The Power of Service
The power of service became so clear to me during one year when I was teaching fourth graders. So many in this class of children were bullies-and they didn’t even realize it. It was just how “they did things”. A particular group of boys constantly made fun of everyone-but especially the two children in our class with special needs. The traditional way of dealing with bullies, such as stern talks, conferences with parents, in school suspension in the principal's office did not work. This has always been a real trigger for me personally, having been bullied myself as a young child. I decided I needed to do something totally unexpected and very “in your face” about treating all people with respect.
Most bullies operate on putting on a bravado because they are scared of people who are different. I asked questions like, “If you see a person in a wheelchair, would feel comfortable going up to the person to say hello?” “How do you feel when you are in a restaurant and you hear someone speaking loudly and not clearly?” I began by doing a survey with this class trying to get attitudinal data as to how they perceive people who are different. I called a school in St. Louis county who teaches children with developmental and special needs. My principal and the parents were on board with our class going to that school to become their buddies. My hope was that once my students experienced these kids as real people who need and want the same things they do, their opinions would change.
It was a huge risk. In explaining to the kids that we were going to begin I just spoke about how these children are looking for some friends. I did not explain the “why” of wanting to do this...yet. One child in particular really pushed back and said he didn’t want to go. Yep, the leader of the pack. Some kids were really scared about going. But we did go. The first time was a huge eye opener for my students. They hugged the walls and just watched. They watched how friendly these boys and girls were. They noticed how their teachers treated their students just the way I treat them.. They noticed how hard it was for some to do the simplest things, but they were not sad about it at all! Every student there just wanted to make a friend and were so happy to meet them!
We processed when we got back and did a lot of talking. The next visit, some of my students were beginning to engage, and as more did, others watched. When those children shared their experiences, that is when I noticed a change coming. Through many visits every single child in my class was totally engaged when we were there, looked forward to the visit, and felt so good about themselves. The children in the other school would light up, clap, and be SO happy that our class was there. My students became very protective of their “buddy” and began to know their personalities and often would make suggestions for example, what to bring or do with their buddy.
At the end of the year we invited those children to visit our school. Imagine the day when students at my west county elementary school saw a busload of kids with many physical and intellectual needs come down the hall! My biggest bully became the biggest cheerleader as he welcomed them to our school. When another student walked by and made a snide comment, he stepped right up and explained that it is hurtful and his buddy is a real person and has feelings! It was the most miraculous thing to witness. The last week of school I gave the students the same survey I gave before we started. The differences in their attitudes was 180 degrees. BOTH groups of children benefited so greatly from this partnership. I was able to do this for three years before the district laid down all these liability issues and canned the program. Yet, learning that when you allow yourself to look past the disability and see the human being inside, there is nothing to be scared of, and it is possible to be friends and champions of everyone. Throughout the years students from that first class that did this service project would contact me to tell me they used this experience in college essays, and some said they went into special education because of this experience. When we are able to open up our minds to learning, responding, and changing, our lives become better. We ended up that year and every year after creating a school wide support patrol of my kids mentoring younger kids who were bullies! They made slideshows, gave talks, and shadowed the younger kids at recess to do “real time” intervention when bullying occurred. Service. So powerful in all kinds of ways. Sometimes for your entire life.