Arriving in Plainfield on a perfect Vermont winter day — clear blue skies and snow-covered spruce — I follow laughter and cheers from inside the school and quickly enter to find the gathering place. Fifty middle-school students clap and cheer in unison as a young man jumps as high as he can against the concrete wall, makes a chalk mark, and then jumps even higher with his classmates’ encouragement.
“Become a hero! Give the hope you have inside you!” urges St. Albans native Tom Murphy, founder of “Sweethearts and Heroes,” what he calls an Empathy Fitness Program.
He has their complete attention as they practice what he calls the “Stop, drop and roll” of responses to bullying. But the focus of Sweethearts and Heroes goes beyond anti-bullying training to offer specific strategies to overcome personal obstacles as well as to help people in trouble.
Twinfield principal Mark Mooney invited Sweethearts and Heroes to the school, recognizing the struggle students face during the pandemic as developmental windows have been disrupted.
“Our students need help with their social and emotional health, now more than ever,” he says.
Activate Your Superpowers
Murphy, who developed the program 15 years ago, adds “We give each student a place to activate their innate superpowers, to empower them to help others struggling with bullying or other challenges that all students face.”
Wearing a Mr. Incredible T-shirt, Murphy talks about his training as a professional MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter in order to invite each student to “treat everyone you meet as a champion. Sit in the cafeteria next to a kid who has been made fun of for years.”
Because superheroes jump into action, and studies show that peers only intervene 10% of the time with a bullying event, Murphy suggests that in addition to required fire drills, young people need to have “bully drills” from Superhero School. Empathetic fitness, he says, allows anyone to provide compassion to anyone in any circumstances, without fatigue and, eventually, automatically.
He enlists students to suggest examples of bullying behavior from their lives. There are many: body shaming, remarks about clothing or attractiveness, perceived disability, or family status. Eager young volunteers don acid-green superhero capes and act out strategies, overcoming feeling silly or vulnerable with the encouragement of their peers. There is laughter as students compete to recite the alphabet with marshmallows in their mouths, timed by Murphy. (The fastest, 3.51 seconds.) They practice the skills of superheroes who encourage, rather than disparage, others. And they are delighted.
Action Changes Everything
Next Murphy introduces co-presenter Rick Yarosh, a retired U.S. Army sergeant, injured in the Iraq War with burns over most of his body. He enters, showing the students his “cool robotic leg.” He talks about overcoming adversity and mustering resilience. Recalling the sadness when children hid behind their parents when they saw him, he asks the students to reach out to anyone having a rough time.
Yarosh urges students to recognize that everyone is different in some way and that not all differences are visual. Students are riveted by his story and his courage. “Become a hero — jump into action and be part of making this world a better place for all of us.”
A.C.E., they learn, means “Action Changes Everything.” The face of Albert Einstein appears on the screen with the quotation that the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who choose to do nothing about it.
Slides of rats swimming in a bucket introduces the (in)famous experiment by Curt Richter at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s, “The Psychology of Hope,” demonstrating that having hope helps all creatures to survive. Hopelessness, for the rats, leads to drowning in the bucket. Although Richter’s methods were cruel, Murphy emphasizes the lesson that everyone can help other humans to feel hope. Yarosh adds that even someone who isn’t physically wounded, as he is, needs to feel the power of hope in daily life. That ability is what makes us superheroes to each other.
The workshop ends with an etymology lesson: The original meaning of “bully” in English was “sweetheart,” first used in 1538. It was a term of endearment and a positive and encouraging expression (Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bully for You!” meant grand or excellent). When students learn and practice strategies for combating bullying, they can transform their world and give hope.
“You can’t be a teacher of literacy without being a teacher of humanity first,” Mooney said. “That’s the focus that needs to happen for our children during this school year.”
Tom Murphy adds, “Bullying is always with us. The problem is that we need more sweethearts and heroes in the world.”
For further information visit sweetheartsandheroes.com.