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Mark Hyman: A Transformative Experiment in Creating a Culture of Nonviolence
(by Mark Hyman)

There are flashpoints, transformative growth experiences, along the course of an individual's moral development. Such flashpoints cast us into a kind of spiritual void, a   moral "wilderness" in which we find ourselves thrust into uncharted fields of inquiry. If we succeed in resolving the echoing issue or question which has cast us into this wilderness, we may return
transformed, renewed by new insight, empowered with a strengthened capacity to unleash our personal gifts in the service of others. But if we attempt to turn a deaf ear to the cries of our brother or sister, to the cries of moral distress within ourselves, then we will remain a perpetual prisoner in our wilderness, incapable of personal growth, of realizing a life-mission, of extending a compassionate hand to the needy. We cannot afford, either as individuals or as a society, to fail to find our way out of the wilderness.

Three years ago, I experienced such a flashpoint. I had been attending an intensive week-long seminar about the Holocaust at Ramapo College. The seminar provoked soul-searching introspection about one's fundamental beliefs, as well as speculations about what actions one might have taken then-or later, during genocidal killings since.

On the last morning of the seminar, one of our leaders turned off the lights and began showing a silent filmstrip. The first images showed German citizens in rapture during a Nazi parade: joyous faces; beautiful smiles; communal celebration; Hitler proudly holding a young, healthy, beautiful child; the pageantry; the seeming life-affirmation. Then, without warning, the pictures revealed the dissipated, skeletal bodies of the walking dead, the lifeless residents of the concentration and death factories, their
faces shriveled, eyes blank and hopeless. I saw the corpses piled like stacks of wood, or scattered along the barren ground, some with open mouths and shattered eyes revealing the shock and spasm of the impact of death.  And then, just as suddenly, new images flashed before me, images of a procession of people, arms raised in obedient or joyous salute, as a van-riding Hitler passed triumphantly by.

I began to imagine myself living in these images: living and then dying as a victim of Nazi oppression, lifeless, bereft of family, of hope, of soul, of redemption. But I also saw myself wearing the Nazi uniform, seduced by its power, its symbol of seeming invincibility, and I felt the accompanying lust for unbridled power. And then I felt the paralyzing fear of the bystander, a man cognizant of the evil unfolding, capable of foreseeing its horrifying outcome, yet too fearful, too self-protective, to act in some
way to sabotage or forestall this unfolding caravan of death, and I felt the soul-shattering insight grip me that had I lived during these times as a German citizen, bred in a culture of hate and fear, I might have lacked the conviction or courage to resist it. And then I felt the burning desire to rescue, to save, to salvage any possible residue of humanity, to be a lifesaver and to risk my life in doing so.

These images coalesced...and I knew with certainty that within me all these responses were possible, all these aspects of my humanity lay dormant. I understood that within the souls of all people lies at all times the choice of life or death, the moral life or the life of compromise and apathy. And I  saw clearly that cultures-the symbols, vocabulary, behaviors and norms deemed expressions of the identity of a group of people-created, activated, gave birth to these various possibilities of human expression: the victim, the victimizer, the bystander, the collaborator, and the heroic rescuer.  I emerged from this transformative experience with a powerful personal resolve to rededicate myself to activating in myself and others our common human capacity for love, compassion, empathy, service. I resolved that no child would pass through my doors without at least beginning a journey of
moral reflection and growth.

Several years prior to this experience, I had taught a second-grade class in the South Bronx. It was my second year in Public School 62 and I knew very little about the art of teaching. My class consisted of twenty-five students from difficult family backgrounds. The majority of these students were well below grade level academically. Socially, they had learned that
conflict resolution consisted of fighting back. Often, at the slightest provocation, students would engage in heated verbal exchanges, which rapidly escalated. It was apparent that these children lacked either the vocabulary or the skills for mediating or understanding their own anger and aggression.

