It is a rare scene: a high school theater filled to capacity with nearly 300 students, and yet completely silent--that is, with the exception of one lone voice. "If you're not making a difference, you're doing nothing," a speaker says into a microphone. His words are sent to the far edges of the room, and reverberate off the walls of the theater. It is not clear if the statement penetrates the psyche of the audience, which is composed of 9th and 10th grade Scripps Ranch High School students. Even so, the administrators, counselors, and teachers who look on maintain visible expectancy as they hope for a breakthrough.
The Teen Truth Live assembly held at SRHS in April focused on the dangers of bullying. It was characterized by such powerful statements, mixed responses, and apprehensive attitudes as those mentioned above. The event, which was the brainchild of SRHS head counselor Jane Morrill, included a movie and a lecture by a representative of the Teen Truth organization. It was brought to SRHS in an effort to curb bullying in coming years. Due to the expense of the program, the message was delivered only to approximately half of the school's underclassmen. Morrill was proud, however, to state that all of the day's three assemblies filled the theater to its limit.
The speaker responsible for imparting the message to students was a man in his late 20s or early 30s named John C. Pohl, though he introduced himself to his young audience as "JC." Clad in clothes that one would expect a normal young teenage male to wear, save for the iconic T-shirt that blared from its front the message, "Just Truth," JC made a point of connecting with his audience from the beginning. He was casual as he shared his biography, and injected slang terms whenever possible. While he spoke as the presentation began, he stood before a massive screen upon which the image of a silhouetted figure with a backpack and a gun loomed imposingly, reminding students of the nature of the assembly.
When the gun-toting Teen Truth icon and JC ceded their prominent positions to a 20-minute film, the tentatively casual mood in the room shifted immediately to one far graver. The focus of the film was bullying's relation to school shootings--most notably at Columbine High School. Initially, it was clear that the audience was displaying typical teenage skepticism and found the material predictable. The theater erupted in laughter at one point when, in making a point about bullying and fighting, the film depicted two young boys engaged in a fistfight. Throughout the presentation, a few students could be seen nonchalantly text messaging.
Yet when security camera footage of the Columbine shootings was shown, accompanied by 911 calls from that day, the audience reacted vocally as students turned to discuss with their neighbors. As photographs of the aftermath of the shootings, which showed pools of blood throughout the school, flashed across the screen, students audibly gasped. When the screen faded to black, one female student summed up in casual conversation what many were certainly thinking when she said, "That was so scary."
Perhaps the presentation's most powerful aspect, however, was the student participation following the movie. At one point JC asked a few tasks of his audience: for those who had at one time been punched, hit, kicked, or the like to stand; for those who had had something written about them to raise their right hands; for those who had been called a name to raise their left hands; and, for those who had been excluded to wave.
Soon, nearly the entire theater was on its feet, both arms raised, and hands waving like flags on a battlefield. Finally, JC asked everyone who had bullied another person to be seated. Out of 300 students, only three remained standing.
Granted, the assembly was an imperfect one. The extreme cases of bullying and its results that were explored throughout the majority of the video were certainly shocking, but it is unlikely that students will be able to draw direct comparisons between such tragedies and everyday bullying. When faced with conflict, students most likely will not turn back to this presentation and decide to take a more mature path in handling their problems. When met with the social pressures of life as teenagers, it is not probable that students will forego bullying at the perceived risk of their reputations as a direct result of this assembly.
Yet the Teen Truth presentation followed its own mantra and possibly made a difference. It opened students' eyes to a topic that isn't addressed as often in schools as are sex, drugs, and alcohol, and it got students talking. It focused on the right students, the most impressionable students, and thus had the greatest possible effect. And it showed students just how universal bullying is, and how many people can truly be hurt by a simple wayward word, action, or situation.
As the presentation came to a close, one girl in the audience raised her hand. "I'd just like to thank you," she said to JC, as she appeared near tears. "One of my relatives was almost killed at Santana High School." Because of her own personal experience, she knew the dangers of bullying, and the importance of the message Teen Truth Live attempted to convey. If this presentation is the closest other SRHS students come to having a personal experience with the tragedies of bullying, then perhaps this will be the true measure of Teen Truth's success.