No Longer Standing By: Teaching the Bystander Effect

There is this unit that I teach called “True Crime,” and in this unit, the class discusses our fascination with “true and fictional crime stories.” To do so, we read an essay penned by Walter Mosley: “True Crime: The Roots of an American Obsession.”  After reading a certain cluster of paragraphs, I draw my students’ attention to supplemental sources that refine his claims. One of them being:

“True-crime stories, murder mysteries, up-to-the-minute online news reports, and (as always) rumor and innuendo grab our attention faster than any call for justice, human rights, or ceasefires.”

This idea that we rather watch from the sidelines than have the coach put us in the game. Naturally, students are confused at first, so I use this statement to draw their attention to a few examples that showcase this belief.

As a class, we read an article on Kitty Genovese, a woman who was stabbed multiple times outside of her apartment. We read how, according to the New York Times article, 37 witnessed the murder. We read how out of those 37 reported witnesses, not a single one offered assistance to Genovese, despite her pleas. Throughout the years, this number has been contested and it has been argued that many did not have a clear understanding of the crime, and therefore did not see the need to intervene. However, these specifics only matter to an extent. 37 or 2, that is still too many people that chose not to help.

There is a looming silence that typically occurs as I read the article to the class due to a feeling of mutual disgust that occupies the room. However, there has always been one voice in each class: “I wouldn’t want to get involved either! I am not risking my life for nobody!” Although it saddens me that this can be an immediate reaction, I welcome responses such as this. I explain to my students that there are ways to get involved that do not result in immediate danger. I explain to my students the dangers of a society filled with individuals that match this sentiment. I use statements such as the one mentioned above to introduce my class to the bystander effect.

I show videos of the Smoke-Filled Room, and watch my students ridicule the woman who remains in the room far beyond their expectations (“She’s buggin’!” “Nah, if that were me, I would have been left!“). I show them a few more examples to drill the notion in their head. Students make connections to a time that they saw a car accident, or a fight that they witnessed, I hear so many different tales that all end in the same way. There is a multitude of factors that lead to this ending: fear of going against the norm; fear of risking one’s self; believing that someone else will handle it; etc. However, all of them end with a cluster of people watching rather than acting.

Half a century after Kitty Genovese, a teenager was stabbed outside a bodega in the Bronx. Whereas those involved in the tragedy of Kitty Genovese chose to turn a blind eye, these witnesses actively watched the crime. During the time of Kitty Genovese, callers had to dial ‘0’  to reach an operator and then get connected. Today, some phones are programmed to complete the call to ‘911’ after simply dialing the number ‘9.’  Yet no one offered Junior a hand because their hands were too busy holding devices recording the events.

After reading about Kitty Genovese and discussing the bystander effect, I ask my students, “Should bystanders be responsible for intervening when witnessing a crime? Are we obligated to help those clearly in need?” The class debates this issue and we typically reach the consensus that at the very least, individuals should report the crime. When that one voice I mentioned earlier continues to object, a bunch of students retaliate with, “What if your mom was the one that needed help? What if you were the one that needed help?” 

When I teach this unit again in the Fall, I will include this story of Junior. When I teach this unit again in the Fall to my 9th graders, who are either already 15 or turning 15, I will include the story of 15 year-old Junior. Not because I want to scare them of the dangers in the world – they are already well aware of this – but because I want to remind them to question the status quo. As history suggests, just because an event or action was accepted (or allowed) by a community, it does not make it morally sound. In fact, it is often the case that it only required one person to challenge normalcy for it to be altered. Our society has gotten so caught up in capturing the narratives that we have forgotten that we are all active characters that have the potential to alter its course. We continue to view ourselves as insignificant, and we therefore forget that all it takes is one to ignite change. We should not be afraid to go against the norm when it involves watching the murder of a 15 year-old boy.

“I know I’m Not the Only One” : How Black Panther and Meme Culture Taught Me About Individuality

Am I the only one who [insert typically unoriginal idea here]?

No, you are not. The fact that you even ask this question shows how unoriginal you are. Ironically, we typically ask this question because we are looking for confirmation that someone else agrees with us. In fact, agreement on certain topics often becomes the seed that blossoms into friendship. However, this question is not an invitation. We don’t ask “Does anyone else _______?” Instead we emphasize “only,” hoping that the answer is yes.

