By Erika Webb
Every now and then, it's time to get out the 3,000-year-old Golden Rule and dust it off.
Motivational speaker and youth crisis counselor Brooks Gibbs did that and more at four southwest Volusia County middle schools during the first week of February.
Bully Armor, formerly Deltona Against Bullying, arranged for Mr. Gibbs to visit Deltona, Heritage, Galaxy and River Springs middle schools, where he delivered a powerful message to impressionable minds.
A funny-voiced monologue conveyed his personal experiences.
Mr. Gibbs is the author of Love Is Greater Than Hate, director of the Golden Rule Schools Network and creator of the Office Depot Foundation's LIVE, LOVE, MOVE tour in partnership with the band One Direction.
All of that grew out of adversity.
He told students what it was like when he was their age to be too short, too skinny and asthmatic.
"I would actually get asthma attacks playing Nintendo, that's how unhealthy I was," Mr. Gilbbs told his audience at Deltona Middle.
Two school changes in three years did not solve the problem. Wherever he went, there he was. There too were the bullies.
"Dude, I felt like such a loser and all the kids knew it," he said.
It wasn't his asthma or his weight that perpetuated their taunts and jeers.
It was his reaction.
"They loved to see me get upset," Mr. Gibbs said. "First rule: don't get upset!"
Once he was bullied by a tall pretty girl with long flowing hair and "crazy eyes." A teacher told him if he'd stop getting upset, the girl would stop having fun.
"That was the most genius advice I ever heard," Mr. Gibbs told his audience.
By this time, the sixth graders were hanging on his every word.
They may not have wanted their peers to see they needed his tools, but to anyone watching them it was clear. They identified with the funny man's serious experiences.
He explained "dominance theory" and "imbalance of power," noting bullying behavior includes name-calling, rumor spreading and making victims choose between friends.
"They try to make you feel like a loser and every time they hurt your feelings, they win, you lose," Mr. Gibbs said, adding, "What if ... you were resilient ... tough, strong?"
Resilience, he told them, is the most important social skill they will learn.
That is, not buying what a bully wants to sell. They, he explained, want to pawn off their own feelings of powerlessness and low self worth.
Illustrating with a video comprised of music and candid relevant statements from the popular band, One Direction, Mr. Gibbs said cyber haters even confront rock stars.
"I asked these guys (in the band), 'what do you do when you realize millions of people want you dead?'" Mr. Gibbs told the students.
The guys continue to love the fans and they don't drink the "hater-ade."
Bullying is a game with winners and losers.
The bully's objective is to make the victim "crazy angry" or to elicit tears. The victim's objective must be non-reactive, he schooled. No reaction, the bully loses.
"Their number one goal is to make you upset," he said. "If they lose enough times they will leave you alone."
By the time he was in eighth grade, Mr. Gibbs said, he was desperate. He candidly told the students he was cutting and burning himself, abusing substances and viewed life as a problem to be eliminated.
"I used drugs and alcohol to mask emotional pain," he said. "I was so wounded emotionally I wanted to die."
His father was an alcoholic running from his own demons.
A visit from Mr. Gibbs' grandmother created the corner he desperately needed to turn.
The old adage, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" may sound trite on the surface, but his grandmother broke it down. Aside from emphasizing the irrelevance of mere words and her grandson's inalienable ability to choose his own response to them, her personal demonstration of self-control spoke volumes -- "You could never upset Grandma," he said.
What Grandma imparted to him, Mr. Gibbs passed on to the young adolescents seated in front of him:
"I am the boss of my feelings."
Mr. Gibbs gave a short history lesson regarding the origin of the singsong self-help statement about sticks and stones, educating a few adults in the gymnasium as well.
During the slavery era, around 1867, he said, the words were published in a pamphlet of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
"(Slaves) wanted to empower each other to not let a hateful, spiteful owner wound them emotionally," he explained.
Citing above average and enduring examples of grace in the face of cruelty, Mr. Gibbs noted the words and philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi.
"You're always gonna encounter difficult people," he said. "You have to be the change you want to see in your enemy. A soft kind response will turn away their anger."
Through video game references, music and pop culture, Batman imitations, healthy self-deprecation and insult initiated screaming/shoving matches with sixth-grade volunteers -- followed by solution-oriented defusing tactics to replace the scream/shove variety -- Mr. Brooks offered the gift of a lifetime.
Ultimately, the message was this:
Start with resilience to verbal attacks. Don't react, except with calmness and kindness. Treat others -- even bullies -- as you want to be treated. Learn what causes bullying behavior in order to understand bullies are the last people qualified to deliver character assessments. Quietly and personally reject the words that really project how bullies feel about themselves.
Then he sang a few bars of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." He has a very good voice. Thankfully, for himself and future generations, he found it.