On The Street

The Antidote to the Middle School Minefield: Kindness

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By Michael Gold

Middle school these days can be a minefield, with bullying, insults and fielding false accusations on social media and texting, even physical fights. Plus, the COVID pandemic hit just as the kids were working on social relationships and figuring out how they are.

Girl Scout Troop 2154, in Cortlandt Manor, decided to strike a blow against the venom that sometimes mars the school day, using art to tell us to treat people kindly.

The troop made a mural that announces, “Be The ‘I’ In Kind,” on the wall of a storage shed at the Muriel H. Morabito Community Center playground in town.

Clarissa, Hailey and Emily, who graduated in June from Lakeland’s Copper Beech Middle School, are the artists.

The mural has a blank space where the “I” is supposed to go in the word. The idea is that children can place themselves right into that empty slot to make the “I,” creating a playful way for the troop to get its message across.

Attending the unveiling ceremony on June 23 was Cortlandt Supervisor Richard Becker and Ken Sherman, the town’s recreation director, which indicates the importance of the girls’ message.

Two of the girls in the troop recounted bullying incidents they had experienced. Hailey, who is Jewish, told me about a boy who had texted her, “Let’s recreate the Holocaust. I’ll be Hitler and you’ll be the Jews.” A few other kids joined in on this disgusting rant, Hailey said, but they then stopped, for an unknown reason.

“They were sick of it, and they stopped it,” she said.

A boy on the school bus punched Emily in the face – three times.

“No one really did anything,” Emily said. “I was waiting (for help). I felt like I didn’t have any power with a boy.”

The boy didn’t suffer much in the way of consequences; he was suspended from the bus and school for one day, Emily told me.

“The boy never apologized to Emily,” explained Denise Riggio, the assistant scoutmaster for the troop.

The girls explained the uncertain environment around them.

“Fights happen on apps,” Emily said. “People are being accused of things on apps, on Snapchat, IMessages and regular texting.”

“After school, kids can continue (bullying) through social media and texting,” explained Riggio. “It’s complicated.”

“They started middle school in the middle of the pandemic,” said Krista Birenkrant, the girls’ troop leader. “Sixth and seventh grade was not normal.”

“It was more popular to use social media during the pandemic,” Hailey said. “People didn’t understand how to talk face to face.”

It seems that using social media is accelerating a trend in society to spend more time with technology rather than people.

“When you’re young, people shouldn’t be on it,” said Ella, another girl who attended the unveiling of the mural. “Fifteen or 16 is the right age for Snapchat or social media. Go hang out with your friends.”

Children as young as 13 years old are allowed on both Snapchat and Instagram.

I found the girls to be unusually poised and articulate for eighth grade, so I gave them homework. I asked Krista to ask the girls to write why we should be kind.

Hailey, a ballet dancer, wrote, “It is significantly important to show kindness toward all, especially if that is how you’d want to be treated. Giving little bits of kindness every day will make a difference in both your life and another person’s life. If we all began to be just a little bit kinder to one another, we could actually save lives. The world will be a better place to live in if we began to be nicer to ourselves and others.

“There are multiple ways to show kindness on social media platforms. Whether it’s posting for a friend’s birthday, spreading a positive message for everyone to view, or giving your followers a reassuring pep talk, it’s very easy to give kindness online as well,” Hailey concluded.

Emily, who is a skilled soccer player, wrote, “It’s important to be kind not only to the people around you but to yourself as well. Being kind to the people around you and to yourself can help influence others to spread sympathy and generosity and can overall create a new and better society for all.

“Beside from all the negative factors of social media, there are plenty of ways to spread positive messages as well. Such as commenting kind words on others’ posts or simply tapping the like button on your friends’ or peers’ post. You can also upload posts that encourage others,” Emily stated.

Hailey said the mural “is for kids, to learn for the future.”

The mural impressed on me the welcome idea that kindness provides a warmth we could all use more of, in person and online.

Pleasantville-based writer Michael Gold has had articles published in the New York Daily News, the Albany Times Union, The Virginian-Pilot, The Palm Beach Post and other newspapers, and The Hardy Society Journal, a British literary journal.

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