As the Rehtaeh Parsons tragedy moves slowly, sadly and inevitably off the front page of the country’s newspapers, there can be little doubt that her death has had an impact beyond the massive hole it has left in the hearts of those who knew and loved her. In the fervor that immediately followed her death, politicals from Prime Ministers to Premiers took to the soap box to decry the incident. Thumping their chests soundly, they railed that more needed to be done. More by government, more by the police, and, of course, more by the schools. As a result, promises have been made, consultants have been hired, and policy will be written.
And all that effort won’t make one damn bit of difference.
This is not an issue that can be fixed by policy, or by governments, or even by schools. No, this issue can only be fixed by the kids themselves. This very sentiment was echoed last week in Toronto where experts gathered at a conference hosted by the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network (PREVnet). According to a Canadian Press article on May 8th, the focus of the conference, the 7th of its kind to be held, was on developing tools and strategies to combat bullying. And whether it was Rehtaeh Parsons or Amanda Todd, British Columbia or Nova Scotia, speakers were of the opinion that the focus needs not be on the policies. The focus, rather, needs to be on helping kids deal with the issue and step up to confront bullying when they see it happen.
Well, last weekend, quietly and out of the limelight, I saw that exact mode of thinking validated when I attended the 41st Nova Scotia High School Drama Festival, at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
For those who may not know, this festival brings high school students and their drama teachers from all across the province to a three-day gathering to celebrate all things dramatic. During the day the kids take workshops in everything from lighting to make-up, stage combat to musical theatre. In the evenings, they have a chance to perform dramatic pieces they have written for an appreciative audience of peers. And every year it is a celebration of all the things that make drama great for kids, characterized by a buzz of positive energy that can, at times, make your hair stand on end.
This year, however, was different. This year was…well…subdued.
Oh there was excitement of course, particularly on the first day when the kids arrived in the early hours of Thursday morning to start attending classes and workshops. But as the evening rolled around it became clear that, for many of our students, the tragedy of Rehtaeh Parsons was still very raw. For show after show after show dealt with the topic of bullying and its horrific effects.
These are truly rare moments for educators, for the student production gives us a glimpse of how the world appears through the students’ eyes. It is a world that can be harsh, a world where words like “policy” have little impact, and a world where the fumbling attempts of adult interventions are often greeted with tolerant disdain. “I know you want to help, teacher, but you just don’t understand”.
You could see the kids struggling through their emotions, wrestling with their own behaviours as well as the way they have been treated by others. Trying to craft pieces on stage that would provide some hope, some glimmer of an answer as to how to stop this sort of thing from happening again. Shows performed without cameras flashing or media paparazzi looking for some kind of an angle. Shows performed without fear of recrimination or judgment. Performed in front of the most trusted of adults, and the most trusted of peers.
And it was a thing of beauty.
You see, in many cases, drama classes and clubs are filled with the outsiders, kids on the periphery. The geeks. The bullied. And they understand the pain that can be caused by an errant word or an inopportune comment. But drama also draws in the cool kids. The jocks. The beauty queens. And as their shows played out on stage, one thing became very apparent.
All the kids get it.
They don’t need a policy. They don’t need procedure. They understand the power of bullying. They have bullied. They have been bullied.
And they struggle with what to do about it.
By the final day of the festival, the kids were back to their normal “love of life” form, and the Dalhousie Arts center was abuzz with time-honoured shouts of “Kumquat!” and “I lost!”. It almost seemed as if they had, collectively, healed somewhat. None of them, I am sure, actually believed they had stomped out bullying, nor had they forgotten Rehtaeh’s death. But surrounded by caring teachers and accepting peers, they were able to, at least for a weekend, address the issue head on in a form that they have come to trust.
And I am humbled to have been a part of it.