It’s a Monday afternoon in early December and school just got out.
On the big, warm, green-curtained multi-purpose room stage at Mammoth Elementary School, about a dozen third through fifth graders, boys and girls, Caucasian and Hispanic, are gathered together, just like they have been for many Mondays previously.
The stage vibrates with the pranks and laughter of 14 high-energy students, but teacher Dee Di Gioia has done this before, and more than once.
In a few short moments, she has the whole bunch corralled and attentive. They are her “Peace Pals” – a group of self-selected kids who have made a commitment with her to slow and stop bullying in their school.
Although there are no hard numbers about how many incidents of bullying occur at Mammoth Unified School District, Di Gioia knows from her work as a speech therapist for the county office of education that it does indeed occur and frequently.
“I’ve had many, many of my students tell me about being bullied,” she said. She has been an anti-bullying advocate for years, but recent national attention to a spate of suicides by young people who were bullied has helped to increase the attention paid to her work.
What was once seen as a hurtful but relatively harmless phenomenon is now being recognized by professionals as anything but, with children that have been bullied anywhere from two to nine times more likely to commit suicide, according to some studies.
So it is today that Di Gioia and her students are practicing for an upcoming assembly before the entire elementary school student body. On the list of to-do projects right now is learning a song that she has chosen for filming.
“I know you are fed up, life don’t let up for us,” the kids sing. “All they talk about is what’s going down, and what’s been messed up, for us.”
The kids spin into the song, repeating the words until they get them right. Di Gioia moves around the room like a miniature whirlwind, filming, singing, encouraging, correcting, and disciplining simultaneously.
Finally, she gets enough good takes to piece together the song and the kids take a short break while she sends two of them down the hall for her computer.
I ask the remaining kids, now sitting on the floor catching their breath why they are here.
“I’m here to end bulling in our school,” says Jaime Peabody. “I was bullied before and it made me feel really bad. A lot of people think it won’t get better, that it’s not going to get better, but if we don’t do something about it, it really can’t get better.”
“I think we are all here because everyone in this group has been picked on,” said Madison Jayne. “It’s very painful and we all want to fix it.”
How do you stop someone from bullying, I ask them. Wouldn’t you be scared to stand up?
“We stand up and tell the person to stop,” said David Barajas. “The next time they see you standing up, they leave you alone.”
“I would talk to the victim and ask them if they wanted to come and play with me instead,” said Hannah Linaweaver.
“I would just tell the bully to stop,” said Stella Anderson. “I would tell them, “I bet you don’t like it when someone does that to you so you shouldn’t do it to them.””
“I would ignore them,” said Ella Thompson. “They won’t do it if they are ignored.”
But what if they don’t stop even with all this, I ask the kids. Then what do you do?
“I would go get a teacher to help,” said Adison Witherill. “If that teacher didn’t listen to me, I’d go find another teacher who would.”
Why do you think people bully other people?” I ask them.
“Bullies feel like they need attention,” said Drew Presson. “So they pick on someone else. But it’s not a good way to get attention.”
Then the break is over and the kids get back to work, memorizing the moves to the dance that will go with their song.
On Monday, Dec. 13, the fruit of their labor is up there on the stage in front of hundreds of their peers.
During the hour-long program, the room is silent, the kids totally mesmerized.
If this is the future, I think, I wish it had been all of our pasts.