By Sue Botos
At one time or another, most teens are faced with bullying from peers. But for those perceived as being “different” the cruelty can be overwhelming, and simple kindness can change a life.
Two Rocky River Middle School students and a Magnificat High School sophomore recently shared their experiences of helping classmates deal with discrimination, and were recognized as winners in the annual Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Stop the Hate: Youth Speak Out essay contest.
Thomas Schill, an eighth-grader, placed first in his grade category, and Nolan Weaver was third for the seventh grade. Erin King of Magnificat won the 10th grade title.
In addition, Rocky River Middle School was one of three schools receiving a new prize this year, a $10,000 grant for having the highest percentage of student essays entered in the contest. Also receiving the grant were Solon High School, for having the grand prize winner, and a Cleveland public school chosen to participate in Stop the Hate: Youth Sing Out component of the contest. Over 500 RRMS students entered the contest. The prize money is to be used for anti-bias education.
To enter, students in grades six to 12 throughout the Greater Cleveland area were asked to submit an essay based on the theme, “What would you do to fight discrimination?” In 500 words or fewer, they reflected on a time when they witnessed an act of discrimination or hate, how they responded and how they might change their response the next time.
King’s essay described how, in eighth grade, she befriended a boy with cerebral palsy who was confined to a wheelchair. “Alex became an inspiration, my own personal ray of sunshine and more importantly my friend,” King wrote. She added that her actions made the boy feel like he “belonged” at school.
A family friend inspired Schill to invite a lonely boy to join him and his friends at their lunch table. When talking to Schill’s mother about an upcoming class reunion, the friend recalled a message of thanks from a woman to whom she had been kind as a child.
“We all need to realize that small gestures, such as including someone at a lunch table can have a huge impact on other people’s lives. Stopping the hate also means stopping to think how other people feel – maybe someone doesn’t want to sit alone or walk home alone,” he wrote.
Weaver wrote about how he defended a player on his hockey team who was being bullied for playing soccer. “Everybody has different interests and that doesn’t make them who they are. You can’t bully people because they aren’t the same as you,” he said. Both King and Schill received a $300 prize for winning in their categories. Individual and school awards were distributed at the annual contest celebration on March 12 at Severance Hall.
Magnificat English department Chairwoman Beth Twohig commented on the students’ expression of feeling toward the topic of hate in society. “Students wrote about bullying, racism, inequality and hatred from the scope of their own experiences to the broader spectrum of the human condition. They offered great suggestions on how they could individually make a difference in the world with the hope that their efforts could catch on and motivate others to do the same,” she said.
According to Rocky River Middle School Principal Megan Rose, the essay contest, in which the entire student body participated, is just one tool used by the school to combat bullying and intolerance. She said that RRMS already works with Rachel’s Challenge and Challenge Days, during which students are encouraged to be mindful and supportive of peers’ differences. The contest “directly connects to our curriculum while supporting our constant work with students to be ‘upstanders,’ not bystanders,” Rose added.
The school’s English/language arts department is already brainstorming about plans for the $10,000 prize. “They’ve discussed an all-school read where each student would receive a copy of (a) selected book,” Rose noted. Another possibility involves a traveling exhibit from the National Holocaust Museum. “We are still in the exploration stages, but are excited to bring additional exceptional opportunities to our students and community,” Rose added.