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.

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