Yes, you are the only person that puts their cereal in the bowl before the milk. You are an anomaly. An American Hero. The messiah that has been selected to spread your teachings of cereal preparation to others.

We find ourselves constantly hoping that we have stumbled upon some originality in a world that seems to be lacking.

Despite the constant desire to feel interconnected, we tend to take pride in the belief that there is something about ourselves that makes us unique from the herd. After seeing Black Panther, I kept on telling my boyfriend how some scenes reminded me of The Lion King. I didn’t think that it was an astute observation, but I did think that it demonstrated some intellect on my part to make the connection. That is, until I logged onto Twitter and saw a tweet that mirrored my exact observations (to further my point, here are images taken from two different posts on two different sites, neither of them being Twitter):

 

Now, I know what you are thinking, my assigned FBI agent must have relayed the information to the NSA, yet this was not the case. My agent is sleeping on me because I have mentioned several golden gems (that’s right, I am giving you the go ahead) and have yet to seem them blossom into fruition (*cough* plan your own movie ending *cough* {for serious inquiries on this, please contact}). I remember watching Shark Tank and becoming frustrated over the fact that someone stole MY idea for an invention (yet mine would have been more fashion-forward). The idea that was sparked over the need to make walking with my phone and umbrella a little easier. The idea that was ignited because I had a difficulty with just keeping my phone in my pocket as I held my umbrella. The idea that was probably thought of by thousands of others since I am not the only person that has developed an addiction to my phone, so much so that I would rather have my umbrella blow every which way than to keep my phone in my pocket.

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“And I know,  And I know, And I know, And I know, And I know, And I don’t know”

The fact of the matter is, we are not entirely special – despite this mindset being instilled upon us from an early age. We inhabit the same place, engage with the same routines, so we will naturally have the same responses to those interactions. We like to believe that we are all unique. That there is something about us that makes us different – in a good way. That we are all our own little Ruldophs (which is a problem in itself – when we are the ones that are different, it is positive. When others are different, it is often the opposite).

Not everyone is the exact same, but we all possess the same traits and habits, just slightly altered. We are essentially all cut from the same cloth yet the seamstress can develop many different shapes and sizes to fool us into thinking that different patterns exist. Like when you go to Old Navy and see one pattern used for a dress, skirt, shirt, shoes, and bag (don’t worry, I worked there), I am sure that you can talk to any person and discover at least one similarity. Yes, I am aware that this is not a complex concept, but it needs to be said.

 “And so we are all connected in the great circle of life”

– Mufasa

Surprisingly, it was not until recently that I discovered just how mundane my entire life is. This is all thanks to meme culture. Ironically, memes are defined as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.” As nothing in life is truly original (after thousands of years, how can it be?), we develop copies, sometimes exact, others with modifications (interested in this topic? Enroll at Queens College and take a course on Simulacra). The term history repeats itself is less metaphorical than we would like to believe. Although we all possess the same innate desires and instincts, we tend to believe that our experiences are what make us unique. However, memes have proved that this is simply not the case.

When we come across a meme we like, we typically adhere to the three archetypes. (1) We laugh, write “I’m weak *cryface emoji”; (2) “I’m dead *skull*”; or for the more poetic: (3) “MEEE!” The fact that our responses tend to boil down to these three options is telling as well. We find the meme humorous because there is a ring of truth to it. This universality is the basis for comedy. Comedians are storytellers – the only difference is that they report life rather than fantasies. When I was in Atlanta, I watched an Open Mic, and I can easily recall the joke that made me laugh the most. The comedian was referring to the fire drill implemented during elementary school: Stop, Drop, and Roll: “Kids nowadays, they don’t practice that shit! In the 90’s catching on fire was such a problem that we had to invent a whole system for it, but today, kids have discovered that all they have to do is not catch on fire.” The audience responded well, but would the same response be present if the joke was repeated to a newer generation that never had to roll around putting out imaginary fires? Or if the audience were home-schooled and they practiced changing the batteries for the fire detector?

