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October 1, 1997

Someday That Might Be Me

Through songs and dialogues, students learn understanding, acceptance, and empathy for others.
Social-emotional learning
As a facilitator of workshops and assemblies on social skills throughout the United States, I have had many revealing dialogues with elementary and middle school students, such as the following:
Facilitator: How many of you have ever been in class, thought you knew the answer to a question, but didn't raise your hand? (All hands go up.)
Facilitator: What stopped you from raising your hand?
Student: I wasn't sure I was right.
Faces smile, heads nod, bodies lean forward, and the students keep their hands raised—realizing that these will not be "right or wrong" questions, but a conversation about what happens in their lives, in school, every day.
Facilitator: So what happens if you're not right?
Student: Everyone laughs.
Facilitator: And if people laugh, how do you feel?
Student: Embarrassed.
Facilitator: How many have ever felt embarrassed? (All hands go up.)
Five minutes into an elementary school workshop on understanding differences, this group of skeptical students has become a collection of curiosity seekers.
Our discussions focus on the issues of belonging, fitting in, making friends, offering support, and practicing empathy. Teachers often express many concerns about students: "Students aren't nice to each other"; "They put each other down"; "They can be mean and cruel." The message "Be nice to others" is not a new concept for students, but we need to find new ways to deliver it.
In our sessions, students explore real-life issues, such as deciding whether to raise one's hand in class, where to sit in the cafeteria and with whom, what to wear to school, how to make friends, and how to deal with parents' opinions. These issues make for rich learning experiences because they get to the heart of the everyday struggles that all students encounter as they seek to find a place in their classrooms, hallways, and neighborhoods.

Howard Gray and the Memory of an Emotion

I often bring a guitar to workshops and sing songs with the students. They think this is cool. One day I sang a song I had just learned called "Howard Gray" (see box) to a group of 6th graders. The next thing I knew, they were excitedly sharing their thoughts, ideas, and feelings about the issues of being different, being made fun of, and how it feels to be a target of other people's hurtful words. It was as if they had been waiting for such a moment, a time when they could safely examine the realities of their day-to-day existence. Since that day, I have often tapped into the power of this song for young people.

Excerpts from "Howard Gray"

One day after lunch I went to comb my hair and saw

They had Howard pinned against a locker in the hall.

They were pokin' fun about the big hole in his shirt.

They had his left arm twisted back behind him 'til it hurt.To this day I can't explain, and I won't try to guess

Just how it was I wound up laughin' harder than the rest.

I laughed until I cried, but through my tears I still could see

The tear-stained eyes of Howard Gray looking back at me.(Chorus)

Howard Gray, oh, Howard Gray, I can't believe

I joined 'em all in treatin' you that way.

I wanted to apologize but I was too afraid

Of what they'd think about me, Howard Gray.From that moment on, after I'd made fun of him,

He never looked my way; he never smiled at me again.

Not much longer after that, his family moved away

And that's the last I ever saw or heard of Howard Gray.That was 20 years ago, and I still haven't found

Just why we'll kick a brother or a sister when they're down.

I know it may sound crazy, but now and then I dream

About the eyes of Howard Gray lookin' back at me. . . .

Note: Excerpts from "Howard Gray," a song by Lee Domann. Reproduced by permission. Lee Domann is a songwriter and minister in Nashville, Tennessee.

This song is available in the social skills audio program, Songs for Howard Gray, by David Levine. Contact Blue Heron Press, P.O. Box 277, Shokan, NY 12481. Web site: (

The song recounts the true story of a 7th grade boy who is ridiculed by his peers because he is poor and wears ragged clothes. The narrator, Lee, liked Howard but found himself joining other kids who were tormenting the boy. Lee cannot forget "the eyes of Howard Gray lookin' back at me." The song connects people to the memory of an emotion and, in so doing, validates people's feelings, experiences, and yearnings. The simplicity of the story, combined with the power of music, provides for a memorable learning experience.

Seeing Things Differently

The story of the relationship between Howard and Lee presents an important question: What is the right thing to do? Students discuss Lee's motivation and actions in the song:
Facilitator: Why was Lee (the boy telling the story) afraid to be Howard's friend even if he liked him?
Student: Because he was afraid that if he was Howard's friend, no one would like him.
Student: Sometimes you do things you don't want to do because everyone else is doing it. You just go along.
Intolerance in school often takes the form of bullying or putting another person down through physical threats or verbal taunting, as the song relates. "Howard Gray" helps create unity and understanding around the issues of separation, isolation, and fear. Here are some 7th graders' responses to the song:
"I will always remember that song because someday that might be me." "That Howard Gray song made me want to cry." "Your visit makes me think twice about making fun of someone."

