In Bullying in Schools, Expert Interviews

Adam Ruben on The School Bully

Adam Ruben on The School Bully feed icon

Adam Ruben is a writer, comedian, storyteller, and molecular biologist. In addition to his day job developing a malaria vaccine at Sanaria Inc., Adam travels the country, performing his show as part of anti-bullying programs and talking about his book to audiences of disaffected grad students. He Talks to NoBullying.com on The School Bully.

Below is a transcript of the interview on The School Bully:

Adam:  My name is Adam Ruben. I am a writer, comedian and molecular biologist. I live in Washington DC and I am here today to talk about bullying because I was not a popular child and it is something that I went through nearly each day of my childhood and I guess my involvement in it as an adult has been, a couple of years ago I did a one man show in the capitol French festival in Washington DC, when I told stories about being bullied, about all the different horrible things that happened to me during childhood and I have read some script for the show from my diary and things like that turned to an hour long show, that I now performed in several other places across the country and bullying is sort of become one of my new causes

Ciaran: Brilliant, thank you very much for taking time out to join us today. Of course we have some general questions to ask you but if you don’t mind when you mention your own personal experience, how did people receive your show when you did it and people …I guess when you are telling people you are doing an hour long show on bullying, people were positive or surprised ?

Adam:  It is kind of strange because everybody expected the show to be preachy, just telling ever body why it’s bad to bully, but really the show is mostly a comedy show. It is funny stories about embarrassing things that happened as a kid, a lot of them for poor decisions that I have made, or one of the stories is about being in the bed in summer camp not because I had anything bad with me or bladder control but I decided it would be easier than getting up and going to the bath room and I thought that this is something I can get away with. I underestimated the volume then I have to deal with what happen when kids saw my sheet the next day and the double humiliation of hiding that and hiding a stuffed animal that I tried to sleep with in bed because I was ten years old and not comfortable about going to the summer camp. So most of the things I talk about are telling stories like that without really moralizing and the reaction to the show has been very good, it has been great to see. I have got a lot of great questions at the end.

I have done shows where I do a Q & A. I perform the show with a few middle schools actually. My old summer camp, my old high school and I have people that knew me at that point in my life come and watch the show. One of the teachers I tell a story about came and saw the show, and it is been great to hear. There was this friend at school who was a nice girl but a popular person, someone I thought never underwent bullying; she is a star and all over the place. She was in the choir she … I think she might have been a cheerleader. She is very well liked. She saw my show and she sent me a message later saying that no one understood in high school how depressed she was and how socially isolated she felt and I just thought wow, if she felt like that, I think it is very possible that 90% of the kids if not more have these feeling of social exclusion and every one feels like the other world is dark.

Ciaran:  And you are right I think there is so much pressure on young people today even adults to fit in and be popular all the time and the story you are recounting there actually I am sure I can imagine myself something I have done in my life as well so there are things everyone has done in childhood there are stuffed teddy and I am sure more, so I am delighted to hear that you have taken a negative ordeal and turned into such a positive event and bringing it to schools and to the stage, it is quite remarkable to take something that is so negative and turned it around. And do you think that bullying has changed since you were younger at school compared to today, has things changed much?

Adam: Bullying definitely has changed in the last 20 years and it is remarkable to see when I went back to my own high school all the students, it is called conquer high school and all the students now, the ninth graders and the ones who saw my show when they entered school they got a shirt that says conquered nerd, so everybody wears a t-shirt that says nerd and the students actually wear them, it is not like you give them the shirt and they are embarrassed of it and hide it, they actually wear it because the perception of what it means to be smart has changed. It used to be, you are smart you are ostracized, and now it is still the case certainly, but it is also the case that a lot of kids see being the nerd or being smart as the path to success and it is not something to change overnight. It is something that is completely changed, but I think it is definitely on the way.

I wrote an article about this once, where I said it seems to me like the same thing as teen smoking. Where the rates of teen smoking in the US have been cut in half in the past ten years and why is that? Maybe it is partially because of the anti smoking campaigns, but I think a lot of it is there is been a shift in the way kids use smoking. It used to be the kids who smoked that made them cool. Now more kids see smoking kind of disgusting. So that shift is happening over the span of years and it is getting there, it is going in the right direction. When I have said … I have this one line in my show when I mentioned that now I have a PHD. When I said that in front of an audience full of ninth graders in my eyes full, I had to stop because they applauded. I did not anticipate that to be an applause line , but that just shows you , if I said that  to the kids I went to school with twenty years ago there would have been someone yelling out ” nerd “or something like that. So things really has changed and it is not completely better yet but it is better climate now that it was twenty years ago.

Media and the School Bully

Ciaran: do you think the current media coverage on bullying and cyber bullying is helping with the change?

Adam: I think the media coverage definitely helps, it sure can’t hurt ,there are a lot of ways it is done wrong and they certainly don’t help, you have a lot of advice been given by adults to kids, and it is by adults who seems to forget how it is like to be kids and. So kids get this advice like stand up to a bully and he will back down to you or just be the person you are and every one will love you. Things like that really would be great if they were true but they just aren’t and that actually what I talk about at the end of my show, how all the advice we got about bullying, it is kind of ridiculous and no one is sitting down as much and being honest with kids about “look if you are weird, people will identify that and make fun of you because kids are petty “that’s just the truth, you have to accept that before you can figure out how to deal with it. And there are too many anti bulling guidance things that just don’t take it realistically “bullies are insecure about themselves” that may be true but how do that help ” bullies are just trying to get attention so don’t give them the attention they crave and they will leave you alone “. In my experience when you walk away from a bully he will just punch you in the back of the head. So bullies aren’t doing these because they are trying to make some deep seated point about society. They are picking on you because it is fun for them, that’s all, it is fun. So the media coverage helps when it is realistic. It helps when it shows that there are more people who think bullying is terrible than who are thinking bullying is great. But what the media doesn’t acknowledge enough is that bullying is just not the big stuff, it is not some one bunching you giving you a blind black eye or, it is that , but more than that it is the tiny little things people just make fun of you as you walk down the hall way

Adam: Just to answer the question, cyber bullying is new and I am afraid that people is going to make so much of it that they forget about the everyday bullying. Because cyber bullying feels new and fresh and like a new area we needed to tackle and it is. But the real bullying hasn’t gone away, it has been reduced but it is still there and that cannot be ignored because it is not just as interesting subject for an article. The real problem with cyber bullying is that it can reach kids everywhere. I was very lucky I was beat up at school all the time. I was bullied at school but I really had a good life at home, so I go home and my parents were nice and I can really kind of get away from everything and regroup before going to school the next day. Now with the internet I could face the same thing 24/7 if they would have happened. That is the danger of cyber bullying not that it is just a new form, but it can reach kids in a way that they couldn’t be reached twenty years ago and a place where they used to feel safe

Ciaran: Imagine that, I would actually agree with you, to say that we feel lucky we were bullied physically in the schoolyard or the school bus and we didn’t have to deal with the advent of cyber bullying. I do feel for children today who are living 24/7 lives it just feels that everything they do is photographed and online, a new status update and I am so glad that internet and social networks didn’t exist in my day because I don’t know how life would have been different for me in that respect and for everyone. I guess we have seen that in display in society today. Have you came across that in your time at schools even in personal experience any severe cases or consequences of bullying?

Adam: It is not that the different cases of bullying that I come across are severe they are more like unique. A woman after one show asked for my advice on bullying she is facing now in the workplace was somebody that she works with is bullying her. I didn’t expect that this will come up, this somebody that is 30 years old and worrying about bullying on a daily basis. The extreme cases, the ones you read about in the news, the ones that lead to suicide. I don’t know anybody personally who is driven to such length strictly by bullying but I know that the cases are out there for sure.

Ciaran: And as you say workplace bullying as something that we are hearing more and more of, maybe it is something that’s coming from schools now. We are seeing more evident in the work place especially in the tough economic climate as well.

Adam: I think workplace bullying is something that was always there, it is just now it is called bullying. It used to be just my boss is mean but now that we really talking about bullying we put it under the bullying umbrella , which is really bullying that are trying to get more attention. All bullying is making somebody feel bad for no great reason and that stretches out to so many different things.

Ciaran: And again going back to your own personal story, you were able to take something so negative like all those stories of bullying and turning it into something so positive, how you were able to do that, how do you think that you were able to take that and deal with it and still be a positive, happy go lucky person?

Adam: I think I am naturally a happy person, that kind of helps but really when you get to be far enough and removed from all the bullying, when you get to be in the point of your life were the kids aren’t tormenting you anymore because you are in your thirties and you have kids and you are just an adult in the adult world with a house and a car and a job suddenly all that stuff that’s in the past, it is in the past and you can laugh about it

I am a producer for a series called mortified. It is a life performance where people take their old embarrassing writing, dairies, journals or videos, locker notes, anything like that and they find them and gather them and read them on stage.

Adam:  I am a producer of a serious called mortified. It is actually a national serious and we have a chapter here in Washington as I am one of the producers for. And what we do is we encourage people to find their old embarrassing adolescences writing diaries and locker notes, song lyrics and they come in and share them with us and we help them turning it into something they can read and perform on stage. So on this Monday night for example, I  am going to be going on stage in front of hundreds of people and read those terrible poems that I wrote in tenth grade and someone else in the show is going to read a travel journal that she wrote when her parents took her to Europe when she was ten and someone is going to show a science project that he made in middle school about gnomes and it’s great because we all as adults can look back and laugh at ourselves  and say that yes, the world was cruel but I was also a little naïve and stupid and we can laugh at ourselves, we can laugh at them. We all have moved on, we are adults, we are all nice people now .

Schools and The School Bully

Ciaran: and again since you have visited schools and actually talking, having visiting schools and talk to people who are suffering from bullying, do you think that parents and teachers today are dealing with victims and even bullies with the right way?

Adam:   It is a good question. I think being as proactive as parents and teachers are is definitely a good thing making bullying the kid now is not tolerated from very early on that is great that can only be good. What I said before I don’t know if the advice they give is always realistic, and we grow up being told “be yourself and people will love you for who you are” and then I was myself and it didn’t work, and you start thinking, “OK the teachers seem to have the answer but these answers are completely ridiculous”. I sure went to a psychiatrist once when I was little. My parents help me go to psychiatry to discuss bullying and she said “next time a kid is tormenting you just keep talking all you have to do is keep talking doesn’t matter what you are talking about say “hey it is really a nice shirt, where did you get that shirt? I like the way you got the sleeves, just look at the grass over there, just keep talking and they will be so confused they won’t be able to hit you” that was terrible advice . I tried it the next day I kept talking and the kid punched me in the mouth he said “shut up”. So parents and teachers need to think realistically about the advice they are giving because the problem is by the time you get to be an adult be yourself is really good advice. But kids are so petty that the things that are to work for adults just don’t work with kids

Ciaran: And you have produced your show and staged it, I would like to ask about, I guess media, in general, TV, movies even sport games. Do you think society has a part to play and how we treat, I am thinking famous people, photographers stalk them and take pictures and try to get the worst picture possible on to the front of the magazines and in sport games if something like a play doesn’t go as the players wanted the referee is surrounded and everyone is shouting and the fans will all go crazy and shout things at the referee. Do you think society as a whole we need to be more careful on how we act and how we portray things to young people?

Adam: sure we crave cruelty it is something that entertains us and that hasn’t changed, when you look at reality TV, the bits of it that are most entertaining that you want to watch the most is when there is a character that you just hate and go “look at that guys making decisions, what a jerk, I have to watch him” and that hasn’t changed at all it’s been a bit more publicized with the internet now there are comments at the end of every article. If you ever want to feel bad about humanity just scroll below an article you have read by reading the first five comments and you will be, I can’t believe I share the planet with these people. That is because those who are the cruelest tend to have the loudest voice.

I think what has changed in the media is the way that the media had portrayed nerds and those who were academically successful. Think about when I was growing up the nerds that were on TV were the nerd character, there was “Screech” there was “Steve Oracle” here “Saved By The Bell” had a dozen nerd characters came out all the time and  remember  an episode even of  “Fun House” they ran into the chess club and the chess club was those five guys with thick glasses and a car and they were nerds that was the rage in nerd movies. So there were a stereotype of the nerd and you know when that character came on screen that was time to laugh and someone who you couldn’t take seriously, is someone who wasn’t going to have any kind of  genuine moment that was just there to do foolish things .

But now there are TV shows were the nerds are the heroes there are things like “The Big Bang Theory” where the whole cast is meant to be nerds and yes they say foolish things that are meant to be funny but they also have genuine emotions. Ans you look at even shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” I have not watched that in a while but I recall that one of the things people would say about each other was as a compliment was that the other person was brilliant, this person is amazing, this person is an amazing surgeon and that was an attractive quality and that ability to prize being good about one  does to prize being smart to prize being clever is really what is helping us move away from that nerd stereotype ,that we saw everywhere in the eighties and nineties.

Ciaran: Very good, excellent. thank you very much for your time and insight it has been very interesting today, and if anyone wanted to find out or see glimpses of your show or find out more of what you did, is there any where they can find that online ?

Adam: the next time I will be doing my show is in the charm city French film festival in Baltimore in early November my work site is www.adamruben.net and not to be confused with Adam ruben.com that’s somebody else, he got there first. He is a slightly more famous Adam Ruben than I am.

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