What we say has power, and that power lasts for years, Hannah Tjoflat told seventh-graders assembled at the School for Creative and Performing Arts.
“We say these things and then we’re like, ‘Oh, I’m kidding,’” she said. “But that stuff hurts people and really sticks to people forever. If you’re treating people like that, my question for you is, ‘Why?’ ”
Their message to students: It takes courage to just be yourself, and even more to accept and respect others who are just being themselves.
Youth Frontiers, a Minnesota non-profit organization, aims to create safe, positive school communities where students thrive academically and emotionally. They hold retreats for grades 4-12 around the country, using skits, role playing and other strategies geared toward increasing empathy and self-esteem, with the goal of reducing teasing and bullying that can make school miserable for some students.
The retreats are a good fit with CPS’ new My Tomorrow initiative, which encourages the inclusion of social-emotional learning in our schools to prepare students fully for the world after graduation.
“It all ties into the components about being comfortable with who you are, respecting others and working together as a team,” said SCPA Principal Steve Brokamp. “Our kids realize they’re a diverse collection. They already know they have unique qualities. They’re somewhat accepting of each other. Retreats like this give them some additional tools, some additional information.”
Javier Gresham, a senior at SCPA, worked with eighth-graders at the school during the retreat.
“We’re there to show them that it’s OK to step out of your shells and not have to try to look cool all the time,” Gresham said. “The point is to tell these younger kids that they don’t have to put on this mask to impress others. Just be yourself.”
Tjoflat shared a story with students about an experience she had in eighth grade that she thought many students could understand. It was tradition at her school, she said, for athletes to dress up on game day. She and a friend, Nicole, were in class when the boy Nicole had a crush on joined them.
“He said, ‘Wow, Nicole, you look nice.’ Then he said, ‘Till today, I hadn’t even realized you were a girl.’ ”
Tjoflat knew at the time that she should have spoken up and told him to stop being a jerk to Nicole, she said, but she just froze.
Nicole walked away, almost in tears, and the girls’ friendship ended.
“I wish I could stand here today and tell you I did the right thing, but I didn’t,” Tjoflat told students.
Social media make bullying “easy and anonymous,” she said, and face-to-face interactions in classrooms and cafeteria also can leave scars.
She urged students to be courageous enough to think before saying or sharing hurtful comments, and asked those who witness the nastiness to be brave enough to speak up when they have a chance to stop the bullying.
And she urged those on the receiving end of nastiness to be strong enough to not let others decide what they’re worth.
It’s not the same kind of courage that it takes to run into a burning building or serve in the military, Tjoflat said. Instead, it’s “the kind it takes to show up to school and just be yourself, and maybe stop worrying so much about what people around you think of you. It takes courage to reach out to others who maybe aren’t like you.
“And it takes courage to maybe step up just once for that kid who’s being called that awful name day after day, and let people know that it is not cool to act that way.”