The Importance of Dialogue

"Howard Gray" gives the world of injustice and cruelty a name. A song like this doesn't preach to students to "be nice to others." Instead, students explore important questions: Why do people make fun of others? How does it feel? What do people need? Students often respond with great outrage at how something like this could happen.
Facilitator: Does that sort of thing happen in this school? (There are usually a variety of affirmative responses, ranging from heads nodding to shouts of "Yes!" and hands raised to ask if this is a true story.)
Facilitator: Let's brainstorm: Why are people made fun of or put down?
Each time I have asked this question, students' first three responses have included the words "different" or "differences." Here are other responses: Not as smart, too smart, nerds, wear glasses, clothes, hair, fat, where they live, ugly, smell, don't do well in school, disabled, special class, religion, skin color, their name, from another country, not as much money, the new kid.
In these brainstorming sessions, I write down all answers except those that might purposely hurt another student. In discussing the lists, I try to keep students on the topic of what it feels like to be the target of teasing and bullying. Sometimes students try to avoid these painful issues by getting into outrageous or inappropriate discussions of, for example, ugliness, smells, and other diversions.
My approach is to take student ideas and ask the group about them. I'll refer to the word "too" (as in "too smart," "too fat," or "too different") and ask what it really means. This leads us to discussions of how we judge others and how everyone has the right to an opinion. Through dialogue, students eventually decide that anyone who is different is potentially a target. Students who have felt like the target at some time in their lives will be right with me here and often will offer the most poignant insights.
Facilitator: Who has been made fun of because of your hair color? (Students with red and blond hair raise their hands.)
Facilitator: Who has been made fun of for either your first or last name? (Most hands go up.)
Facilitator: Who has ever been made fun of because you're not so good in sports?
Students look around the room, and some students' lips tighten as they raise their hands. One student tells how other kids put him down and won't let him play football:
Facilitator: How does that feel?
Student: I'm sort of used to it by now, but sometimes I wish they wouldn't do it.
Facilitator: Would you like people to act differently?
Student: Well, they could let me play and help me if I'm having trouble.

Getting Feelings Out

The next step is to ask how such intolerance made the students feel. As one might predict, here are some student responses about their feelings: bad, mad, sad, angry, like I want to hit someone, like dirt. Here are two surprising reactions: "Like I never should have been born" and "I liked it."
It becomes clear that everyone has felt most of the identified feelings at one time or another. Students also begin to understand that they are not the only ones who have felt put down, afraid, and alone. They often express surprise at the end of the lesson at how open people were. I believe it is the first time some students ever had an opportunity to express how they truly felt in front of their peers. This leads to a key concept of the "Howard Gray" session: empathy.

Encouraging Empathy

If I could talk to Howard, I would say I'm sorry. Sorry that you had to be treated so unfairly. Sorry people could be so mean. Sorry that that's the way life can be sometimes and sorry that it happened (7th grader).
The "Howard Gray" sessions have been the most significant aspect of my teaching and facilitating career. What started out as a song that I wanted to share with students has evolved into an ongoing opportunity to positively shape student behavior. Helping students move away from intolerance and toward positive choices is one of the most critical educational issues of our time. If student intolerance is allowed to fester, the end result will be one of tension and fear and an increase in student aggression and violence.
In my work with students, I have found other powerful songs. "Courage" by Bob Blue tells the story of Diane, who is ostracized because she is "strange like she doesn't belong." The song focuses on the question: "Am I wrong not to stand up for someone who is being victimized?" At one point, "Courage" refers to the atrocities that have occurred throughout history: "The whole world stood idly by to watch as the innocent burned." In the end, the singer promises: "To do all that I can to not let it happen again, to care for all women and men, I'll start by inviting Diane."
Another song, which I wrote, "Let Me In," expresses the plea from a classmate: "Please let me in. Don't push me away. I need you to listen to my words today." I often end sessions with another of my songs, "Lift Me Up, Don't Put Me Down," which encourages students to consider: "Every day as you make your choices, can you hear all the voices? Of the people in this town, crying out a familiar sound . . . Lift me up, don't put me down." Students often provide reflections on these songs, as another 7th grader relates: I understand what you talked about because I get picked on because of my habits. Mainly about how much I read. I read a whole lot. I hope that the program teaches the people who tease me a lesson. I hope they write a song about me. I will always remember those songs.
The success of these lessons is not contingent on the singing of a song. The music is the vehicle that gives students a voice to express what they truly feel. It helps put everyone in the same place, thereby creating a safe setting for students to be themselves. I find motivation is high for involvement and learning about the issues of belonging, understanding others, being understood, and offering support, if the students can see the relevance in their own lives. Through class dialogue, nonjudgmental learning sessions, and reflections, students find creative ways of processing their newfound discoveries. Such experiences make a difference in students' lives and in the lives of those they touch.

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