Mission possible: turning bullies around

Experience serves as lightning rod to change hearts

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When Elsie Morden was a teenager in rural Manitoba, she switched schools eight times, desperately trying to avoid the girls who made her life hell. But with another school came a new group of mean girls.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/03/2016 (2446 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Elsie Morden was a teenager in rural Manitoba, she switched schools eight times, desperately trying to avoid the girls who made her life hell. But with another school came a new group of mean girls.

Her tormentors’ tactics varied. Some left harassing comments on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Others pushed, kicked and shoved her. In junior high, Morden was invited to a sleepover, a rarity for her. She was excited to be included for once, and she’d just got her hair done — the curly hair she woke up every morning before dawn to painstakingly flat-iron before school so she wouldn’t be made fun of. She woke to a terrible discovery: someone had chopped her ponytail off during the night.

Hair grows back, but teeth — those are a bit tougher to replace. In high school, Morden was punched in the face by a girl at a dance. Her front tooth is fake.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Elsie Morden, who won a Young Woman of Distinction award, was bullied in school. Since then, she’s been touring with an anti-bullying organization to empower kids.

Those are just some of the stories Morden, now 20, shares as part of her No Time for That tour, which she has taken to more than 450 schools across Canada since 2012. In addition to being a committed anti-bullying activist, she’s an emerging country singer/songwriter and uses her music to connect with kids. (The punching incident is immortalized in a particularly catchy song called Suckerpunch.)

Morden — who performs with her dad, Ken Byrka, as well as her sisters, Mallory Byrka, 19, and Victoria Byrka, 17 — was at General Vanier School Wednesday, performing for a small group of grades 5 to 8 students. Her shows are short and energetic, part confessional, part country-pop show. She aims to empower both victims and bystanders. Her overall message is one of empathy and resilience.

The students of General Vanier loved her, lining up for autographs and selfies after her set. A couple of kids pulled her aside to shyly confide in her. That’s not uncommon, she tells me afterwards. She says she’s even reformed a few bullies. “I’ll have a student come up to me and say, ‘I’ve been bullying people, I’ve been calling them mean names, and I’m going to try to stop. Thanks for coming, I didn’t realize I was hurting them.’” When she’s able to make it into high schools — her shows are normally for the junior high set — she will receive the odd message on social media from a mean girl who wants to change.

“If I have the opportunity to talk to the kids, like I did today, they tell me their stories, what they’ve seen, how they feel about life in general — and it’s amazing. It’s so cool hearing their perspective. When I hear them say, ‘Thank you so much, you’ve changed my life,’ that is another thing that keeps me going and makes me realize how important it is to do what I’m doing.”

Her work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Morden has received a MCIC Global Citizenship Award, the premier’s Healthy Living Award, the Volunteer Manitoba RBC Local Hero Award, and the YMCA-YWCA Young Woman of Distinction Award. As well, she’s been nominated as a Manitoba Hero in recognition for her work with the tour and the No Time for That Anti-Bullying Society, which recently became a registered Canadian charity.

As it ever was, bullying remains a problem in this country. In Canada, at least one in three adolescent students has reported being bullied, and LGBTQ students, in particular, face disproportionate discrimination. And as we’ve seen time and time again from high-profile cases such as Rehtaeh Parsons, bullying can have devastating consequences. Parsons was the Nova Scotia teen who was taken off life support in 2013 after a suicide attempt. She was the victim of sexual humiliation and cyberbullying after photos taken of her alleged sexual assault went viral.

In the past two decades, we’ve seen both the rise of cyberbullying as well as the rise of an anti-bullying industry. Critics have questioned the efficacy of those prolific anti-bullying campaigns, particularly those of the zero-tolerance variety — and Stuart Twemlow, the co-author of Why School Anti-Bullying Programs Don’t Work, suggested that in order to stop bullying, a school has to change its culture rather than simply target bullies. Perhaps that’s why ‘don’t be a bystander’ campaigns tend to be more effective than ‘don’t be a bully’ campaigns.

Young women such as Morden can be instrumental in changing the culture. She serves as living, breathing, succeeding proof that it does, indeed, get better.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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