As a parent, every time you hear a bullying story, your heart breaks a little more inside. How can children be so insensitive? What if your child was one of the kids who was picked on? What if your child was the bully? Finally, finally, finally, we have a beautiful bullying story that we can stick in our back pockets for encouragement the next time a nightmarish bullying headline makes the news.
Five fifth-grade boys at Franklin Elementary in Mankanto, Minnesota, took action to help a student with special needs in another classroom, and it is not at all what you would expect. The student with special needs is fellow fifth-grader James Willmert, who has a learning disability. As we all remember from our vulnerable, formative years, kids are likely to pick on any child that is just a little different. James’ learning disability makes him an easy target.
When five boys saw James being teased on the playground, Jack Pemble, Jake Burgess, Tyler Jones, Gus Gartzke and Landon Kopischke, they decided to put a stop to it. Jake uses the sound logic of an innocent young boy to explain why James, and all other kids who are different, deserved their support, “They were like, using him and taking advantage of him.” Jack finishes, “Because he’s easier to pick on and it’s just not right.”
The five boys made a plan to treat James differently this year. Landon, Tyler, Gus, Jake and Jack invited James to sit at their lunch table. The boys’ anti-bullying attitude not only changed the life of one boy who had been previously teased and excluded, but it began to affect their whole class.
Teacher Mallory Howk tells Kare 11 News, “It really kind of makes you proud to be their teacher.”
James’ mother Margi Willmert has seen a remarkable change in her son — from a young boy who used to avoid recess to a happy fifth-grader who can’t wait to eat his lunch so he can go outside and play with his new friends.
Perhaps the most touching part of this story is a lesson we can all take away when we are naturally turned off by someone who is different. As the boys got to know James better, they found out things about him they never would have known before, including several tragic facts about his past: James was adopted from an orphanage in Colombia, and his new dad was killed in a bicycle accident just six years later. James doesn’t have a dad to share his love of sports with, but now he has a new group of friends to play touch football with at recess.
It should come as no surprise that these five boys were nominated by their teacher for the Spirit of Youth Award at the end of the school year. Still, the boys remain humble and insist that their new friendship with James had nothing to do with receiving an award. According to the boys, they genuinely like James because, “He’s an awesome kid to hang out with,” explains Jake.
This story should be exciting for all parents — it not only gives us hope for a new generation of anti-bullies among the cruel and targeted cyberbullying we have seen in tweens and teens. This story is an inspiration for adults too. I can’t tell you how many times I have made a snap judgment about someone because they have rubbed me the wrong way, when the truth is, I really don’t know their personal story or what has gone on in their life.
Kids can be cruel, and kids can also be amazing. These boys remind us of an important lesson that is easy to forget: Everyone deserves love and acceptance. Reaching out to just one person could literally change a life.