This leads us back to meme culture. We reblog, repost, retweet, or share because part of us is excited that there is a community of others like us. A tiny part of us feels slighted, maybe even robbed: You mean other people did this as well? What does that mean about me?

individualitySuddenly, that one experience that tokened our individuality is revoked. As much as we want to feel like we are part of the collective, there is another part of us that wants to be the one happy yellow smiley-face in a sea of unhappy blue (if you can immediately recall the image, my point is proven once again). We want to be like everyone else, but we also want to be the one in the group that is slightly (only in a good way) different.

And that is just it. We are so fixated on differences that acknowledging similarities seems like a removal of self. We can only identify ourselves through the existence of an other. We feel like we have been robbed when we should really feel like we have gained. Yes, you may be special – but so is everyone else.  It may seem like I am contradicting myself since earlier I stated that we are not entirely special – so let me clarify, we are not entirely, but partly. Special can be defined as “better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual.” We are not better or greater than others, but we are different from what is usual since normalcy is a myth. Why then does acknowledging others as special makes us feel less than? It is only this notion of uniqueness that we feel is reduced once more is identified. A rose is still a rose despite being packed with eleven others.

Perhaps it is best that we are not entirely different from everyone else. To go back to Ruldolph – yes he was different, and he was a hero, but he “wasn’t allowed to join any reindeer games” until he proved that his differences made him valuable. The truth of the matter is, in a society that praises individuality, we simultaneously frown upon it. We only like differences once they are shown to be practical, and once that happens, we replicate those differences until they seemingly lose their practicality. Constantly replacing the Mufasas with Simbas, until they are one in the same (have you seen Simba grown up next to his father?)

 

Motherly Advice

Imagine this:

Your baby is crying hysterically. She is in desperate need of a diaper change, but your dinner is about one second away from becoming charcoal. What’s a girl to do?

These were the scenarios that I would willingly place myself in as a child. Apparently, that is all that motherhood encompassed: cooking, caring for a child, and running out of time. With all those Shutterstock photos of mothers floating around, who could blame me?

 

This is a well-crafted definition of motherhood. Ultimately, that is also what I thought women amounted to: mothers (yet with pictures such as the one above, one has to question why so many girls dream of placing themselves in this situation).

When I was younger, I was certain that at this point in my life, the noble age of 25, that I would already be married with children. I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher (a genuine want), but motherhood appeared to be normalcy. There was not much of an option, since in my mind, it seemed mandated. Not necessarily forced, just expected. When planning my life, it was more of a fill-in-the-blank instead of a written response, there was no room for deviation. Most of the questions verged on “When?“:

“When will you get married?”

“When will you have your first kid?”

Never did the question “Will?” arise. I never questioned myself if these were aspects that I truly wanted in my life and that was because I did not know that these ideas were imprinted on, instead of manifested by, me.

However, now that I am of the age, the eight-year-old mother version of myself with her cabbage patch doll on her hip, would be aghast. No children?! How could this be? Where did you go wrong? You had hours of practice! All those moments wasted. All the instilled anxiety through placing yourself in dire situations were for nothing! The conversation would not be long between the two of us as she would scurry away to remove her perfectly cooked dinner from the oven.

In those brief moments, I would inform her that becoming a mother is a debate that has been ongoing, only heightening due to my sister recently becoming a mother. I had this notion that once I held and spent time with her baby, my inner turmoil would be resolved. As if the moment that I held her baby, he would look me in my eyes and determine my life’s course. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a sorting hat. After spending time with him, I only became more conflicted. I used to feel guilty over this, as if I was somehow letting down my child self. I am not sure why I believed that she knew what she was doing, since after all, she was the same person that thought three lines accurately captured a person’s hair and that throwing herself on the ground was an effective way to express her feelings.

Part of this conflict stems from the fact that through maturing, I have arrived to the conclusion that motherhood is a choice. While this may seem like a no-brainer, it actually isn’t. As girls, we are unwillingly and unknowingly drafted into motherhood. Toys are all geared towards preparing us – in fact, I, and many other girls, probably inadvertently studied more on how to be a mother than for anything else. For instance, these are some of the  popular toys from my childhood:

 

The truth is, I am not sure if motherhood is for me. I love being around children, and I value family, but I also have ambitions. I try to rationalize my ambiguity, but I shouldn’t have to. When I woke up today and got dressed, I didn’t have to approach others and explain to them why I opted for leggings rather than jeans. Yet I suppose the answer for both is comfort.

