McNary student ChristiAnna Allen recites the Hands and Words Are Not for Hurting pledge on camera. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Editor’s note: Names of students have been changed in this article to protect their privacy.

Ever since she can remember, Erin Sheridan has fought with her sister.

Not the sort of sibling spats that most everyone has experienced, but fought in the way that words of the most hurtful sort were exchanged.

“I would get picked on in school because of the way I looked and my religion, and it all added to it,” Sheridan said, unsuccessfully trying to hold back tears. “My sister is going to be moving out soon and all we’ve done is fight. I feel like I’ve really missed out. I’m seeing what I missed out on and I just want us to be closer.”

Sheridan’s experiences being picked on led her to enroll in McNary High School’s Hand and Words class. Together with the other students in the class, she’s trying to build a coalition of students, teachers and staff members that take a stand against bullying and abuse. It’s part of a larger campaign dubbed Hands and Words Are Not for Hurting.

The students in the class actively pursue potential allies in their fight by asking them to recite a pledge renouncing hurtful words and actions. They sell Hands and Words apparel, buttons and other items to raise money for class activities, which include a current drive to collect teddy bears for students at Salem’s Liberty House for abused children.

“The big push is to create energy behind the sadness and create similarities rather than differences,” said Jim Taylor, McNary’s choir director and teacher behind the school’s Hands and Words project.

The class’ experiences with bullying run the gamut of what might be expected.

As a child, Bridget Einham was raised by her brother as the the pair navigated the perils of an absentee mother and abusive father.

“I stopped eating for two years when I was 12 and got peptic ulcers,” Einham said. “Kids that young shouldn’t have them and now they go active and deactive. It feels like you’re being stabbed in the stomach over and over. Growing up was difficult, but I want to encourage other people to make it through.”

Some have persevered through remarks about their weight, acne or watched their siblings deal with bullying.

“My godbrother was bullied at McNary because he was a teen father,” said Jayme Kea. “His girlfriend left because of her own problems and he was bullied to the point where he committed suicide.”

Others have suffered the slings and arrows silently.

“I’ve always told myself I don’t judge people for who they love, but when my mom told me she is gay, it was shocking to hear,” said one student. “I’ve heard people say it’s not right to be gay and I’ve heard others say that being gay is a disease, but I don’t understand how anyone could be judgmental. I’ve heard the conversations without them knowing. It’s just so sad and I don’t know how to deal with it.”

While those like Kea enrolled in the class to discover the skills that would allow them to assist others, the Hands and Words class opened doors within some that allowed them to take new paths.

“I became the abuser,” said Naomi Graham. “My brother would piss me off and I would knock him to the floor and we’d rough each other up. It came to the point where he started fighting back and I came to school with a black eye and he came to school even more beat up.”

After taking the class and reciting the pledge a few times, the point began to resonate in her life.

“I realized that I needed to stop what I was doing. I haven’t laid a hand on my brother in two years that wasn’t a hug or a pat on the back for getting his grades up,” Graham said.

It’s not out of the ordinary for the class to become something like a therapy group for students involved – a place where stories are shared and encouraging hugs exchanged. For some of the students, it’s the only place where things like that can happen, Taylor said.

“Too many teachers think it’s not their place to correct [bullying] behavior, but it is because they are the adults in the room and sometimes they are the only adults in their students’ lives,” he said.

More importantly they learn to lean on each other.

“I know how it feels to be lonesome or the black sheep in the herd,” said Cory Russell. “I’m here for anybody who is being abused, they don’t have to be kids.”

That attitude and the students’ collective courage crescendoed as one student told her story of loneliness.

“I had a birthday party in the fourth grade and I invited the whole school to come. After three hours, nobody showed up,” she said. “I looked at my mom and I said nobody was coming. I cried and went to sleep. A couple years later, I invited people again and nobody showed up. I went to my mom and I said, ‘Mom, it’s because I’m gay, huh?’”

Now, every time my birthday comes around, I don’t want anybody to mention it and I’d rather no one know because that’s when it hits and I don’t want to be alive. And I have a birthday coming up and I want to invite people, but I’m scared I’ll just end up alone again.”

Over the years, she’s lost friends as she came out, but as she told her teary tale students walked across the room to place a supportive hand on her shoulder or offer their shoulder to cry on. By the time she was done, her classmates were planning a birthday party for her at school.

“I’m here because of stories like Bridget’s and the kids at Liberty House because they shouldn’t have to be going there,” said Leah Stinnett. “I have three younger siblings the age of the kids at Liberty House and I just don’t want us to tolerate that sort of injustice over anything or for anybody who is bullied and harassed for things that don’t matter.”