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Virginia Journal of Education

Bystanders No More

Helping your students ‘be the change’ they want to see.

By Shannon Brooks

I teach middle school. Yep, middle school. Eighth grade English, to be precise.

I’m one of the comma cops, the semicolon security detail, the punctuation police. At least, that’s what my students think.

This year marks my 9th year in a middle school classroom. I teach at the same school I once attended myself, a large middle school that serves every child in grades 6-8 in our entire county.

I love what I do. It’s the most challenging, most frustrating, most fulfilling job I’ve ever had, second only to being a mom.

Middle school students are wonderful, but one of the things that’s always troubled me about them is their ability to hold wildly disparate views on the same issue without ever recognizing the incongruities. For example, the same student who insists that, as they like to say, “snitches get stitches,” is the loudest to complain when they’re the one who suffers retribution. I understand the pressure to fit in and not make waves and all the insecurity of being a teenager. I know firsthand as well that there are a great many students who will stand up and do the right thing, even when it costs them. But there’s at least an equal (and perhaps growing number) who won’t.

I try to help my students realize that their choices and actions create the reality they’ll live with at our school. An administrator I served with some years ago used to tell new teachers, “You will get what you settle for from your students.” I share that same sentiment with my students to help them see that their school will be no more—academically, socially, ethically—than they settle for. I explain when they see a classmate steal from someone and do nothing, they send the message they’re OK with theft as part of their school. When they see someone being harassed but don’t stick up for each other, they’re settling for a climate of fear and isolation.

They often respond skeptically, pointing out that while it’s nice to be nice, there’s no law requiring it and, in their view, it often results in being taken advantage of. Theirs is a “duck-and-cover” world of a different sort, where you don’t turn the other cheek so much as you turn a blind eye.

Our students actually get along quite well, especially for such a diverse group. They live on dairy farms and in upscale subdivisions. Some are transplants from Southeast Asia and Central America, and others live on the same land their ancestors received as payment for service in the French and Indian War. We don’t make the national news much, but in September, our community got the spotlight for the worst of reasons. Two reporters for our local CBS television affiliate were shot to death live on the air during what supposed to be a low-key, public relations spot highlighting the upcoming anniversary of the construction of Smith Mountain Lake. Many of our students and parents were watching that morning, catching the local news and weather before heading out to the bus stop. Of course, this was shocking and frightening to witness, the kind of violence that happens in other places, not here. Ours is a world far removed from violence, trauma and fear.


My students often ask me, “Why do we lock the door and turn out the lights and go huddle in a corner during a lockdown? It’s not like anybody coming in here is going to think the whole student body just up and disappeared. If they really want to come in, what’s to stop them?”

I try to explain that we’re in the safest place possible: a concrete block building with electronically locked steel doors, cameras in every conceivable nook and cranny monitoring every approach to campus, police officers on campus at all times, a thorough and instant communications network with the authorities, faculty, parents, and so on. Sometimes, I try humor. I tell them not to worry, that I’m here, and I stand tall with hands parked on my hips and strike a superhero pose. They just give me that look of withering skepticism all eighth-graders seem to master the moment they step on campus for their final year of middle school. They’re clearly not buying it.

I can understand why in my case: I’m a short, middle-aged woman of what I like to refer to as “capable” build. I’m hardly going to inspire fear or awe among a group of evildoers, cape or no cape. But what I couldn’t plumb was why my students put so little faith in the good guys in the first place, and why they so often dodged the chance to put on the cape when the opportunity presented itself. Then I figured it out.
We recently observed the anniversary of 9/11. During our regular morning announcements, we held a moment of silence to remember the 3000+ people who died in the attacks on the nation. On any given day, there’s at least a student or two who act less-than-decorously during the moment of silence. This day was no exception, but I found that on this day in particular it filled me with fury. How dare they? Didn’t they know? Didn’t they get it? I made a mental note to read them the riot act just as soon as we were done.
Then I realized these kids were still learning how to crawl when those four airplanes changed everything for all of us, including them. The problem was they didn’t know it, because they’d never known any other world but this. Flipping out on them would only confirm what they already thought: old people are just too uptight over ridiculous things that only other old people care about. (FYI: Anyone over 30 is considered “old” in the minds of 13-year-olds.)