At this point in my life, I am comfortable with where I am, although it is not where I envisioned myself to be. I am not sure if I want kids, and that is okay. I know plenty of mothers, and they are wonderful women. I also know women who chose a different path, and despite what society attempts to make us believe, they are not any less of a woman. If I do have children, I want it to be because it was a decision of mine, not because I ascribed to an outdated chauvinist perspective on what it means to be a woman that my eight-year-old self too readily consumed.

Little Visitors

They say that your body is your home, but in this home, he is never alone. They all come to visit, late at night, uninvited, and always over staying their welcome. The more he asks them to go away, the more they plant their roots to stay.

She has been aware of this for quite some time. Each joke that he makes allows one to escape. She catches them, hoping that they will stick to her and let him be. She tries to be the hero like the ones from the stories that she read while growing up. But she knows the truth. In this world, heroes do not exist – not the way that they are fantasized to be. We are all just scared, alone, and afraid. She is no different yet she attempts to suit up and be the protector, still frightened.

He is choking now. These demons never rest. He opens his mouth to scream, not knowing that his fear is what allows them to be. With each worry, another creature breeds into existence. His cries for help are useless – he is only creating chaos.

She inhales, now greeted by visitors of her own. Never exhales. She holds her breath until every last one has entered her being. At last she lets out a sigh. She consoles him, “It’s okay,” wondering what it really means to be okay when your house can no longer be a home. She feels the pests inside of her, tearing her apart, begging to breed once more. She swallows, ignoring the lump in her throat for she knows that the creatures have band together to abscond.

She looks at him worriedly. She wants to tell him that it will never happen again. That he is safe. Instead all she can muster are three words – anything more will allow the darkness she has captured to flee: “I am here.” She tells herself that much is true. She tells herself that she will protect him. She tells herself that she is in over her head. She cannot control what cannot be contained.

His breathing has softened. The monsters are gone, but the pain is still raw. The two of them have defeated the monsters in this moment all while breathing a new form into being. One that she, nor he, can tackle alone. One that would not exist if she, nor he, would have shared their worries.

Instead of consuming them, this plague hovers over them, waiting for a moment of weakness. A moment of darkness. She would rather sacrifice herself than have her brother experience this iniquity, but she knows that such a sacrifice would be temporary. These creatures are nomadic, never happy with the nest that they build because the moment they situate, they destroy.

She pulls him closer and says nothing this time. Silence seems like the best answer to the unasked questions that linger between them. They both inhale. Afraid.

Alicia Alonso

We are all too familiar with the stories involving a woman’s love. A love typically accompanied by sacrifices. We accept these stories because she’s in LOVE. Love is a beautiful thing, but too often we are subjected to a woman’s love for a man. So often that we believe that such a love is a part of a woman’s nature. Wouldn’t it be nice for a different narrative?

Cue Alicia Alonso

“Dance is not an exercise. Dance is an art.”

Like many women, Alonso possesses an undying love, yet unlike the stories mentioned earlier, her love is not for some man: “Dancing is an expression of the happiness of life. It’s like laughing, you laugh with your mouth, you laugh with your body, you enjoy every moment” (Alonso). I have seen enough romantic comedies to know that when someone describes anything in such a matter, they are truly, madly, deeply in love.

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Born: December 20, 1920

Nationality: Cuban

Known For: Ballet

Faced with vision problems and being diagnosed with a detached retina, Alonso had corrective surgery. Her doctor ordered her to remain on bed rest for three months, but Alonso was not having it. She continued to practice dancing, using just her feet. After three months time, Alonso discovered that the operation was not entirely successful, leading to a second, and ultimately, a third surgery. Her three month bedrest became a year’s worth. Once again refusing to be separated from her true love, Alonso and her husband used their fingers for her to learn dancing roles.

Upon returning to work, Alonso was asked to replace an injured ballerina for Giselle. Despite her problematic vision, Alonso’s performance had critics raving, allowing her to establish. While training with partners, Alonso instructed them where to stand on stage.

