However, for some reason that day it was easier for him to stand up for his classmate than it has been to stand up for himself.

Standing up to a bully is hard enough for youths. Risking social backlash by defending a peer is harder. Even more difficult is telling an authority figure about the incident without feeling like a tattletale. Mark knew he should tell his teacher what happened because he had heard in Taekwondo class the week before that school officials need and want to know when students are being harassed.

Mark’s classmate was embarrassed about the incident and begged him not to tell their teacher. His friend didn’t want his teacher and peers knowing what happened, and also didn’t want the bully to retaliate for getting him in trouble. But Mark knew what he had to do.

“I didn’t want to hurt my friend, or make the bully mad,” Mark said later, “but I had to tell the teacher what happened.”

School officials later discovered that Mark’s classmate was not the only boy the bully had targeted. At least a dozen students later admitted that the bully had pulled or tried to pull their pants down, too. The bully was disciplined, and Mark and his friend haven’t had a problem with him since.

As a result of his courageous actions, Mark was named Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s 2009 Student of the Year. His courage and commitment to using Taekwondo in a positive way – embodying the tenets of courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit – set a mighty high bar for those who follow.

It’s not easy to confront a bully, especially when someone else is the target. Could you do it? Would you?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bullying a Heartbreaking Pandemic

[Part 1 in a series]

My heart broke last week when a parent told me about his son, who every morning cried, screamed, and pleaded for his dad to let him stay home from school. He was afraid of a bully.

“(Jay) is just totally scared of going to school,” the dad said. “I’m emailing and calling the principal and his teacher. The only thing he tells us is that other kids call him ‘stupid’.”

I’ve taught children and teens Taekwondo for 11 years. If I had a dime for every time I heard a heartbreaking story of a student being bullied or an adult recalling a painful, peer-bashing trauma from childhood, I’d be richer than Bill Gates and Oprah combined – on the cover of my own Fortune 1 magazine.

The Karate Kid was a box-office hit this summer, but for many U.S. youths, school bullies are not the fiction of Hollywood movies. They are emotionally unsettling realities.

The problem didn’t start with six Massachusetts teens accused of bullying 15-year-old freshman Phoebe Prince to suicide in January. Bullies torment millions of U.S. youths every year and incidents are commonplace in school hallways, lunchrooms, locker rooms, playgrounds and gym class.

Consider the following statistics from recent government surveys and reports:
• Bullying occurs in 21 percent of U.S. elementary schools, 43 percent of middle schools, and 22 percent of high schools.
• Fifty-two percent of U.S. students witness bullying at least once a week.
• Sixty-six percent of U.S. students are teased or bullied at least once a month.
• An estimated 160,000 children miss school every day because they fear bullies.

Who gets the brunt of bullying? Sixth-graders were bullied more often than any other school-age group, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Education report. Bullies also frequently target classmates based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.

If these statistics trouble you, think about the percentage of bullying that goes unreported. I know from experience that youths are tight-lipped about being bullied. They’re ashamed to admit it, and oftentimes will keep quiet until either the pain is unbearable or parents or other adults find out by accident.

For example, a mom of one of my students came to her son’s elementary school to bring him lunch one day and saw him circled by his classmates on the playground. They had tackled him, taken his shoes, and were playing keep-away. Her son chased after his shoes in vain. It was only then that he admitted to her that one of the boys had been bullying him for weeks.

One of the most common reasons parents bring their children to train with me is to learn self-defense.

“He gets picked on at school,” they say. “We want her to learn to stand up for herself.”

I oblige. It’s my job. Unfortunately, bullies keep me in business. Why?

Turn on a cable news program and listen to how pundits debate each other. Watch news footage of a political rally. Be a fly on the wall while an adult drives in rush-hour traffic. Watch an episode of The Real Housewives of Any City, U.S.A., where women are celebrated for berating each other. Some Americans are culturally invested in judging and ridiculing each other, and our kids see it. They mimic it. And some think nothing of the feelings they hurt, or are unconscious of the power of their harsh words.

