Tolerance. A Lesson in what We’re Never too Young nor too Old to Learn.
When I was a senior in college, my goal above all else was to secure an internship at the Museum of Tolerance (MOT) in Los Angeles. I, like so many students before me, had visited this heartbreaking and inspirational place on a field trip that included the entire 6th grade level along with many patient teachers and parent chaperones. The experience at the museum stuck with me and peaked my interest in this particular tragic chapter in history. Fast forward several years, I declare my major at UCLA and decide upon History with a particular focus on Holocaust Studies. Thus, it not only felt right that I should apply for an internship at the MOT, it felt somehow predestined.
After a careful review of my application essay and a lengthy interview, I was accepted as a student intern at this remarkable institution. I immediately dove in and quickly met as many of the volunteers, staff, survivors, and board members that I could find, everyone that was contributing to the important work being done here. My duties varied greatly, from recording Holocaust survivor testimonies to giving tours to students to assisting with educational workshops to collecting comment cards from visitors. I never said no to any job and no task given me, even sharpening the pencils for visitor feedback forms, ever felt anything short of meaningful.
After a few months in, I was asked to lead some of the workshops for Elementary School students. The program was called Steps to Tolerance and was meant to introduce age appropriate Holocaust material to younger school groups. I was excited, definitely. Eager to begin, wholeheartedly. However, if I was being totally honest with myself I was also quite nervous. Nervous that the kids wouldn’t get it, that the subject would be too immense and the themes too heavy. That first workshop was one I’ll never forget and not just because it was my first, but because it laid the groundwork for what would quickly become a recurring pattern in student responses and ultimately unveil to me one of the toughest issues young people face in school, then and now.
The students were given workbooks, acted out scenarios, and listened to a Holocaust survivor give their personal testimony. Everything was going according to plan and better! Students were giving thoughtful mature answers to tough questions that even had some of the adults looking rather uncomfortable. As a closing activity to tie everything together and show the relationship between past events and modern day tolerance, we asked students to anonymously answer a series of questions about bullying at their school. The kids, parents and teachers gathered in a classroom with a large monitor mounted on the wall before them. Each student was given a clicker that would automatically record their answers and poll them on the screen for all the audience to see. As a little test we asked a very generic question at first. “Do you like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?” Press A for yes, B for no, and C for just a little. The students energetically pressed their choices and delighted at seeing the bar chart display the percentages on the screen. Ok, they get the concept and they understand that no one can see how any individual person answers. Time for the far more serious questions.
The next question to appear on the screen was, “Do you know what bullying is?” Options — Yes, No, and Maybe. All students responded with “Yes.” Next question, “Do you know someone who is a bully?” Again, 100% answered, “Yes.” Going forward, the monitor asked, “Have you ever been bullied?” Students answered over 95% “Yes.” At this point, I could see parents and teachers shifting a bit in their seats, I continued onward. Fourth question, “Do you feel ok telling a teacher or other adult about being bullied?” Over 87% said “No.” Gasps coming from the adults. Final question, “Would you help if you saw another student being bullied?” Nearly 80% answered “No.” After the students passed in their clickers, we began a discussion. Some kids said they were afraid teachers would call them tattletales for reporting on another student. Others said they didn’t see the point in telling a teacher or parent because the bully would get briefly spoken to and then would just go right back to bullying again. A few even admitted that they were frightened to help because they didn’t want the bully to turn their aggression on them in retaliation for telling.
Over the course of several months, many workshops took place and most had nearly identical results during the bullying portion. Grim as this may seem, especially given the fact that school shootings are more rampant than ever and cyber bullying seems to exist all over the internet, the workshops always ended on a hopeful note. The students felt very impacted by seeing their replies laid out before them in an easily digestible format. They spoke about how they would go home and tell their siblings and their friends about the dangers of bullying. Of how standing by and watching as someone else gets picked on can lead to dire consequences for all. How being a bystander means you have a responsibility to not just stand by, but to act. One of the most significant lessons we can learn as humans and one that we are never too young nor too old to remember is kindness. Kindness combats hate. It elevates good and most importantly, it inspires change.