Wondering about ways to battle bullying

The kids at the other table were having a great time. They laughed and said nice things about each other’s clothes and hair. I really wished I could have hung out with them.

Just one problem: I’m 37 years older than them. But I once was younger than them, yearning for that kind of friendship and acceptance, wishing I could hang with the cool kids.

Ironically, I left the restaurant Saturday and walked with my wife (who’s pretty cool) to the theater to see “Wonder,” a wonderful new movie.

It’s about Auggie, a 10-year-old kid with a deformed face who heads off to school for the first time. I thought I had it bad, way back when in seventh grade, with my nerdy glasses, dorky clothes and zero skills to handle the bullying I encountered.

That’s nothing compared to Auggie. He was born that way and he’d live that way, unable to change anything but the hearts of those who might harass him.

And it’s nothing compared to every kid in every school today. That’s not to diminish the taunting I faced on the playground or the mind games I endured in the classroom. I played sick a lot that year. I never thought of killing myself, but often wished I’d never been born.

Too much information? Blame it on “Wonder.” It hit too close to home for me. Cruel things are said about Auggie, and crueler suggestions are made. Any bullying is too much bullying. One suicide is far too many.

Today’s kids aren’t meaner than my classmates, but today’s technology makes bullying more insidious. Cyberbullying is a constant challenge. A day after watching “Wonder,” I had a chance to discuss bullying with Knoxville School Superintendent Cassi Pearson.

About five years ago, it became pretty common for kids to have smartphones, whether they begged hard enough or their parents wanted the convenience of reaching them quickly. About that same time, the needle started moving up in studies about youth anxiety and data about suicide, Pearson said.

Bullying used to be a cruel note on a school desk or mean talk on the school bus. Now kids are accessible 24/7, even as they try to escape off to sleep at night. Classroom jabs, or worse yet video clips, can spread like wildfire over social media.

Schools are being proactive to battle bullying. Knoxville’s students begin hearing about bullying when they’re in kindergarten. There’s an intentional effort to weave anti-bullying messages into all students’ lives from a variety of voices, including teachers, bus drivers and the school resource officer.

Students experience a series of retreats in fifth, seventh and ninth grades that focus on kindness, courage and respect. Video cameras on buses and school hallways can capture bullies in the act. Knoxville schools also are focusing more on cyberbullying and suicide prevention, Pearson said.

If, despite the schools’ efforts, a child is bullied and wants to transfer out, Pearson said she’s quick to sign papers to allow them to enroll in another district.

“Kids deserve to have a safe place,” she said.

“Wonder” already has been tagged as “the feel-good movie of the year,” but it’s more than that. It can help all kids and parents think more deeply about how we treat each other. A lot of its lessons are taught at the school lunch table.

The kids at the other table Saturday night were headed off to a school dance. I know a lot of them and I’ll recommend the movie to them, but my hunch is they already know one of its key messages. Spoiler alert: Here it comes…

When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.

Pat Finan is the managing editor of the Knoxville Journal-Express. He can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155 or via email at pfinan@journalexpress.net.

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