One day I informed the students of my desire to change our pattern of conflicts and asked for their ideas. Eventually, we decided to place two comfort objects-a teddy bear and a doll named Alf-in each corner of the room. Students who were engaged in conflict were encouraged to go to these dolls and hold them in order to calm down. We decided to have classmates
volunteer to escort student combatants to these calm-down corners in order to assist in the calming and venting process.

What developed was extraordinary. I noticed that the student conciliators and dolls served as safe outlets for the venting of anger. Then I noticed students starting to write and draw to express their anger at their adversary. Over time, these same students would usually begin to write notes of apology with accompanying pictures showing their sadness at having
hurt their adversary's feelings. Some were able to go a step further. They expressed the desire for reconciliation through renewed friendship.
I asked the student conciliators, acting as messengers, to send these letters of anger, apology, and reconciliation to the adversaries as a sign that they were ready to talk face to face. Once the letters were read, a clear diminishing of overt anger was evident. The combatants were escorted to a spot where they could engage in a simple three-step verbal conflict
resolution process consisting of stating one's grievances, requesting that one's adversary refrain from such injurious behavior in the future, and mutual commitment to refrain from such behavior.

The first time this procedure was attempted and completed, I told the students that they could shake hands or return to their seats. It seemed like minutes passed as the combatants worked to overcome their final feelings of pride. But then, magically, the students shook hands and proceeded to hug each other. This unprecedented moment of reconciliation was accompanied by a spontaneous, rousing ovation from their classmates.   The success of this conflict resolution procedure led to the creation of a
new classroom culture of nonviolence. Conflicts did not stop occurring, although instances of overt conflict did decline. However, recurring conflicts between students who had experienced and completed this resolution procedure became rare. Equally notable, a handful of students became quite expert at both calming and mediating peer conflicts. Thus, the classroom became an environment in which students could engage in conflict, yet reenter the "moral community" of our class with honor and dignity.  In other words, given a new, nonviolent method of interacting with others, the children became inclined to choose compassion over callousness, empathy over indifference.

I believe this lesson carries weight and meaning for adult communities as well. Many people accept the daily presence of violence in our lives as normal and therefore as acceptable. We may wish it were otherwise, but we ask ourselves, "What can I, as one person, do to reduce the violence?  " Then we retreat from this question into the comfort of our daily routines, our
voices unheard against the rising tide of our unspoken cultural precepts. I believe that violence is the outgrowth of a culture of violence which encourages and applauds its expression in many forms. I believe that violence is a choice, not a human inevitability. However, to be fought, violence must be recognized as a real capacity of human beings living in a violent culture.

I have also learned that children yearn for an understanding of the capacity and history of man's inhumanity to man. I have found that once exposed to such a study, children tend to grow in their capacity and desire to activate the nonviolent aspects of their potential. In other words, they yearn to explore, understand, and develop their moral lives.

A moral life, a consciousness of the need to develop principles and beliefs for guiding personal and social behavior, is imperative for living a human life. And this connection between morality and humanity is best realized, harnessed, and developed by individuals when the culture in which they live promotes it. Such a culture must provide role models, exemplars who show us how we might transform ourselves and our communities in the direction of nonviolence and compassion. A society lacking such exemplars, a society which either fails to promote or actively seeks to suppress our capacity for humanity, morality, and nonviolence, a society that promotes tragic indifference to the suffering of others, is a society ripe for discrimination, prejudice-even genocide. This is why we need heroes of conscience.

Yet it is certainly not acceptable merely to rely on our redemption by heroes of conscience. Each of us has the capacity to be a victim or a victimizer, a collaborator, a bystander, or a rescuer. And I have learned that culture provides the soil for the growth of any of these capacities.  Therefore, it is my educational mission to work toward creating a culture of nonviolence.

The Tenafly Middle School Community of Conscience Project

Two years ago, a teaching friend asked me, "If you had one course to teach, your ideal course, what would it be?" I replied, "Heroes of Conscience." My friend found a way to arrange it. I taught this course as a "club" elective during the spring of 1997.

