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Bully pulpit

Don’t laugh at me.

Over the past three years I have had the pleasant fortune to become friends with folksinger Peter Yarrow. He’s a member with me of the folk festival board for the upcoming Saint Paul Celtic Connections festival March 16 and 17. He always tells me what a wonderful writer I am. (I know I am a hack, but such praise, coming from the likes of him, is sweet.) When I had a stroke two years ago, Peter volunteered to get me a good East Coast doctor. He himself is one of our most touching poets. To me his 60s song “The Great Mandela,” about the world’s carousel of pain, and fighting the apartheid in our hearts, was a far more powerful rallying cry than John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

In a sense Peter isn’t a folksinger at all. He’s an agitator who uses simple songs to leverage important causes. He and Paul and Mary marched and sang at Selma, and sang again at Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” march. He’s fought racism, war, and poverty, and now he says he’s getting to the root of it all with his most important crusade ever–a battle for the souls of childen.

The new cause is called “Don’t Laugh at Me,” and it is a curriculum for our schools, to attack the culture of nastiness and cruelty among schoolchildren. The program aims at getting kids to be more empathic, and to consider the lasting harm that teasing and name-calling and everyday coldness does–not just to kids who are “different” (handicapped or homely or foreign or dumb) but to all kids.

This is something I care deeply about. I had a big sister whose heart defect caused her to have bluish skin. She died from it at age 15, but not before the town bullies and dopes did everything they could to make her short life a sad one as well. And I see it with my own teenage kids, tender-hearted sorts who have had to mount a façade of toughness to avoid being the next victims.

“Don’t Laugh at Me” trains teachers to instruct their kids about the hurtfulness of casual cruelty. Typically, asked if they have ever been humiliated in public, every kid raises his or her hand. And they are surprised to learn that everyone lives in dread of being targeted. And those kids at the end of the whip, who get permanently targeted, suffer lifelong consequences–depression, substance abuse, and ultimately, suicide.

Why is meanness our default kid culture? My theory is that it is what Society wants. Our culture peels families apart, sending mom and dad to work and the kids to school. It isolates us from one another, so that family culture weakens and this other thing, a competitive consumer culture, fills the vacuum.

Having nothing trustworthy handed down to them, kids fashion their own “Lord of the Flies” climate, in which the toughest and hippest rule over the innocent and the flawed. Typically, kids in the middle gravitate toward the cruel end of the spectrum to avoid being targeted themselves.

After Peter’s talk, he led the group through a rendition of “If I Had a Hammer,” always a favorite of mine. To my amazement, he invited Rachel and me up on stage to finish the song with him. Wow, were we awful. But I must tell you, I teared up, because the words of the Pete Seeger song and the urgency of its call are like a bullet to what we all want in our hearts: It’s the hammer of freedom, and the bell of justice, and song about the love between the brothers and the sisters, all over this land.

It’s even better with the music.

Anyway, as a futurist I would be remiss if I did not pass this on to you. Sure, computers and networks are part of the future, but the future that matters is the one taking shape inside our kids’ heads.

I urge everyone reading this to give a listen to the keynote song for this movement, “Don’t Laugh at Me,” written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin. Or you can read the lyrics, but the tune, Peter insists–the way it bubbles up inside you, doing an emotional end-run around your cynicism–is essential to its power.

And it’s a good test of where you are at personally: If you find it sappy, you may be part of the problem. Do me a favor? Write me and tell me if you think the song works for you. Does it work better for younger kids than older? I’m anxious to hear your opinions.

Teachers and parents are encouraged to learn more about this training program, which is very simple–a gateway, really, to deeper programs that address character issues in school. There’s a program for kids in grades 2 through 5, and another for grades 6 through 8. The Don’t Laugh Web site is still under construction, but bookmark it now, and download the music and the curriculum later.

Michael Finley also writes Diversions monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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