I wrote this blog a couple of years ago and as Wednesday, February 22 is Pink Shirt Day in Canada this year, I’ll be speaking at Henry Wisewood High School in Calgary and I find it fascinating that their event will be including “Pink Shirts”, Wisewood’s event will focus less on “Bullying” and more about the words we use that can sometimes be offensive to others. No matter what the strategy, I am very supportive of Amy initiative to foster more empathy in our schools. I wanted to write a blog about this but realize, I already had and I’m not being lazy. This blog still says what I want to say so please enjoy and if you would like to be assertive, wear Pink tomorrow, even if it’s not your colour!
Wednesday, February 25th was the 2015 edition of “Pink Shirt Day” and this year, I spent it in Kelowna. I was the guest speaker for the first and for their sake in particular, annual corporate breakfast in support of the day and proceeds earmarked to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kelowna. Needless to say, there was lot of pink around. Ironically, I didn’t have a pink shirt on. Like a tool, I simply forgot it at home. I had a couple of days in Weyburn Saskatchewan prior to travelling to Kelowna and I have been home very little…okay, I am whining! I still felt stupid considering the whole point of the day is to wear pink, right? Actually, and not to deflect my feuxpas, the point of the day is what I want to comment on.
If you don’t know the backstory, in 2007, two Nova Scotia High School students organized a protest in reponse to a Grade 9 fellow student being bullied for wearing a pink shirt to school the previous week. They encouraged everyone to come to school on February 25th, 2007 wearing pink. They had a surprising and overwhelming response and the day has come to symbolize the anti-bullying movement. Before I get to my “opinion”, which may surprise some of you, let me acknowledge anything that battles a wrong in our society is a good thing and any form of bullying is patently wrong. I also acknowledge that sadly and emotionally, some young people have even taken their lives blaming bullying and I would never question someone who is no longer here for their motives or credibility. I feel for their loved ones and mourn the loss of anyone who felt they couldn’t cope with their lives as they saw them. Lastly, I was very honoured to be asked to speak to the subject on behalf of the Boys & Girls Clubs, an organization that has been around a long time before Pink Shirt Day and cares for compromised youth through after school support and activity programs and whose parents largely face challenges of their own. Any child who has to suffer due to life’s inequities has a place in my heart. But, and you had to know there was a “but” coming, wearing pink one day a year is not enough. We must carry the spirit of Pink Shirt Day…Everyday!
As I always write here, this is my blog, not my speech. My speech is between 30 and 90 minutes and is directed at my client of the day. I am profoundly aware that my opinion must be somewhat restrained on a stage as I am literally representing who hired me. Here, I only represent myself. Having said that, I truly do not possess an insensitive arrogance where my guiding principle is, “I will say what I want and don’t care what people think or feel”. I couldn’t live like that. So here’s another “But”…I also can’t live with myself if I don’t pass on my perspective and it isn’t always a popular one.
First, “Bullying” isn’t new. The Hype is! I capitalize hype because that is exactly what it is. In conjunction with Pink Shirt Day, the media pronounced across Canada that bullying continues to be a “major” problem for schools. According to statistics provided by the website, bullying .org, a bullying event happens every seven minutes on playgrounds across the country and parents claim bullying has surpassed alcolhol and drug abuse as a major concern for their kids. In fact, a new Angus Reid poll suggests that three in four Canadian Adults claim they were bulled while a student in school. 75%! Wow! That would mean only 25% were not bullied.
I am sorry, but I categorically disagree! Let’s remember that polling companies also predicted minority governments in Ottawa and Alberta last elections. I place absolutely no value or trust in polls. I am not saying they are making this up but I am highly suspicious of the questions they asked to provoke the numbers they got. I also think parents who think bullying is more damaging than alcohol and drug abuse need to get in touch with reality. Bullying is impactive but it targets a completely different part of the brain and doesn’t destroy it like alcohol and drug abuse does, especially in adolescents. That the press are adding to the inaccurate numbers is both irresponsible and unethical.
I am arguing this point, why? First, because I experienced bullying? Definitely! I remember Stuart Smith and Allan Molnar making up a demeaning identity for me in Junior High. I had an overbite or “buck teeth” and although braces fixed that, for four years in Junior and then Senior High School, I lacked social graces and was a very nervous and uncomfortable young person. So these two, (and even more cruel, Stuart was my “best friend” for two years before he turned on me) and then others started sticking their front teeth out snorted and called me “Snarf”. I am pretty sure they made the word up and it got the desired results…made others laugh and made me cry. I hated it. It was bullying. It went away! They didn’t. “It” did. So if Angus Reid called me today and asked if I was ever bullied, I suppose I would answer yes.
So, I am curious if the same poll asked; “Did it ruin your whole life?” Without sounding competely mean here, if the people in the poll said they were bullied, why didn’t they “quit life”? Look, I am completely uncomfortable with this next bit but like Mount Royal University in Calgary is calling bullying and teen suicide the “elephant in the room” and are reaching out to high schools in the city to have a dialogue on the subject so young people are less stressed as the move into college age, we need to discuss the truth.
