Headmaster’s Weekly Message

Thoughts from Chapel, the Academy’s morning assembly in historic Fuller Hall


Learning How to Stand Up

Painted above the Fuller Hall stage is a motto that the legendary Academy Latin teacher Graham Newell always pointed to as the secret to our school's success: Semper Discens (Always Learning). While visiting The MacDuffie School in Granby, MA, this week, I thought about our motto a lot. MacDuffie is a for-profit school, and I was chair of the Visiting Committee tasked with evaluating whether the school has met the standards of accreditation as set out by the Commission of Independent Schools of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). If MacDuffie passed all standards, it would be the first school of its kind to be accredited by NEASC.

I always pick up new ideas when I visit another school, and I learned a lot more at MacDuffie than just the working of the for-profit model. While I was there, I discovered a video that I showed in Chapel on the day I got back. The video, part of Burger King's campaign against bullying, shows the different reactions of customers as they witness the bullying of a teenager. The video highlights the nature of the Bystander Effect — when, even though you can see and probably solve a problem, you just stand by and watch, believing someone else will solve it. Burger King decided that they would highlight this problem by contrasting the reactions to the bullying of a high school junior versus the reactions to the bullying of a Whopper Jr. The bullying of the Whopper Jr., which involved smashing it with one's fist (even though it was harmless and defenseless just because it was fun to do so), was reported by 95% of the customers who witnessed it. The bullying of the high school junior, played out by actors, was only reported or stopped by 12% of the customers.

This video, in many ways, did not teach me anything new. I knew bullying is harmful, that the bystander effect helps perpetuate it, and that the right thing to do is to stand up for the victims and against the bullies. There were, however, some ideas in the video that caused me to consider these issues differently. As I watched it, I found myself thinking about people who, though not necessarily physically beat up by bullies, are beat up by people in other less visible ways or by other hurtful things in their lives. The video helped me realize that the bystander effect played into these situations, too, and that it is part of the problem regarding teen mental health, including depression and suicide.

The video also got me thinking about why we stand by and what we should do instead. Almost all of the customers who received a smashed burger or watched their food being smashed protested; they had paid for it, it was their possession, and they looked forward to enjoying it. They were personally invested in it. We do the same thing when we protect our friends and loved ones, those in whom we have invested time, energy, and affection. Likewise, when we have invested our identity or our moral energy into a set of beliefs and values, we are more likely to stand up for them—even risking punishment, pain, or death for them. The bystander effect as portrayed in this video made me think about how often I have stood by when I knew someone not connected to me, in whom I had made no personal investment and from whom I expected no pleasure or benefit, was being harmed by another.

In thinking about this bullying video, I was also brought back to my pre-teen and teenage years, when I was bullied or at least afraid I might be bullied. I remembered some specific times when I saw someone being bullied and walked by or heard about a bullying incident and didn't speak up. In the video, one customer stood up and walked over to the tables where the high school junior was being bullied; she asked if he was OK, asked the other boys their names, and then sat down across the table from the victim to share her stories of being "messed with". That scene reminded me of the times I have acted the way I should have: not just standing up and intervening, but standing next to and being vulnerable with the victim.

The video ended with one of the "upstanding" customers talking about how he sees his role, and it summarized much of what I learned from my reflecting and my remembering: "To feel defenseless, that's like one of the worst things in the world... I've been that kid, so if I see it, I'm going to do something about it. And I hope there's a lot more people out there like that."

Me too. How about you?

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