What would prompt children in grades six to eight to sacrifice 45 minutes of sleep on a daily basis, to arrive at my class at 7:30 in the morning? I decided to create intense, self-contained, forty-minute lessons aimed at helping children vicariously experience a moral issue or conflict. The means included excerpts from movies, poems, and short stories; role-plays which attempted to simulate a situation involving a moral dilemma; and "Quaker talks." These Quaker talks proved particularly effective. They had
three rules:
1) people express themselves freely without fear of judgment;
2) when a speaker completes his or her thought, everyone honors a silence of at least several beats to encourage respectful contemplation;
3) new speakers express their thoughts about any topic without referring to or disagreeing with the previous speaker or speakers.

Throughout the beginning weeks of the Club, students grappled with their burgeoning definitions and understanding of moral terms such as heroism, compassion, love, empathy, and conscience. They began to explore what one might call the "negative" aspect of conscience-the part of our conscience governed by the capacity for profound guilt or shame-as well as the "positive" aspect of conscience motivated by a heartfelt acknowledgment of our universal and unbreakable connection and responsibility to one another.

We struggled with the issue of moral beliefs and whether any one principle or belief system, such as nonviolence or the "Golden Rule," could serve as a universal principle or philosophy for all humankind. We sampled movies that examined the power of lives driven by a vision, others that explored issues of personal identity and legacy. Questions emerged. Are there ideas worth dying for? Can one person serve as the conscience of an entire community? We made the distinction between personality and character, and discovered how an unjust culture creates the need for someone to take a stand for justice.

Through our common moral inquiry we formed a close-knit bond which students began referring to as "our moral community." We had succeeded in creating a culture in which children, using a common moral vocabulary, could experience and explore issues of morality and humanity previously untapped.  We were creating a burgeoning "community of conscience."  It was my hope that the following year would feature the blossoming of this community.  During the late spring of 1987, I learned that Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, was living in Memphis, Tennessee, and running a nonviolence institute. Shortly thereafter, I visited him in Memphis. He told me about an idea he was promoting, "A Season for Nonviolence." This observance, slated for the concurring fiftieth and thirtieth memorial anniversary years of the assassinations of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was intended to honor both men, and further the ideal of nonviolence in local communities throughout the world. It struck me that Arun's "Season for Nonviolence" was an ideal project for my Heroes Club. Once he consented to visit us, our club blossomed into the T.M.S. Community of Conscience Project.

At the center of the Project were the Heroes of Conscience Club members.  These student leaders were responsible for creating school-wide newsletters and assisting in the planning and preparation of major events, as well as promoting the program among their peers. Volunteer teachers on each grade level met weekly as a brainstorming and advisory council, and agreed to disseminate newsletters and other information to all students. The parents committee also served a vital role in the planning and execution of events, and support from Mayor Ann Moscovitz of Tenafly provided a powerful boost.
Finally, we mounted our first major event: "Heroes Day." Its purpose was to promote the Project's core ideals through exposure to local role models embodying these ideals. To this end, nomination forms were distributed to students, teachers, parents, administrators, and local social, civic, and religious organizations. Nominees were chosen to share their stories with
the students of the middle school and the general public. The spectrum of experiences of our local heroes was remarkable, including organ donation, worldwide life-saving interventions on behalf of children, animal rights, civil rights, and volunteer work at a camp for victims of HIV/AIDS.  Relevant art panels, prepared by a wonderful parent volunteer, provided an aesthetic and informative backdrop to the day. Alicia Renee Farris, a nationally known nonviolence educator from Detroit, Michigan, launched the celebration with a keynote address about Kingian nonviolence. Previously she had prepared us for the whole enterprise with a student nonviolence workshop. And after hearing our local speakers, students throughout the building reacted to their stories through writings and art work displayed in our "Hall of Conscience" corridor.