TRUTH! I am not alone in having lost people I care about to suicide. One of my favourite people I have ever known took his own life a few years ago. He was my age. He was very “successful”, owning a lovely home, summer cottage, big fancy half-ton, boats, snowmachines…all the boy toys! He had travelled the world and settled in Fort McMurray working as a safety inspector in the oil industry specializing in the very challenging fields of radiography and inspection of welds and seams on pipelines, storage compartments, etc. He was constantly upgrading his knowledge and certifications and had workes his way to the highest levels in his field and was a manager. He was respected, he was loved, he had countless friends and he truly loved life. I loved him and his friendship. But this friend also had a dark side. He had battled with depression and suffered through substance abuse. Every one of those countless friends knew and we had all talked to him when he was down. He had support. But a year after his younger brother, Jon, took his own life, so did my friend, Mike Carr. Their family had some issues but not any more ridiculous than some out there. We all asked the same question…Why? Heck, when Robin Williams took his own life, didn’t literally millions around the globe ask the same question, let alone those who actually knew and loved him. Why?
Too many grieving parents who have seen their own children take their lives have asked that burning question as well. It seems to me, that only in the last ten years at the most, but more like five years, has the answer for some been bullying. Clearly, I am not being judgemental of these people choosing to believe this cause and clearly, their children were probably bullied. I get it. I often tell a story on stage about being out for lunch with my Dad. I had a big hamburger squished between my toes and was doing my best to eat it. Trust me, it isn’t a pretty site. That day, like thousands of days before, I was getting watched. One older man in particular looked like he was going to throw up and just glared at me. I was 14 years old. I hated it! I hated him! Truth was…I hated Me! I put my burger down and complained to my Dad about this rude man. He looked at him, saw how rude he was being, looked back at me and said, “What do you want me to do?” I replied, “I don’t know. Go talk to him. Go talk to the manager. Go beat him up. You used to be a boxer…do something!” My Dad actually smircked, leaned in close and said the words that are permanantly burned in my brain: “Son. Take another look at that guy. Take a good long look and get used to it ’cause it will never go away…ever. So you’ve got two choices from what I can see. One, you go home, head to the basement where you spend all your time and never go out in public ever again!” I didn’t wait for number two so I interrupted and said, “That’s stupid!” and Dad replied, “It is stupid. Maybe that guy is stupid too, ’cause he is obviously ignorant and insensitive. It isn’t very fair, is it?” I shook my head in agreement. “So what’s number two?”, I asked. Dad said, “Number two is the only solution…Get Over It!”
Critics of the anti-bullying movement don’t like that story. I am pretty sure there aren’t many folks at bullying.org who like me very much either. But here is my TRUTH…My Dad Was Right! I miss my Dad. He died in 2001 at 94 years of age. He lived a long life…his choice. I questioned the essence of my life as a teenager, even wondered why I would go on sometimes. Thank God I chose life. I wish Mike would’ve. I wish his brother Jon would’ve. I wish Robin Williams would’ve. I wish every adolescent who ended their own lives and believed it was bullying that made their decision would’ve too. But here is the deal for me. Nobody and I mean “Nobody” knows why these horibble circumstances exist and Nobody knows why bullying exists. Understanding why people do the things they do will be the eternal question. Here is another one; why are we the meanest to the ones we love? Got an answer? Bet you don’t ’cause I sure don’t. If you think about it, we are not really all that far removed from Neanderthals who were not far removed from animals who still exist in a world where survival of the fittest is a daily reality. Unfortunately, victims of bullying, the real ones, not just the drama-queens, are often the weakest in the school chain. The bullies are vilified and they of course, hold a responsibilty in this, but when’s the last time we asked the bully if they are okay? People don’t always mesh and the idea that we are going to send our young ones out into the cruel world without experiencing some pain and tears is ludicrous.
Pink Shirt Day to yours truly is about respecting people for who they are every single day of the year. Respecting their race, religion, language and ethnicity and yes, even fashion choices seems like a simple concept doesn’t it? In fact there are a lot of things that sem obvious, but they aren’t. I always wondered…”Why would anyone ever make fun of a little boy without arms?” I guess you’d have to ask Stuart and Allan but my guess is they probably didn’t even care because too many people don’t either. But I refuse to believe they are the majority.
Millions of people wore Pink on February 25th and we may think they did it as an anti-bullying initiative. Yet if you ask the two young men in Nova Scotia who decided to start all of this why they did it, they don’t even talk about bullying as their primary motive. Their words exactly were…”We wanted to show that poor kid in Grade 9 he isn’t alone and that most of the kids in our school aren’t like that!” Exactly!
Most kids aren’t being bullied and most people aren’t bullies! Isn’t it time we do what my Dad told me and just Get Over It? Or perhaps less challenging and a bit more politically correct. Isn’t it time we all bring a Pink Shirt Attitude to every contact with every human being we encounter every single day? It sure works for me!