Inspired Conversations with Melissa Saunders

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

C.S. Lewis

 

For those of you who don’t already know, I’m tirelessly inspired by the human heart and the magnificent creative energy it pumps out to those willing to listen to that still small voice. The people who listen, act and find ways to share a new language of beauty the rest of us can now understand are the people who inspire me most. As I meet more and more people, I’m discovering there is no such thing as an ordinary person — just an unknown person. In light of that, I’ve been doing a personal project I’m calling Inspired Conversations to make room to have potentially amazing conversations with such people and since I’m a photographer, create a few editorial portraits to share about our time together. Not long ago, I sat down with New Yorker (and Omaha native), Melissa Saunders to talk about her book, Lessons from a Rubber Duck, and the complex issues behind the social phenomenon known as bullying.

“Melissa is a former elementary school teacher and counselor. She has master’s degrees in both education and counseling. Her first book, Lessons from a Rubber Duck, is an empowering tale about standing up to teasing and bullying. She regularly visits schools and other organizations for author visits.” (from her website) The following is a summary of insights gained from our conversation.

 

The Bully Profile. 

Contrary to popular belief, there is no profile for a bully–bullies come from all walks of life. But Saunders said there are a few trends that can be identified:

  • bullying is about exploited power and control
  • exploited power imbalances can be in the form of social status, intellectual capacity, cultural, religious or sexual/gender differences, etc.
  • bullies can also be bully victims–they’ve learned this behavior because it’s been modeled for them
  • children disciplined by shame, sarcasm, spanking, or corrosive behaviors are more likely to engage in bullying

Ambiguous expectations for behavior is also a factor that allows bullying to thrive, along with undefined structure or non-established routines. The most surprising news to me was learning that research shows bullying is a tool for gaining social status. It makes me wonder how bullying becomes a form of social currency in our public school system in the first place.

Melissa-Saunders

Social Value Equals Social Status. 

Saunders says, “We send messages all the time about what we value.” Or even in what we don’t say and ways we aren’t even aware of. Consider the simple use of pictures of generic people in text books–for young kids grasping for identity, these send a message of what is normal, accepted family and relationships, or the standard all else is measured against.  Or what about the things we choose to celebrate? What things are important enough to interrupt the day and stop the learning process to celebrate? Very often schools do just that for prep rallies. And in the process, it sends a very strong message about what or who is worth celebrating with school wide attention. We celebrate football players and cheerleaders (which re-enforces stereotypical gender roles), not chess champions, academic achievers, artists, or the marching band.  Everyone’s heard the term “band nerd” but no one thinks to put together the words “football nerd.” This creates social status.

It’s quite possible bullying is the root of all violence in our schools (if not society at large), and it can be discouraging to see how deep bullying runs into our systems of society. But it’s also true that change is always possible. Adults who were bullied as children are speaking out to give kids empowering vision beyond victimization.  One such simple message of hope is the “It Gets Better” movement. There’s also the Trevor Project and the Safe School Improvement Act (SSIA) which seeks to require schools to have specific policies in place to get federal funding and spell out specificity protected rights.

 

Genuine Communication is Help. 

Saunders says kids tend to think that adults won’t do anything about it or will make things worse, but “if kids see adults getting involved in a positive way, the more likely they will be to share what’s really going on.” The more transparent we are about these issues, the more empowered we’ll be to choose to live differently.