Another near-and-dear subject to me, both in my personal and professional life, is what I have come to call “anti-bystanderism.” This means, a belief in NOT just standing by, but actually acting against injustice. I teach this to my students and my own children, and try to model it in my personal world as well.
When I became a teacher at CCUSD ten years ago, they had a federally funded, required program called “Too Good for Violence” in place. Through awkwardly worded “workbooks” that we were supposed to follow along with the students, the government expected that “teaching” a child to express themselves with words instead of fists by saying, “that comment hurt my feelings,” we would reduce everything from fist fights to gangs. I am not sure why or who ultimately abandoned the program, but it seems like they may have realized how benign such programs are in the face of armed gunmen invading school campuses. And is not a person wielding a gun versus an unarmed individual bullying in its most radical form?
Immediately following on the heels of “Too Good for Violence,” an anti-bullying
initiative began in our schools. Our particular district adopted a program called “Olweus,” which is one of many extant sets of shelf materials on how to eradicate bullying. This program did not come with a neat “how to” booklet, rather, teachers are asked to work with a random sampling (for example, each teacher’s 3rd period classroom) of same grade level students, encouraging them to have personal discussions about bullying experiences they may have experienced or witnessed.
I didn’t see as much value implementing such discussions with just one group of my students; rather, I preferred to engage all of my students in such discussions, creating an anti-bullying community out of at least my third of the 7th grade. I use the study of the Holocaust’s perpetrators-bystanders-victims cycle to facilitate this. From the moment I took the requisite anti-bullying training they gave us, I saw the connection between bullies and Nazis, victims and Jews, and the vast array of bystanders, from active participants to passive onlookers.
Utilizing all of my resources on the Holocaust, from personal visits to historical sites, to lengthy museum visits, to five years of training courses from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, to the reading of a library of texts on the subject, I open the school year teaching about the Holocaust through what is now referred to as a Common Core approach. This approach utilizes multimedia materials designed to get students reading, writing and thinking. I have taught them that bystanders, the most populous and culpable figures on the scene, have a responsibility to speak, act, and stand up. Some call it “upstanderism.”
After our first unit, when the students saw pictures, not of concentration camps, but, for example, of a peaceful town in Germany, with people going about their daily business, all except for the anti-Jewish banner across the town square…they had learned a lot about the bystanders’ role.
And the issue of bystanderism is not always about violence. One day in class, when I was absent, homework was due. There was a substitute, who, during the first period of the day, (kindheartedly) noticed that two or three students had not done their work. She didn’t realize that they never turn in their homework, and just needed to take a zero, whereas the rest of the students, and the students in the classes the rest of the day, had worked hard to ensure their work met the deadline. The substitute told the students to keep their work and turn it in another day. Not a big deal to me, and perhaps a “save” to the few students who did not do their work, but this affected all of the classes through the day, “What? We worked all weekend on this, and it wasn’t even collected after all?” I came back and accused the students who HAD done their work of being bystanders. I said they should have stopped that “injustice” by speaking up to the substitute, and asserting the fact that, no, the work WAS due that day, and it wouldn’t be fair to the many students who did do the work in time, to extend the deadline. The students got the message: no bystanderism would be tolerated.
I have at times taken flack from the same ilk of parents who supported anti-bullying programs but feared that I was leading their children down a too scary path. Not so, however. My students come to me with the truth about various incidents in and outside of class. Graduates of mine have even reported that they would come to me if they encountered trouble on campus. I hear them calling each other out as “bystanders.” I believe that we have created a community of helpers. The only problem with my commitment to anti-bystanderism is that,I also have to practice what I preach! I find myself increasingly emboldened to actually speak up and advocate for things I believe in, more vociferously than I had in the past. I have come to feel that it I am proposing to stand up before 200+ souls worth of students day after day, telling them not to be bystanders, I must be willing to walk the talk. The writing of my articles in Culver City Crossroads is part of my relatively newfound dedication.
Connecting this again to the Holocuast for a moment, as time marches on, and living eyewitnesses of the atrocities die away, there are people who claim everything from denying that a Jewish civilization was virtually eradicated, to complaints that it wasn’t only the Jews who suffered. People feel that “war is hell” and people die during wartime.
However, the marginalization that was perpetrated, and allowed by bystanders, from people being forced out of jobs, to being made to wear yellow stars on clothing, happened even before the systematic murders took place. If bystanders would have not tolerated injustices BEFORE killing elevated to the level of “war,” genocides like the Holocaust might not have happened.
Schoolyard bullying and the quest for power and domination are akin. The majority (those who stand by) can foil the plans of the minority (bullies and their victims) through speech and action, and instead, become heroes.