While reality TV housewives might be able to dish out and receive insults unfazed, our 6-, 10-, and 15-year-olds don’t yet have the self-esteem or life skills to defend against such taunts and torture – to ignore the unfair and oftentimes unfounded criticism from peers.

How can we stop this unconscionable behavior?

At its core, bullying represents a lack of respect for others. If children and adults diligently practice respect, we can cure this social plague. But adults must first change their own judgmental tendencies, because children learn more from their parents about how to interact socially than anyone else.

As a teacher, I rely heavily on Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s 10-point character development system called Basic Rules to Live By. My students understand that rule No. 10 – “We must respect our teachers and peers at all times” – is non-negotiable. If they violate this rule, they risk losing rank.

They are rewarded, however, for showing respect. One of my elementary-age students was named 2009 Student of the Year at Tao of Texas MAI because he intervened on behalf of a classmate who was being bullied.

To ensure that girls like Phoebe Prince graduate from high school and have a chance at a long, healthy and happy life, we must find ways to make respect for others more attractive than wielding power over peers.

Will Tao of Texas MAI’s mission to promote self-respect and respect for others in every child, one child at a time, one day at a time work? I have hope.

Jay may have hope, too. As it turns out, his elementary school has a zero-tolerance policy on bullying. The day his dad reported the incident, counselors talked to Jay, then to one particular boy, then to both of them together. The bully was told that his behavior was unacceptable and that there would be consequences if it continued.

Jay still resists going to school in general, but his dad says this week it has more to do with a scary spelling test than a threatening classmate.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Black Mark on Their Belt is a Good Thing

Nothing motivates my young students more than small, half-inch-wide pieces of electrical tape. These sticky, glossy, self-esteem tools help me challenge them, and ultimately celebrate great triumphs in character development.

As part of my Taekwondo youth program, I award a variety of colored stripes (electrical tape) to students to mark progress within their belt rank. A yellow stripe is for good punches, blocks, and hand strikes; orange is for outrageously great kicks; green is for powerful and graceful forms/patterns; purple is for simple yet effective self-defense techniques; and blue is for high-endurance sparring. Red is awarded when the student shows great fighting spirit. That one isn't awarded every day. Even more rare, though, is the black stripe. This stripe indicates above and beyond the mat progress in character – and is easily one of our hardest stripes to earn.

Yesterday, I gave one of those coveted character-development “black stripes” to a 7-year-old student who brainstormed with his parents on a personal trait he wanted to change – and for one week he did it!

This young yellow belt unknowingly started a trend, for as soon as I got home, I received the following email from another parent whose two white belt sons were now eager to work on a longstanding self-discipline issue.

“They were intrigued when you mentioned in class doing a home (character) challenge,” the mom wrote. “They have both been having a hard time (trying to break a bad habit) and they would both like to try to (stop) for one week. If they succeed in this, would it be possible for them to get some recognition in class?”

How fabulous is that?

My answer was to fire off an email to students young and old, challenging everyone to commit to changing one thing – a thorn in their side, something that eats their lunch – for one week.

I’m excited, because I know they’ll all work hard to persevere through tough obstacles – and they’ll feel great about themselves afterward.

Here’s how it works:

With their parents, students choose from one of the suggested challenges below – or make up their own. (The character trait practiced is in parenthesis.)

Sample challenges:
• Listen to your parents: Reply yes/no, sir/ma’am and take immediate action without complaint (respect)
• Do your homework without complaint (responsibility)
• Eat all your vegetables (self-care)
• Take baths without complaint (good hygiene/self-care/self-respect)
• Break a habit that’s harmful/hurtful (self-care/self-respect/self-discipline)
• Brush your teeth before bedtime without complaint (good hygiene/self-care/self-respect)
• Go to bed at the assigned time without complaint (respect/self-care)
• Get dressed and ready for school ON TIME (responsibility)
• Be nice to your teachers and peers (respect)
• Be nice to your siblings (respect)
• Clean your room and keep it clean (good hygiene/self-respect)
• Do your chores without being asked/reminded (responsibility/integrity)
• Take on a new household chore and follow through (initiative/integrity/maturity)

How would your kids, nieces, or nephews do at any of the above? What challenges could YOU work on to set an example for your kids regarding the importance of building better character every day?

