Friday, October 8
The buzz from Gary Cruz’s printer fills his classroom as students shuffle in for the 8 a.m. Peer Resources course. One boy, a freshman, jerks his head from side to side to the beat of the machine.
Meanwhile, a thin, white poster sheet hangs on the whiteboard. On it are six different statements about school bullying:
1. Bullying/harassment occurs within our school community.
2. I have personally witnessed, perpetrated or been a target of bullying involving members of our school community.
3. Students who are, or who are perceived to be, gay are targets of bullying at our school.
4. I understand what it feels like to be ridiculed, harassed or hurt because of who I am.
5. I believe that the student body has the power to do something about bullying.
6. I believe that the adults…at this school have the power to do something about bullying.
Next to the statements are columns labeled Agree and Disagree. Post-it notes sit on a nearby table. Cruz tells students to take the bright pink post-its and stick them under the column they think fits each statement.
Two senior girls are the first to get up from their seats and pick up the post-its. After some prodding from Cruz, a group of four students gathers around the sheet. Despite the tight space, no one speaks.
The Agree column next to sentence number one quickly fills up.
On statement three, students are evenly split.
“There’s a reason I’m raising that issue in particular. Anybody seen anything in the news lately about gay bullying?”
One girl, dressed in a yellow-and-black-checkered shirt, murmurs, “People committing suicide.”
Cruz agrees. He’s also raising the subject because Monday, October 11, is National Coming Out Day. “Do you know what that is?”
A few shake their heads no. “It’s the idea of recognizing how difficult it is for people to come out.”
Cruz says he has something to say to the kids. His heart is racing, he says. The classroom phone rings. Perturbed, Cruz gets up to answer it and returns.
“I was annoyed because I was trying to raise something — raise the fact that I’m gay.”
The students either look down on the ground or directly at Cruz.
Maybe it’s too early in the morning to react. Or maybe it just doesn’t matter.
Cruz acknowledges that he has spoken of his partner before to his students in passing. “I’ve mentioned it casually to you because it’s like any other normal part of my life.”
He briefly speaks of how his family reacted, and how he was lucky as a teenager, because he was never really picked on at school. He did, however, present himself “in a straight way.”
The students remain quiet, and in a surprisingly natural way, Cruz shifts the conversation back to the poster and bullying. Some say they’ve seen bullying in subtle forms.
Statements five and six draw agreement from everyone.
It’s an interesting response, say students, because — unlike gang problems and drug use — it means that something can be done about school bullying.
“I’m excited you would say that,” says Cruz. “It means you are optimistic and believe you have power.” You do, he adds.
As conflict mediators, school bullying is an issue they may have to deal with, he says.
He passes around an article — the cause of the earlier printer buzz — for them to read. It’s titled “Suicides Put Light on Pressures of Gay Teenagers,” and a soft-spoken girl takes her turn reading a paragraph from the story.
One paragraph in, Assistant Principal Alfieri and Dean Rodriguez arrive. Both women commend the class on their efforts as leaders in the community, and briefly discuss the problem of bullying among teens.
They leave. A PA announcement signals quiet time — about 15 minutes at the end of class, during which students face the front of the room and read or reflect.
Cruz asks the students to read one more paragraph from the article before quiet time. It’s a paragraph farther down the article, and discusses a YouTube project called “It Gets Better,” where gay adults talk about their experiences with bullying as adolescents.
“How many of you have had moments where you think it sucks?” asks Cruz.
“Whether we’re dealing with grades or money issues or whatever, I want us to remember that message. It gets better, and there’s always help for those situations. You can get help from me…or from each other.”