“We’re all created different, we all recognize those differences … why can’t we accept them?” challenges the blue-haired girl in jeans and a black shirt on stage at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute on a recent sunny afternoon.
Thus was the opening line of Alyssa Rodemeyer’s speech at St. Joe’s as part of the Eric Scott Pitman Lecture Series, an annual event in honor of late St. Joe’s student Eric Pitman in advocating the development of ethics and social justice. This installment of the series covered diversity, bullying and accepting differences within a community. With her confident gaze, Alyssa addressed an audience of parents, teens, friends and faculty.
A senior at Williamsville North High School, Alyssa is a social activist who speaks across the nation with her family. Alyssa’s brother Jamey ended his life last year after relentless bullying. The event shook the region and made evident the horrors of bullying and the costs of not accepting others.
Alyssa believes that talking about bullying can diminish its power.
“It’s not just because of what happened to my brother,” she said. “A lot of people suffer through it and it’s become such an expected issue and unfortunately it has such long-term damage.”
Alyssa addressed several key points during her talk, highlighting issues that she believes are important. When asked what her personal connection to the subject was, Alyssa smiled. “Mostly my brother. Also, personal experience and relevance made the issue real to me.”
During her talk, Alyssa spoke about her initial trepidation regarding public speaking. She describes the time when her parents urged her to speak. “My parents would go on the stages of shows and events and speak out, and I would stay in the back room.”
Alyssa eventually found her voice when she realized how much good can be done and how much she can effect change. She talks all over the country, inspiring teens. She was even urged to speak by her brother’s favorite musical artist, Lady Gaga, when the singer launched an anti-bullying campaign.
“When Lady Gaga tells you to do something, you do it,” she laughed.
A core aspect of her message is the effect that teenagers can have on others. Alyssa pointed out that many kids today don’t believe that they can do anything and that whatever effect they may have would be minimal at best. Alyssa urges teens to get involved in their school communities, stressing the significance of human relationships.
“If you’re going to be a bystander you may as well just be the bully … just saying ‘hi’ has such a big effect on someone’s day,” she said.
With the advancement of technology and the increased influence of the Internet, bullying has taken on a new face – one of anonymity.
“Social media makes bullying impersonal and distant. Kids can hide from behind computer screens and lash out malicious phrases and put down other kids from a place of protection,” Alyssa said. She added that this allows the negative effects of bullying to have a greater reach and impact. People can now extend their influence, and she warned against the potential dangers of this type of bullying.
Alyssa also pointed out that the victims of bullying and those who are picked on aren’t the only ones that suffer. Bullies often suffer from low self-esteem issues, and they are able to elevate their own sense of self and their position by putting down others. Alyssa tells of a girl in middle school who gave her trouble, but after Jamey’s death, the girl came to be one of Alyssa’s close friends. She believes that acceptance begins when we get to know people without immediately judging them.
“If we work directly with the bully, we stop the problem at its source,” she said.
“One of the keys to maintaining self-esteem is to accept compliments when they come,” Alyssa added. “We so quickly disagree when we shouldn’t.”
Reflecting on the events of the past year, Alyssa acknowledges that her world view has changed.
“My brother’s death changed me,” she said. “Before I was super cynical, but throughout this process I came to find that there is a lot of good in the world and I found more positive people. My faith in humanity increased.”
Alyssa is planning to study psychology at the University at Buffalo.
Patrick Asamoah is a senior at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute.