The silence around Joe Cavanaugh’s makeshift campfire was anything but the absence of sound.
It was a feeling, a cocoon, a signal that this was time apart from everyday life. The silence was an invitation to introspection.
And it was so emotionally intense the 190 teens gathered around the flame — actually a small candle set in the center of a Plymouth church’s rec room — did not fidget, snicker or even sneak looks at one another.
Marking the end of a retreat centering on the concept of respect, the ceremony was their chance to share or to contemplate quietly. If they wanted, they could stand and commit themselves to one of the three kinds of respect talked about.
The retreat was one of four being held for Wayzata High School ninth-graders on one of the last Fridays of the year by the Minneapolis nonprofit Youth Frontiers, founded 25 years ago by Cavanaugh.
Importance of culture
The single, most effective item in the bullying-prevention toolkit is a strong, positive school culture. More than a set of rules about harmful speech and disruptive conduct, the most effective cultures prize a shared definition of respect. They lack large numbers of bystanders, students too fearful or indifferent to speak up.
The ninth-graders the Youth Frontiers team was working with on this day were all at an age where they were determining who they wanted to be. And an age where they crave experiences that help them feel like participants in society, not passive children. An invitation to attend to their own self-respect and then to connect it with their actions toward others could not be better timed.
By the time all 900 had boarded buses for the trip back to school, each student had this same opportunity to make one of three commitments, either silently to themselves or to the group ringing the campfire. They could pledge greater respect for themselves, for others or to stand up for respect by speaking out when they saw a classmate being treated or talked about badly.
After a few minutes of quiet, a tall girl — one of the seniors helping lead the event — rose and pledged to respect others more. The students in the group she spent the day with didn’t respect themselves as much as they could and she wanted to set an example, she said.
‘I’ve got your back’
Several more minutes ticked by before another girl rose, and then another. The fourth was crying when she stood. She was going to stop her morning ritual of running through a mental checklist of her faults: “I’m gonna look in the mirror every day and say one good thing about me.”
“It takes a lot of courage to say this,” said the next. “But I struggle with depression and I know a lot of others do, too. So just know I’ve got your back because I know what it’s like.”
The first young man to stand said he had work to do when it came to respecting others, particularly a friend he joked with all the time.
“We’re guys, that’s what we do,” he said. “I never thought until today how that affects him. So when we get back to school I’m going to go talk to him and apologize.”
Silences hung between the revelations until the end, when Cavanaugh rose to invite the students to spend the last few days of the school year thinking about the commitment they had made, either out loud or in their minds. “Summer will give some of you a chance to reset how you’re going to be,” he said.
‘Etching compassion on kids’ hearts’
Youth Frontiers operates seven or eight retreats a day. This year, Cavanaugh and his staff will conduct some 710 workshops for 105,000 kids grades 4-12. Since its inception 25 years ago, the group has worked with 1.35 million students.
“I see the hurt that goes on with kids,” said Cavanaugh. “What’s going to stop bullying is etching compassion on kids’ hearts. It’s changing kids’ characters.”
The palpable silence is intentional. Over the years Cavanaugh has allowed more of it to fill spaces during the last hour of the retreats as the Youth Frontiers team has learned what’s effective. The quiet is what one hears when kids are momentarily unplugged and away from home and school.
“This retreat engages the part of people that is empathic,” he explained. “It can be powerful for the kids just to be quiet.
‘A day to pause’
“We’re giving kids a day to pause,” he continued. “Our culture isn’t pausing anymore. When you pause, you have time to remember … ‘Maybe that kid I made fun of, maybe that’s something I shouldn’t be doing.’”
Typically, kids show up expecting a lecture. Instead, they are told right off the bat that the day’s goal is to give everyone in attendance an idea of what things would be like if everyone respected one another.
“We’re not here to try to make friends,” the retreat leader will explain. “We’re here to tell you how not to be enemies.”
An hour of loud music and silly games is followed by three quiet minutes in which that message is repeated. While the students are imagining the lecture is finally about to start, the music goes back up and the activities continue.
Unseen by the teens is careful staging. Youth Frontiers’ staff includes a number of professional musicians and people with theater backgrounds. The songs are carefully chosen and the staff has all received training in storytelling and persuasive speech.
Fun, with a serious point
The fun has a serious point: Everyone in the room matters, and everyone is worth cheering on. When the kid who started the day in the back of the room with his hoodie pulled down over his scowl wins the loudest belching contest, he gets a taste of what his classmates’ cheering feels like.
And his teachers may begin to see past the defiant shell and engage with him differently next week. They may begin to speak to the emerging leader instead of the angry kid.
“Some of the kids in here were screamed at by 8:00 this morning,” explained Cavanaugh. “In the morning, we’re saying ‘You matter.’”
Late in the morning, that message starts to get tweaked a little bit, to “You can matter, and you can make a difference.” Staff and the high-school seniors who lead small groups into which students are periodically broken down talk about the moments when they realized their willingness to speak up about an injustice or a degrading moment was important.
The stories both depict speaking up as an act of self-respect and of responsible community stewardship.
“We say to kids, ‘This is not about you looking cool or acting cool, it’s about what’s good for the community,’” explained Cavanaugh. “The real people this impacts are the 80 percent” who are neither bully nor bullied.
The storytelling by staff and older students has another, more subtle effect. It gives the ninth-graders permission to acknowledge publicly that they want to change who they are — o applause.
The workshops’ themes vary by age, but all are aimed at showing students that their actions and words can make their school a better place or a worse place. And outside research suggests it works.
After a ninth-grade Respect Retreat, for instance, some 85 percent of students report beginning to stand up to negative peer pressure. A similar percentage report upholding their pledge to respect themselves and stand up for respect at school.
Teachers report a dramatic difference in climate, too. And perhaps most telling, school districts — which must pay a portion of each retreat’s cost — ask Youth Frontiers to repeat the experience the next year and with other grades more than 85 percent of the time.
“This is really a classroom on character,” said Cavanaugh. “There was an era when teachers had the time to engage with kids on these things.”
And at the same time that that teacher-pupil interaction time has disappeared, the world has become a meaner place. When Cavanaugh started Youth Frontiers, no one imagined mass school shootings or suicide contagion areas.
“Back then it was sticks and stones,” he recalled. “You’d pass a note. Todays, thanks to technology, you don’t pass a note. You post to thousands of kids instantly and the adults don’t know because it’s under the desk and it’s irretrievable.”
The kids, he noted, are simply aping the larger culture — including the political arena. “The best thing the Legislature could do to stop bullying is to treat each other with respect. We are trying to destroy the other, we are so sure of our rightness.”
After lunch, the anticipated lecture finally arrives. Except by the time it does, it’s not so much a lecture as the shift into the quiet, contemplative space. Emotional instrumental music plays softly as Cavanaugh introduces the idea of accountability.
“Let me be blunt about it,” he said. “For some of you in here, the one thing you need to hear today is quit being such a jerk in how you treat people. Some of you have been so beaten down by other people’s words, you know what I mean.”
‘Someone’s life is getting destroyed’
A story about a girl relentlessly picked on because of her disability was then followed by an uncomfortably dead-on recitation of the things people — not just kids — say to themselves to minimize disrespect: “It was just a text” and “It wasn’t to their face.”
“Next time anyone in here sees something or says something that tears someone down,” said Cavanaugh, “what I want you to know is someone’s life is getting destroyed.”
Next he tells another remorseful story about his own history as a bystander to a high-school classmate’s torment. “I never once made fun of this kid,” he said. “I just watched other people make fun of him.
“That kid needed me. He needed me to protect him. And I didn’t have the courage. I could have stopped it and I didn’t.”
With the campfire lit and silence filling the room, it’s clear the message hit home.
“In one of my classes there’s a guy who gets singled out every day,” one girl rose to say. “Now I know I should stand up for him because it might make a difference if I do.”
“I think badly of myself because of the way I look,” a boy said. “And I think badly of others for how they look. And I just watch and stand by and I’m afraid to do anything.”
“I commit to standing up, because I tend to just stand there and laugh,” said another, pausing a beat. “I know you’re in here but I just wanted to say, I’m sorry, bro.”