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Taking on the bully
September 26, 2019

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When the young man strode into my 2-hour "Sharing the Story of You" class just the other day, he was late. I didn't mind, because I was glad to have another student join the 10 adults who gathered at a northwest Iowa library for my new writing workshop. I could sense right away, though, this particular student didn't think too much of me or my teaching style.

He slumped in his chair in the front row. He seemed distracted and bored. He sighed from time to time and rolled his eyes. He kept looking at his smartphone. When I assigned a short writing exercise, other students picked up their pens and began writing. I noticed that the young man scratched a few sentences on his paper (after he kept looking around the room and shifting in his seat), but then he went back to his smartphone.

When I asked for volunteers to share their story with the class, this young guy's enthusiasm surprised me. Not only did he leap up from his chair, but he strode to the front of the meeting room (which I didn't require of any of the students), grabbed a black plastic chair from a stack in the corner, sat down at a small table, cleared his throat, tapped his smartphone and started reading.

It became clear within the first few sentences he hadn't attempted to do the assignment, unlike everyone else in the class. Instead, he read a very complex piece he had apparently written earlier. I didn't understand the topic or the message he was trying to convey. Then he launched into some of own personal views on writing, including his disdain for "professional writers."

As this strange little scene unfolded and continued to eat up time, I stayed silent but scanned the faces of the rest of the students. As I spotted raised eyebrows and arms folded across chests, I could see the other students were getting annoyed with this young man's efforts to hijack the class.

I knew I had to keep the class on schedule to be fair to the other students. When the young man paused, I broke in and thanked him for volunteering. I told him he and I could continue this discussion after class if he had more to say.

As he returned to his seat, I continued teaching, sharing various stories from my life and my career as an ag writer. When the class ended, I could see the young man approaching me. He didn't mince words. "I think you have talent, but you need to get over your past," he said. "It's really hindering your career."

I was stunned. I had no idea where this came from. I had never met this person in my life. I didn't even know his name. He certainly didn't know anything about my life, beyond a few details I had shared during the class. He knew nothing about the successes and failures that had shaped my life.

Next he attacked the personal stories I had shared in class, including a couple episodes of bullying I experienced in junior high. My only goal was to illustrate key points I was trying to make about writing your life's story. While I knew the bullying stories took up 2 minutes or less of the whole 2-hour class, this young man said I just kept harping on the bullying and need to get over it. "Everyone gets bullied. Quit talking about it and move on," captured the essence of his remarks.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't angered by these outrageous remarks from someone who knows virtually nothing about my life story. I even checked in later with some of the other students in the class to see if this guy's comments had any validity. ("Absolutely not" was the unanimous reply.)

The more I thought about this young man's comments, however, I realized that his rant had revealed some truths. I saw the truth of how easy it is to rush to judgment. The truth about how tempting it can be to think we understand someone else, even when we know nothing about their life experiences. The truth that acknowledging and validating someone's story, instead of mocking it, is the first step towards fostering the empathy that can help build bridges, not walls. (This doesn't always mean agreeing with the other person's point of view, but it does mean showing respect.) Finally, there's the truth that it's better to listen and seek first to understand, then be understood.

While this guy wanted to tear me down for whatever reason, he instead helped clarify why I'm committed to sharing true stories well told and helping other people learn these skills. I want to hear your stories. So can we talk? More important, can we listen?

Darcy Dougherty-Maulsby (a.k.a) Yetter-girl grew up on a Century Farm between Lake City and Yetter and is proud to call Calhoun County home.

Contact her at yettergirl@yahoo.com and visit her online at www.darcymaulsby.com.

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