• Call your parents just to say hello (respect/compassion/love)
• Don’t complain about your boss/co-workers (respect)
• Break a habit that’s harmful/hurtful (focus/self-care/self-respect/self-discipline)
• Avoid judging your neighbors (love/compassion)
• Pay your bills on time (responsibility)
• Don’t spread gossip (respect/integrity)
• Be nice to your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend regardless of whether you’ve had your morning coffee (respect/patience)
• Don’t yell or honk the horn at other drivers in traffic (patience/self-control)
• Listen to others’ views without interrupting (respect)
• Don’t call [fill in name of your least-favorite lawmaker] names (respect)
• Live within your financial means (responsibility)
• Don’t yell at the kids (patience/self-control)
• Don’t hit “send” on that snippy email (respect/self-control)

I’ll admit that the piece of black electrical tape my young students work so hard for is not attractive to an adult. But how about this: For any adult who takes on a character challenge and succeeds, I’ll offer a free week of Taekwondo classes. Simply email me your challenge for approval to

That young yellow belt probably has no idea what he and his parents started, but I’m excited to see where this goes – to see the growth of a group of students that surely will result from this challenge.

My gut tells me I should check to see when Home Depot closes today. I suspect I’m going to need a lot more black electrical tape….

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Growing Pains of a Small Dojang

Growing pains.

They hurt – but it’s a good thing when they’re the result of high-class problems.

My young students experience mental and physical growing pains on a daily basis. The biggest physical growth spurts happen over the summer, when they literally grow in their sleep overnight. They complain that their feet hurt, their bones and muscles ache, and they’re tired a lot more than usual. I tell them that it’s a normal part of growing up, and remind them not to be too grumpy with and sassy to their parents. They usually oblige.

Sometimes martial arts schools have growth spurts, too.

Looking around the dojang mat yesterday, I realized that now that fall is here, I have a brand new crew of students. We have a huge influx of white belts who are uber excited and motivated to work hard learning Taekwondo.

Problem is there are A LOT of them.

During yesterday’s youth class, the white belts packed the mat with the more experienced upper belts, all of them forming a sea of white uniforms with rainbow-like colored belts around their waists. Everyone kihapped loud, perspired, and worked hard.

The energy was very powerful.

Almost too powerful.

Bordering on frenetic.

As we bowed out, I knew I needed to meditate on finding a solution to make the student-teacher ratio more manageable. The solution option that struck me immediately, though, freaked me out.

Today, I’ve got an eerie feeling lurking – with the customary “Twilight Zone” theme music playing in the background – because I now remember a dream I had years ago, before there was an inkling of an idea to run a martial arts school:

I am in the front office of my school when a tall, lanky, balding man walks in.

It’s early fall, or late summer. It’s not too hot. There’s a slight breeze, and the sun is shining brightly through our glass doors.

I am in full uniform, but class hasn’t started yet.

“Welcome. Can I help you?” I ask.

“Yes,” the man says. “I’d like to sign my daughter up for martial arts classes.”

“Well thank you for visiting our dojang,” I reply. “We’re filled to capacity right now and have a waiting list. You’re welcome to add your daughter’s name to the list, and as soon as a spot opens up, I’ll give you a call. Feel free to watch a class while you’re here.”

Wow. That’s what yesterday was about. We’ve hit our limit. And it’s definitely a high-class problem. While I hate to turn students away, I need to attentively teach the ones already on the mat.

It’s all about practicing Basic Rules to Live By No. 10: Respect your teachers and peers (classmates) at all times.

The disrespectful thing to do with my students is to pack them in like sardines – many schools actually think this is a GOOD thing – and not care whether they learn solid, quality martial arts.

But I DO care that they learn something. I do want to have a personal relationship with my students. I don’t want there to be so many that I can’t remember their or their parents’ names.

Since I’m not out to get rich off of teaching martial arts, I’m starting to get that it’s O.K. to have boundaries and limits regarding how many students I believe I can effectively teach at one time.

And that’s my growing pain for the day.

A high-class problem indeed.