Changing the climate of a school, town or state takes more than talk and big projects. Increasing tolerance — and ending bullying or acts of hate — requires one person talking to another. The students at Erskine Academy in South China know the individual approach works because they practice it every day.
Sixteen-year-old Kat Newcombe, of Whitefield, is one of about 25 students involved this year in the school’s Friends of Rachel Club, which works to combat bullying and create a school culture of compassion. The Erskine senior said the key is for students to reach out whenever they hear a degrading comment, no matter whether it’s made by a friend or stranger.
A lot of bullying happens online or comes in verbal form. If someone writes a post on Facebook making fun of someone’s hair or weight, Newcombe comments to say it’s not the person’s place to judge. If she hears someone picking on a student in the hallway for wearing an old t-shirt, she said, “I don’t really have a problem saying, ‘That’s not very nice. You don’t know them.’” She makes a point to later compliment the person who was targeted.
Attention is often rightfully placed on problems of youth violence, bullying and vandalism. This week three 17-year-olds were arrested for allegedly spray-painting swastikas and other symbols on two synagogues in Bangor. But it’s also important to examine how people are trying to grow empathy. Some schools, like Erskine, are improving character education by getting involved with Rachel’s Challenge, which offers a series of student-empowering lessons.
The program is named after Rachel Scott, who was 17 when she was the first student killed at Columbine High School in 1999. Before her death, she wrote, “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.” The Friends of Rachel clubs around the country each focus on starting those chain reactions.
Creating a caring environment at school depends on each student reacting when he or she sees someone saying or doing something inappropriate. Marissa Jordan, 17, of Whitefield, is a senior at Erskine and also belongs to the Friends of Rachel Club. She said she believes in leading by example and makes a point to say hello to students she doesn’t know in the hallway, hoping it will encourage others to do the same. She also tries to protect her classmates, not just because it’s the right thing to do in that instant but because of its lasting effect.
“If you have one person stick up for you, your confidence goes up so much because you realize that person has your back,” she said.
Reaching out also requires the students to break down their own stereotypes. Newcombe said she has learned never to judge someone by their looks or by first impressions. The kid in the baggy jeans? He’s intelligent and insightful. She is trying to teach the same principles of kindness to her 4-H club. She’ll extend the ideas, too, to the children to whom she teaches swimming in the summer. She is passing on what she’s learned, continuing the chain reaction.
The students in the club often extend their work outside the school. They have volunteered to help at a local veterans’ dinner, the Special Olympics and fundraisers to end hunger. Last year they organized a flash mob in the cafeteria to help the cafeteria staff. At Christmas they sang carols. Throughout the year students also wrote down on slips of paper kind things they saw other students saying or doing. By the end of the year, the loops of paper extended all around the cafeteria and down the adjacent hallway — a visual display of a chain of compassion.
The school’s efforts got the attention of Gov. Paul LePage, who recently visited the school to talk about domestic violence and bullying; he described the abuse he endured as a boy. Jordan showed him around the school and ate lunch with him. “I thought it was really nice to see a softer side of the governor, I guess you could say,” she said. “It was a good bonding experience for our school.”
People know they should be kind — it’s basic common sense — but perhaps they don’t always realize how to put kindness into action. These students do, though. Newcombe recalled a time when her group of friends saw a freshman boy sitting at lunch by himself — a horrifying, lonely experience for any teenager. But it was a problem easily solved. If only more people recognized how easy it is to make someone feel accepted.
“We called him over. He brought his chips and whatnot. He’s pretty good friends with us now,” she said.