“The difficulty was in dancing with partners, knowing where to find them without my eyes on the stage. They sometimes used special lighting effects to guide me. But the biggest difficulty was always coming off the stage, trying to find the wings and the curtain drops.”

Concealing her failed vision, and performing well into her 70s, Alonso refused to lose her love. Instead, she fostered the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba to equip others with the love that allowed her to conquer all.

Quasi-Empathetic

Confession time:

I cry every single time that I watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame. . .

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Smile while you can.

and it is not because it is the most underrated Disney movie of all time. What truly gets me in the film is the scene during the festival of fools. My main man Quasi is stoked to finally be accepted by his peers. He even gets crowned KING – but unlike most movies, this is not an altruistic act from the crowd. He is only crowned because they believe that he has the most hideous mask; however, one guard in the crowd thinks it is a good idea to throw a tomato at Quasimodo. Apparently, everyone attending the festival is an asshole and joins in on the humiliation. And although I know what will happen each and every time I watch this scene, the tears remain consistent.

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Imagine longer hair and you have me 25 minutes into the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

I used to always be a bit embarrassed by my reaction. After all, I was crying over a fictional character going through a fictitious experience – yet now I know there is a deeper reason. It is not Quasimodo that causes me to cry (for he really doesn’t want to hurt me, he really doesn’t want to see me cry) – it is a testament to the animators’ ability to tell a story, and my own character. To quote the man behind my tears, Victor Hugo once said, “Those who do not weep, do not see.” I suppose that while watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I submerge myself into the film – I am not watching, I am seeing. Although the two seem similar, they are actually quite different:

Watching –  look at or observe attentively, typically over a period of time.

Seeing – be or become aware of something from observation or from a written or other visual source.

Unlike watching, seeing involves more activity. While watching, information stops once retained. Watching is a passive act. With seeing, information that is retained becomes processed, and it is through this process that connections can be made, allowing for empathy.

Up until recently, The Hunchback of Notre Dame would be the only time anything on screen would move me to tears. I did not cry as Mufasa died nor did I shed a single tear in Titanic – only Quasimodo resonated with me, he not only rang the bells of Notre Dame, but the bells of my heart. However, within the past two years, this was no longer the case. My eyes were like dynamites, ready to go off at any second. Here are some recent examples:

  1. Inside Out – as Bing Bong acts as a martyr and instructs Joy to “take Riley to the moon for him.”
  2. Community – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” in which Abed envisions the entire study group as stop motion to cope with his absent mother.
  3. Queer Eye – every single time one of the participants revealed their new transformation and then said goodbye to the Fab Five.
  4. Forrest Gump – Forrest discovers that he has a son and immediately asks if he is “smart.”

These tears are not always a result of sadness. They stem from compassion (and typically cartoons). Yet this epiphany did not enter my mind until recently (ironically, this involved real people).

During my visit to the Georgia Aquarium, I watched a Dolphin Show. There was a segment in which one of the trainers had a child from the audience perform in the show. A crowd of 200+ people watched as a ten year old boy “trained” a dolphin. As the boy instructed the dolphin, we all saw the trainer discretely send signals to the dolphin – however, the entire crowd cheered for the boy. In that moment, all of us became united under a single cause: to make the boy believe. Yes, this is incredibly corny, but against my better judgement, I found myself tearing. I immediately tried to hide my tears – what was I crying for? When did I become such a baby?

After wracking my brain for some odd moments, a new question emerged: Why was I criticizing myself for experiencing the most heightened form of compassion?

Empathy.

In that moment, I was moved at how the entire crowd was able to function as a collective just to make one little boy – that none of us knew – believe that he was able to control dolphins. How absurd. How spectacular. How magical.

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Laverne illustrating the concept of watching from her speech at the cathedral (1996).

We are constantly told that there is no use in crying over spilled milk, and let’s not forget that it is banned from basseball as well. Big girls don’t cry (thanks Fergie). Boys don’t cry. However, to fully invest yourself into the life of someone else, real or imagined, is an incredible gift. So I say, crybabies, rejoiceth! In those tear-jerking moments, we stop watching, and we tear down the wall that we build to separate ourselves from others – after all, take it from Laverne, “Life’s not a spectator sport. If watchin’ is all you’re gonna do, then you’re gonna watch your life go by without ya.