By Starrla Cray
HOWARD LAKE, WAVERLY, WINSTED, MN “You’re ugly,” a ninth grader sneers, looking down at a nervous seventh-grade girl.
A few yards away, three other students smile in amusement.
This situation isn’t real, but it could be.
Bullying in schools has been going on for decades, but author and speaker Jonathan Friesen hopes to change the hearts of students, one presentation at a time.
He spent the day at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted Middle School Wednesday, talking about why and how students can stop bullying from being a major issue in their school.
“I want to humanize the kids here,” said Friesen, who visits five or six schools each month, addressing a variety of issues students face.
Today, Friesen is a successful author living on a horse farm in northern Minnesota with his wife and three children. However, when he tells of his past, it’s clear that life hasn’t always been picture-perfect.
Friesen was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome as a child, a condition that caused involuntary twitches in his face. Embarrassed by his illness, Friesen retreated into a shell of isolation.
His first day of seventh grade, an older student came up to him at lunch and said, “You’re in my seat. You’re going to wish you’d never been born.”
Friesen said he remembers eating as quickly as he could. When he got out into the hallway, the other boy was nowhere to be found, and at first, Friesen said, he was filled with relief.
Unfortunately, the relief didn’t last long.
“I don’t know where his hands came from, but I do remember the shove,” Friesen said. “I remember hitting the locker, then hitting the floor.”
A circle of students gathered, shouting, “Fight! Fight!” Friesen curled up into a ball on the floor, while the boy kicked him repeatedly.
“It wasn’t much of a fight,” Friesen said.
At the time, it seemed like everyone was cheering the other boy on, but in reality, it was probably only about three students, he said.
That’s the way bullying often feels, he added.
“It looks like everybody is against you. Maybe it’s only one person, but in your mind, it feels like everybody.”
Many people aren’t bullies themselves, but when they see someone else getting bullied, they just sit back and watch.
“There is no neutral person in this school,” Friesen said. “You’re either making things better, or making things worse.”
Being physically bullied isn’t fun, but verbal bullying is much worse, according to Friesen.
One student asked about the “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” saying.
“That’s not true,” Friesen said. “Bruises heal, but words stick with you.”
Ask almost any adult, and they’ll be able to tell you hurtful words that someone said to them when they were in school, Friesen said.
Friesen asked the students to think of one person who is not treated well.
“What would it take to help that person?” he asked, explaining that just as one person’s hurtful words can make a difference, so can one person’s kind words.
A major way to combat bullying is to get to know one another, according to Friesen. If someone seems weird or different, it’s important to see that person for who he or she is a valuable human being with strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone else.
When Friesen spoke to the sixth grade class, he asked all the students their names, and one thing they are reasonably good at doing. Responses were unique from baking cookies and making friends to drawing and playing football.
“My guess is, all of you, at least at one point in your life, have felt weak,” Friesen said. Sometimes, people feel like they are alone, unwanted, and have nothing to offer. Friesen told the students to remember that those thoughts are not true.
He encouraged students to find one person to connect with, whether it’s a teacher, classmate, neighbor, or sibling. Having a good friend can help a person deal with bullying, he said.
“You’re not a victim,” Friesen said. “When you believe what is said about you, then you become the victim.”
Many times, bullies have low self esteem, or are trying to get revenge, power, or prove themselves.
“There is no one reason there is no one cure,” Friesen said.
It used to be more common for strong children to bully weaker children, but now, bullying takes many forms, according to Friesen. With computers, texting, and other forms of technology, “cyber-bullying” has also become an issue.
After the presentation, students had the opportunity to talk to Friesen and purchase his books. Friesen said his goal is to make a difference in the lives of students, and to help them “see” one another.
“It might make no difference to 100 kids, but maybe to three, it hits them in a certain way,” he said.
To learn more about Friesen, go to www.jonathanfriesen.com.