Thursday, August 29th and Friday, August 30th, 2013, I saw empathy in action. Spending two days in the presence of Kirk Smalley and his Stand For The Silent message, I was paralyzed with hope as countless hearts were changed and lives were saved. Delivering his deeply personal narrative depicting the loss of his son – Ty Smalley – while simultaneously honoring the deaths of 55,000 other young people to suicide as the result of bullying, Kirk is able to reach in and connect with students, educators, and parents breaking down attitudes of exclusion and intolerance and replacing them with mutual love, respect, and support. Kirk’s presentations at six school sites and one community screening of the film Bully (in which Kirk’s family is profiled) have left indelible images of the best of humanity and of the spirit of resiliency in the hearts and minds of those who were present.
Sitting on the sidelines during Kirk’s message and witnessing an open dynamic exchange of empathy, these moments will be with me forever…
- Hundreds of noisy, energetic, restless youth scramble to their seats awaiting the start of their assembly. Within moments of Kirk’s first words, middle schoolers stop fidgeting; high schoolers lose their attitudes. An unfamiliar quiet sets in.
- After learning or being reminded of the American Sign Language hand formation for love and… understanding that it can also mean “I respect you…I have your back…I support you”, thousands of little and large hands spontaneously and continually pop up throughout Kirk’s message.One little boy crouched on the floor in front of me holds up his two tiny hands throughout the entire ninety minute talk. Another special needs’ young man sitting next to me struggles to hold down the ring and middle fingers with his free hand so his pinky, pointer and thumb will cooperate – so he can show his love and support to Kirk.
As Kirk relates the painful loss of his son to suicide because of bullying, two little girls sitting next to each other give him their loving hand sign with their outside hands, using their inside arms and hands to create a heart together – holding it steady and sending it out to Kirk.
- Hearing the personal tragedies of five other children lost to suicide because of bullying, children catch their tears with shirt sleeves and wipe their faces with grubby fingers while adults frantically search for pieces of tissue. Students lean in to one another, teachers put their arms around young ones and older ones too, and stray adults draw closer to one another. All across the gymnasium, a sea of loving hand signs ebb and tide towards Kirk, and one another.
- As Kirk moves into the theme of suicide making reference to his precious son and countless others, two boys leave their seats and walk toward Ty’s large photo displayed on the gymnasium floor. They remove their “I Am Somebody” bracelets and lay them gently around the corners of Ty’s picture.
- In each assembly, Kirk asks the students to raise their hands if “…you have ever been picked on, called names, been made fun of or excluded….been bullied”. Almost every hand goes up. A collective ache sets in the room couched in a blanket of compassion for one another. Students hold the hands of one another and hold each other more tightly. Kirk looks them straight in their eyes and says, “I love you.”
- Shortly thereafter, Kirk asks the audience a ‘tougher’ question, “….Will you raise your hand if you are a bully now”. A few hands go up quickly; a few others take their time. Without hesitation, Kirk responds, “I love you, too” , sending out his hand sign. Kirk walks over to a high school football player who has raised his hand – who is shaken by the question and by his sudden ownership. Kirk sits down in front of him and repeats, “I love you, too.” Tears flow down the young man’s face; his head lowers in shame. He is visibly distraught as Kirk stays with him, encouraging him to ‘be the hero he is capable of being’. Several moments later, as Kirk is speaking, another lone arm raises obscurely within the crowd. Kirk pauses, giving him the space to talk. With hundreds of eyes on him, the tall lean young man chokes and whispers, “I am a bully, too”. Kirk responds, “I love you…. you can change that, can’t you?” The broken boy nods. Hand signs of love are raised in his direction.
- As Kirk continues to share the staggering statistics of youth suicide – one in four will not only think about suicide but will have a plan to take his/her own life before graduating from high school. And as he weaves in the theme that ‘everyone has a right to be here….everyone is special….everyone is somebody’, hope and healing fill the room. Suddenly, at one school, a young girl sitting high up in the bleachers stands up and holds her hand high in the air, sending out the love sign. A few more join in, then more; then within moments, all are standing. Over 700 young people are on their feet – standing in solidarity – standing against bullying. Teachers, administrators and support staff are crying – welling with pride, compassion, and love.
- Moving into the later part of his message, Kirk talks about ‘his belief in young people…how they can be the change…how it doesn’t cost anything to treat one another with respect, love, and dignity…how they can Stand For The Silent and each other through their actions, their words, and their commitment to be the change’. Trying desperately but unsuccessfully to hold back his own tears, Kirk delivers his final plea, “This is not an option…we cannot lose another baby…”. Eyes are wiped and are wide open. Minds are swept clean of past pain making way for a pathway to change. Kirk invites those who are willing and ready to recite the Stand ForThe Silent Pledge. As a chorus of confident voices responds, Kirk concludes his message providing materials and resources for sustaining their commitment to change. Knowing the assembly is coming to a close, students ready themselves to dash toward him.
- Without exception, at every presentation, Kirk is met with a swarm of students. Some need a hug – some need to hug him. Others melt into his tall lanky body, wanting to absorb his comfort and his compassion. Many want to share their stories, knowing he will encourage and support them. And still, there are others, like a young boy who stood in line, waiting his turn and sobbing uncontrollably. And when Kirk reached out to him, this fragile precious little guy managed to choke out the words, “You changed my life today….”. Kirk’s long arms engulfed him into a embrace of safety and of support.
With our children’s lives filled with incredible hardship and harshness from a myriad of sources in our world today, it is a wonder that their little hearts are hurting and in many cases hardened. And then, a stranger comes along delivering an empathic message of respect, support and love for all – and an authentic softening towards the differences and uniqueness of one another takes hold. Kirk’s audiences learn that if we are ever going to get a handle on this toxic tide of anti-social bullying behavior, we must provide dialogue that creates awareness and understanding and that opens our hearts to change and to compassion. And because Kirk’s Stand For The Silent message provides the opportunity to be a part of and to experience firsthand the goodness of the human spirit present and at work, we learn or relearn to respect and regard the right of each and every human being to ‘be here and be who he/she is’.
Kirk Smalley’s message embraces the power of empathy – an antidote to bullying. And although it is often a rare commodity in our society, today, if someone were to ask me if our kids ‘got empathy?’ I can answer unequivocally,
These ‘3,000 Students Do!’
A note of appreciation… It is amazing what can happen when a community comes together to join in the support of a valley wide Anti-Bullying Event. I want to express my gratitude to the following sponsors:
The Prescott Film Festival, The Elks Theatre & Performing Arts Center, AAUW, MATForce, Arizona Parents’ Commission On Drug Education And Prevention –
Governor’s Office For Children, Youth and Families,
Yavapai County Education Service Agency,
Unified Schools Districts of Chino Valley, Humboldt, and Prescott.
About the Author
Currently based in Arizona, recovery expert Holli Kenley’s latest book Mountain Air: Relapsing And Finding The Way Back One Breath At A Time, published in 2013, tells her the story of her personal journey through relapse and a powerful journey back to recovering. For updates and more information about the author’s work, visit her website www.HolliKenley.com.