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From Shy Boy to Ally
How I spoke out and stood up to bullies
David Hammer
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I remember the day as clear as glass. I was in 6th grade and my teacher had just announced it was recess, a time we were allowed to eat snacks and move around the classroom. But on that day, break time would have been a much more fitting phrase—I had reached a breaking point.

My friend sat across from me. Two classmates who were attention seekers were teasing him again. They did something mean to him every day. On this day, they were singing a song about him: “Chicken, chicken Josh.” They sang relentlessly, while the teacher chose to ignore them. Those words were like a bite of jalapeño to my friend, who turned red with rage and embarrassment, while tears of frustration dripped from his eyes. This made the other kids in class laugh. I could see how hopeless he felt.

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On other days, they would steal his school supplies, call his sister ugly, and make fun of his big head.

Normally, I would just sit and watch it all. I was very shy. I rarely spoke during recess or raised my hand in class. I was so shy, in fact, that the school assigned me a social worker. In an effort to get me to participate more, she made me a chart to check off every time I raised my hand. She said I’d receive a prize if I filled it up. But I never did. It didn’t help with my shyness; it just made me more self-conscious. I felt like my teacher and social worker were too focused on me.

But on this particular day, I took a stand. I’d had enough. I stood up and shouted, “Leave him alone!” Silence broke out, all eyes in the room locked on me. But the silence was short-lived as everyone went back to enjoying their break. For the rest of the day, every time the bullies would taunt my friend during class, I would scream, “Stop annoying him,” or, “It wouldn’t hurt to be nice,” or, “You don’t have to be mean.”

But these words didn’t help. In fact, it made the situation worse: I too became a victim. That afternoon, the two bullies began to make up songs about me. My friend said, “Looks like you’re a target now.”

That night, I told my father about what had happened. He begged me to forget about it until after winter break, which started the next day. I did my best to do that.

Now I’m the Target

When it was time to return to school in February, I was nervous. I went to a large yeshiva, a private school where all the kids are from the same Jewish community. Most of us have known each other since we were little. So it wasn’t easy to avoid the bullies or to branch out and meet new people.

I thought to myself, “What if they bully me? What will I do?” But then I thought, “Maybe it was only a one-day thing, maybe they forgot about me.” It was this mindset that gave me the courage I needed that early February day.

Boy was I wrong! In the early afternoon my tormenters began to whisper songs about me. “Shmoouel, Shmoouel!” they chanted, pronouncing my name in a different dialect to show I was different from them. In my school, most families come from the Middle East. While much of my family is from the Middle East, I also have family from Eastern Europe. So even though we are all Jewish, they were trying to belittle me because some of my family is from a different part of the world.

This mocking and disrespect upset me a lot. I felt helpless. Here’s how a typical afternoon went: I’d hear the bullies whispering songs about me. Nobody heard them except me and it upset me so much I couldn’t stand it another second.

“Stop!” I screamed.

My teacher turned from the whiteboard and said to me, “Don’t interrupt the class.”

“But they are making up songs about me!”

“I don’t care, ignore them.”

image by YC-Art Dept

Speaking Up

A few weeks later, I spoke to my teacher after class. He promised to help me with the conflict and even volunteered to tell my two other teachers about it. It was a relief hearing comforting language from a grown-up. I thought, “Maybe I can help my friend and myself and end our trouble.” But the disciplinary method my teacher used couldn’t force a rock to stay still. It went something like this:

My teacher hears the songs.

“You better stop, I won’t listen to this while I’m teaching!” he’d yell.

Then they’d keep singing.

“Get out! I’ve had enough!” My teacher thought he showed them—except he didn’t. In my school the greatest gift a teacher could give a student was a “get out of class free card.” Here’s what I imagine them both thinking:

Teacher: “Thank goodness that annoying kid is out of my class. Now I can teach in peace, and when he comes back, he will have no choice but to drown in confusion from missing class.”

Student: “I’m free! I got out of class without any real penalties (meaning points subtracted from a grade) and I can do whatever I want! First, I’m going to drink some water, and then I’m going to see if any of my friends are in the hall and talk with them for the rest of class.”

Speaking Up—Again

This was the case every day until a few weeks later, when I decided to talk to my social worker.

She told me, “David, no one deserves to be bullied. I want you to keep me up-to-date on this. I’m going to handle it.”

“What if the bullies find out I told on them?”

“Everything is going to be fine. I want you to promise me you won’t worry about the bullies; I will take care of everything. I’m going to notify your teachers that whenever you want to speak to me, you can come to my office.”

My confidence soared after that conversation. I was a bold eagle. I flew up the stairs back to class.

But she didn’t take care of it. The rogues continued to harass me and my friend. Unlike New York City public schools, my yeshiva didn’t have specific steps students can take if they are being bullied. It was the same scene every day: Teacher throws kids out, kids come back and continue to ridicule and insult me.

The only change was that now I had my social worker to talk to. Whenever I felt hopeless, I went to her office. One day, she finally said: “David, I think it’s time to get the principal involved.”

image by YC-Art Dept

“I don’t know if I like that idea,” I said hesitantly. “Let’s say my enemies find out from the principal that I spoke to her. Then what? They’ll threaten me.”

“David, I don’t know what the principal will do, but whatever she does it will be for your own good.”

I didn’t want to be the guy who gets other kids in trouble, but it had to be done.

Pride and Relief

My meeting with the principal didn’t take place for a month. Once inside her office, she assured me I would be safe if I talked, so I did.

When I finished, she said, “David, I’m going to speak to the two kids separately, and there will be consequences for their actions.”

“But I never intended to get the bullies in trouble. I just want them to stop harassing me.”

“I hear you, but you and your friend weren’t the only children who were bullied by these two boys. It won’t be tolerated.”

I had no idea other kids were being bullied too.

On my way back to class, I felt proud that I had spoken up. I also felt worry about the unknown, and relief now that the deed was done.

The boys stopped bullying my friend and me immediately after the meeting. I later found out one wasn’t admitted back to school the next year, while the other one was allowed to come back but only after he turned in extra summer homework as punishment.

The following year, something surprising happened. I slowly began talking to the bully who stayed in my school. First we just started nodding hello to each other in the halls. Then we began to have conversations. Today, it’s as if a giant eraser erased the pages of our troubled past.

This experience helped me change gradually from a shy person who wouldn’t even raise his hand in class to someone who takes pride in voicing his opinions.

I also learned that if I believe something is wrong, I should speak up, even if it means standing out. And if adults or others in power don’t pay attention to you, don’t give up. It took months of me reaching out to different adults in my school until eventually someone listened and helped me.

Stay Open

And finally, becoming friends with one of the bullies surprised me. I didn’t expect that to happen. So I will continue to be open and not judge people. Sometimes they can change. We were both willing to see our better selves.

In school, I’ve learned about leaders in history who brought change to society. But sometimes a change is not big, nor does it come from a powerful public speaker who can rally millions. Sometimes it can come from a voice you least expect—a shy 6th grader.

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(NYC-2016-09-15)