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Literacy prevents bullying by promoting empathy

Published: Friday, April 19, 2013 11:24 a.m. CDT

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Sometimes things in your personal life, things in the news and things in your convictions meld together in interesting ways; then, you must speak out. I went to school long ago and my class numbered 457. There was bullying in those days just as there is today. I was on the lower end financially and in the middle popularity wise. I learned very young the difference among three concepts: pity, sympathy and empathy.

My concepts of these three words goes like this. Pity is being glad you aren’t in the situation. You may throw money at it, but you are indeed the one in power. Sympathy shows concern accompanied by a feeling you’d like to do something to help but don’t know what. Even so, at the back of your mind is the idea that you are glad you aren’t in the place of that person. Empathy is knowing you could be in that place, even if you haven’t been. You get to know the person or situation and find ways to better it or encourage the person.

So how do basically good persons jump from one of these values to bullying? We can find many excuses, but unless we reach the empathy stage realizing we all can give our self an excuse to bully, but we choose not to do so. We see all situations concerning human beings as places we could be. We refuse to stray from a strong value system.

I just spent two weeks at Skiff, and for much of it seriously ill, certainly in pain. About 25 people or more dealt with me. All certainly had more power than I did. Yet, though there were some uneasy occurrences there was no bullying. At times I gave them excuses — I am independent and I didn’t like doing some of the things needed, so I was growly. I was in pain and at times there didn’t seem to be any help and they were the ones who faced me, yet no one bullied. This was the personal “thing” that happened.

Then I saw the news of the tragedy at the Boston Marathon unfold. Terrorists are bullies. They do not have a cause. When you have a cause you confront those who disagree; sadly, sometimes you confront in war, but terrorists do not have the courage to confront. They have the power and they use it, not against soldiers who know the cost, but against those who are going about their daily business. Now some are without their loved ones and many have lost parts of their bodies and all will carry scars the rest of their lives. Law enforcement, medical personnel and others have and will work themselves to a frazzle seeking to get some type of justice. Cowards caused the tragedy; heroes of all kinds will try to make our country safer and will seek to find those responsible.

Why am I talking about this in a literacy column? Literacy enables us to be empathetic. As I said it has been a long time since I was in middle school (junior high in the old days.) or high school. I still carry some traumatic memories of being bullied and I was fortunate as I didn’t receive a great deal of it. I did receive enough to change from my first name to my middle name. I became quieter than my natural personality warranted. The good thing — if there is a good thing about bullying is that I formed many strong ideas about what not to do or say. Like Bob Eschliman wrote in his column Monday “Bullying isn’t funny for anyone,” my grandfather made me face the bullies of my life. No, I didn’t punch them or dunk them in the pool, but I learned to display a steely glare and a straight back, probably not too intimidating at five feet, but it worked in my case.

While in the hospital I read a book my granddaughter read and I believe every 12-year-old through any adult age who cares about children should read. It brings you up-to-date remembering the kind of bullying you experienced and a new modern bullying of the day. Some hasn’t changed, but cyber bullying is terrifying and whether you use a computer often or refuse to touch one, you need to know what can happen.

“The Truth about Truman” by Dori Hillestad Butler shows middle school thinking and how basically nice people can turn vicious on one or more others. The characters are all eighth graders and varied in purpose. Zebby is a future journalist, idealistic with blue hair. She and Amr, a Muslim, are friends and create a web site for speaking the truth. They have only two rules, and their readers who post break both. The boys pick on Trevor, a creative boy who lost his mother and the popular girls turn on Sara who has a skin problem. Then the bullying begins. Nearly every society flaw is dealt with in the wrong way at Truman. The book isn’t flattering to the hypocrisy of adults: teachers, counselors, or parents. What is difficult about this book is there is far too much truth in it. The idea of winners and losers is investigated as well as the results of bullying and how little defenses we really have. One brave girl who both bullied and was bullied took steps to change. The story shows how the seed of bullying (I’ll get you before you get me!) grows worse and worse in an atmosphere of adults’ ignorance. We can become the bullied or the bully. It’s our choice.

Now, don’t read this book if you can honestly say you have never been bullied or you have never bullied. Until next week … Christine Pauley

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