So I didn’t do that. Instead, I seized the “teachable moment” and jumped in.  I went online and found a collage of the 3000 people who died on 9/11 and put it onscreen to give some perspective. I began talking about how our world used to be—a world where terrorism happened in other countries and plane hijackings involved ransom demands and lists of prisoners to be freed, but nothing more. A time where ordinary people stood as much chance of being in a terrorist attack as they did of waking up on the moon. I explained that there was a time when planes weren’t weapons and every building didn’t have metal detectors. When wars were fought against armies whose soldiers wore uniforms and didn’t melt back into the general population. That there was a time Americans felt comfortably, confidently safe in a nation that was too big, too powerful, too far away to be targeted.

I told them how 9/11 was purposefully staged to create maximum emotional impact, to ensure that everyone was watching as the attacks unfolded and Americans began dying. That this was the purpose of terror: to seize people’s attention and hold it hostage through violence in order to create a climate of fear.

And that’s when it hit me: it wasn’t that they couldn’t relate to 9/11. The problem in fact was that it was all too familiar. After all, they were watching the morning news two weeks ago when the two reporters, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, were shot to death on the air right here at home. Before that it was the shattered front doors of Sandy Hook Elementary. Before that, the furious face of Seung-Hui Cho of Virginia Tech pointing a pistol at a video camera. In between there were the shootings at Fort Hood, the movie theater in Aurora, the attack on Senator Giffords, and a dozen others – all within the short span of these kids’ lives. These young people have only ever known a world where random bad things are always happening right in front of their eyes, where individuals can ultimately seem to be little more than targets for the next violent outburst.

Maybe the wonder isn’t that a couple of them acted so callously during the moment of silence, but that the other two dozen or so didn’t.

I understood suddenly that my kids weren’t blissfully ignorant of random violence or apathetic zombies unfazed by it. Tragically, it seemed they just couldn’t picture the world any other way, and addressing that presented an entirely different challenge.

A long time ago, I read an article about an elementary school teacher who was horrified to learn that his students had no heroes. When he asked them write a sentence or two about a person they admired, they responded with a string of celebrities and sports figures. When he pressed them further to consider people who had truly done something great, who had made the world better or had qualities the kids wanted to emulate, they responded with “George Washington,” “Abraham Lincoln,” and the like. Wanting them to tackle the issue on a personal level, he tried reframing the question: “What’s one thing do you want to be when you grow up?” The kids began naming particular occupations, but the discussion soon branched out into experiences they wanted to have and qualities they wanted to possess. The teacher then led the kids in a visualization exercise where he had them imagine themselves 20 years down the road as the people they had described, then explained, “That’s your hero, right there. That’s someone you can look up to, and when you’re not sure what to do, ask what he or she would do, then do it.”

That really stuck with me: that we are each the hero of our own story. Growing into adulthood, I took it to mean that when we go looking for someone to come to the rescue, the best place to look is the mirror, to imagine that person on her very best day and do what she would do.

I know for me, part of the response to a randomly violent world is a firm conviction that we are more than supporting cast in another’s script, more than backdrop for their episodes.

Part of what I try to do in my classroom is to impart that to my kids – that the problem of violence may seem massive and faceless but that doesn’t mean the solutions are (or worse, that this is just the way things are). I want them to see that it’s disingenuous to refuse to stand up for what is right, then complain that the world is a bad place. Much violence is random, yes, but when we refuse to do what we can, we create a climate that fosters self-absorption and apathy.

So what can they do?

One of the teams at our school is called the Chameleons; the team slogan emblazoned across their tie-dye t-shirts comes from Leo Tolstoy: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” If my students are to change the world, they must first change themselves. They must acknowledge that even now, they create their world through their choices and actions, or lack thereof. They must accept that they too will get no more than what they settle for, and then act boldly on behalf of the kind of world they want – here at school and beyond. They must ultimately embrace a different role than that of victim or bystander: the role of protagonist, the hero of their own stories. When they do, they will be their own – and each other’s – best hope.

Brooks, a member of the Franklin County Education Association, teaches English at Benjamin Franklin Middle School.




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