The event was an unqualified success-and five weeks after "Heroes Day," on March 17, 1998, Arun Gandhi arrived in Tenafly to meet our club members.  Utilizing a Quaker talk format, the students shared their heartfelt thoughts about the theory and application of nonviolence. The following morning, Arun delivered his keynote address to the Tenafly Middle School and friends before a massive portrait of Mahatma Gandhi drawn by a local parent. All present wore ribbons bearing the phrases "Tenafly Community of Conscience," and "Nonviolence, Compassion, Selfless Service." We gave Mr. Gandhi a standing ovation. Then Mayor Moscovitz issued a nonviolence proclamation, and a press conference convened. It was the culmination of a dream.

As a result of Arun Gandhi's visit, a number of middle school teachers and students developed nonviolence initiatives. There were also follow-up events. On April 2nd, just two weeks after Arun came to Tenafly, the Heroes of Conscience Club went to New York. At the Season of Nonviolence commemoration of the assassination of Dr. King, our club had a very special
honor: one of our student members, Zachary Lerner, spoke on behalf of children regarding the definition of nonviolence. Zachary also designed one of the logos for the program, while another student, Viki Lazar, provided a wonderful overview of our "Season for Nonviolence" in Tenafly. And on April 29th we invited Dr. Richard Deats, an international lecturer and teacher on nonviolence to address us on the Decade for a Culture of Nonviolence.  Dr. Deats spoke to us framed by a remarkable fifteen-foot-long mural, drawn by a parent volunteer,  featuring the Nobel laureates who had signed the Decade appeal. He offered two new pointers  important to the future goals of our Project. First, he asserted the power of unsung heroes, including
children's heroes, to address issues of social injustice. Second, he proclaimed the need for each school to have a room set aside for children's reflection upon personal or social conflicts. Deats followed his address with a Quaker talk with members of the Heroes of Conscience Club.  In preparing to study the Nobel laureates' Appeal we assembled a Heroes of Conscience newsletter providing photographs and biographies of the signatories. Research into the life missions of the laureates revealed
extensive concern for human rights. This suggested to the Club that there was an inextricable bond between nonviolence and human rights. Thus we launched our second season as a "community of conscience" with a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, culminating in "Human Rights Day," a full-day even featuring over thirty human rights speakers, a dance performance, and the display of the UNICEF landmines exhibit.

The success of our event has inspired several exciting and ambitious projects including the development of a human rights mural by the students, teachers, and parents of Tenafly Middle School, and a weekly movie series focused on human rights issued. But our most exciting venture is an "adopt a-minefield" campaign to help de-mine a selected village. Slated to be launched during the 1999-2000 school year, this international minefield adoption project aims to engage the support of the entire Tenafly
educational system as well as its social, civic, religious, and corporate bodies in a year-long fundraising endeavor. We plan to climax our campaign with a symbolic "walk-to-school" by hundreds of students, teachers, parents, and residents, bringing attention to the daily danger of walking to school in mine-infested villages throughout the world.

If, as I hope, we succeed in involving the entire Tenafly community in the process of this minefield adoption, it will represent a watershed in our maturation as a "community of conscience"-a community whose sphere of social concerns is defined not by arbitrary geographic boundaries, but by a desire to promote a common regard for peace and human rights. I can think
of no better way to inaugurate the upcoming Decade of Nonviolence for the Children of the World.

Mark Hyman teaches language arts at the Tenafly Middle School in Tenafly, New Jersey. This article is based on a speech he gave at a Heroes of Conscience Seminar at Ramapo College in Ramapo, New Jersey.

courtesy of Fellowship Magazine--the Magazine of the Fellowship of Reconciliation
Richard Deats, Editor
Sally Savage, Managing Editor
Rebecca Pickard, Editorial Intern
Rabia Harris, Assistant Editor (mpf@forusa.org)
Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960
Phone: (914) 358-4601 Fax: (914) 358-4924/1179

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Last update:  13 Jul 2000