You don’t know what lies beneath


I witnessed something truly remarkable last week. I watched a student talking to a peer group make a point about respecting one another. What made it remarkable was that it was done so well, he achieved in five minutes what I and anyone else in education spend our professional careers struggling to achieve.

He had a message and he got it through. He had them all. He spoke, and they thought about it. 

The student in question happens to be my school’s Captain and the event was a whole school assembly so that means his peer group was around 1350 fellow students aged 12-17.

Here’s how it works.  For a school this size there are only four or so full school assemblies a year. The first week of term three is always earmarked for such an event as it affords the chance to celebrate achievements of the first semester. This inevitably means that the school’s student council are called on to give reports on what’s done in the arts or sports. We have a two-court basketball gymnasium that seats us all (just) so the view from the podium for these young leaders is both impressive and imposing. The school captain also speaks. They are expected to give what amounts to a keynote speech and, as we usually run a bullying survey in the latter weeks of the previous term, this is often the underlying theme of the Captain’s address. While I wasn’t a part of the planning for this assembly, I know for a fact that the School Captains always write their own speeches. There is a senior staff member who mentors and facilitates much of the work of the school council but these young people are entrusted with a very large degree of autonomy.  I have no doubt that the Captain was encouraged to have an anti-bullying theme, but equally, I have no doubt that he was not told what to say.

It was his message to give.

So what was his extraordinary message? Well it wasn’t that bullying affects everyone including him because that has been said before. Quite effectively at times. Still, for the hardened veterans among the student body who have heard a few speeches in their time (and were surrounding me in the back corner of the gym) that sort of thing is easily dismissed as a fair effort but one that doesn’t apply to them personally.

No, what this young man did was something I’ve not seen in ten years at this school. He made a simple contention. One that emphasised you just don’t know what lies underneath so it’s probably best to treat each other with respect. Having done that, he opened up his life to the room, using himself as an example.

I’ve decided not to describe the details of this young man’s speech here since he doesn’t know I’m writing this and you, gentle reader, weren’t the audience he had in mind. Suffice it to say that there’s nothing scandalous in it. It was a retelling of a misfortunate life that most would consider close to their worst nightmare. It was told without the slightest hint of self pity which added to its impact on a student audience that thought “… but hang on … you’re … you’re normal?”

That he is. I teach him English and I can confirm that he is. He’s the School Captain and while that suggests he’s probably endowed with greater levels of confidence, charisma, ambition, or duty than most, he is an absolutely normal young man.

As he detailed his story, none in the audience appeared to sympathise with him. His retelling didn’t allow it. The silence and complete attention he was afforded by everyone, including the hardened ‘heard it all before’ crowd around me, was evidence of something far more significant.

They empathised.

It was obvious that they were all thinking either, ‘What would I have done if that was me?’ or ‘Man that’s rough. I can see that’s rough!’  They were thinking about his contention and they were immersed in his point that perhaps we should not assume everyone’s doing fine because we just don’t know. Maybe there’s stuff going on in another person’s life that means our antics aren’t fun loving and good-natured. Maybe our antics are oppressive or even intimidating.

Here, for the first time I can remember, a public speech that had an anti-bullying message was delivered in a way that didn’t put people in categories. There was no reference to bullys, victims, and bystanders as if you can only be one at any given time. It was not a speech that assumed it should preach from on high things like ‘Bullying hurts’ and ‘You shouldn’t bully people‘ down to the ignorant masses who inturn think ‘Really? You think I never knew that? Seriously? You think that’s news?’.

Instead, it was a member of the masses openly entrusting his peer group with his story and hoping that by doing so it would be respected and his meaning inferred.

It was. In advocating nothing more than greater awareness he had my far corner of the gym nodding Yes, they actually nodded and not (as sometimes happens) from drowsiness.

It was the perfect example of the right messenger with the right message. 

Of course, I don’t expect a miracle to come from this. Not everyone who was there will suddenly empathise more intently with others and relate to those around them with appropriate respect. But I can work with this and so can the rest of us who try to communicate the same sentiments.

I have enormous admiration and appreciation for what this young man did. It was impressive. 

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2 thoughts on “You don’t know what lies beneath

  1. Love! Thanks so much for not telling us his story. It doesn’t matter what he said, what matters is that his peers listened. If you are ever in the mood for bringing these kinds of issues into the classroom, try “Hate List”. A great novel, pairs well with Romeo and Juliet, delves into a girl rebuilding her life after her boyfriend enters the school with a weapon. She stops the shooting, but fights to survive in the aftermath. Great narrative, characters high school students can relate to, and has a great message about forgiveness.

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