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'60s Icon Takes up Today's Challenge of Bullies

by Dave Zweifel

We've all read the stories about how pervasive bullying has become in too many of our schools and the need for all of us as a society to come to grips with it.

While some children have resorted to violence in retaliation, the great majority merely "take" it, and all too many become scarred for life.

Here in Madison, a pilot program to thwart bullying has been undertaken this year in our middle schools to determine what can be done about the problem of kids being cruel to kids.

But the last place I thought I'd hear about bullying was at last week's Wisconsin Newspaper Association convention. Executive Director Peter Fox arranged to have Peter Yarrow -- yes, the Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame -- to keynote the opening dinner. Yarrow wasn't there to sing, although he certainly did, but to spread the word about a program called Project Respect and, specifically, his "Don't Laugh at Me" initiative to get kids to learn that they really aren't that different from one another.

Yarrow, who has championed the causes of civil rights, gender equality, peace and disarmament throughout his career, took up the anti-bullying cause a few years back when he heard a young people's song at a folk festival with verses such as "I'm a little boy with glasses, the one they call a geek / A little girl who never smiles 'cause I've got braces on my teeth."

Peter, Paul and Mary included the song in their repertoire, and Yarrow personally met with teachers' groups to start building a curriculum that could teach mutual respect to kids. He is now asking newspapers, though their Newspaper in Education programs, to help get the program in schools across the land and overseas.

Last week he told the Wisconsin editors that each day 160,000 kids in our country are afraid to go to school. The bullies in our school hallways and on our playgrounds are setting the stage for bigger societal problems in the future.

"We have enough anger," Yarrow told us. "It starts with bullying and disrespect. It builds to hatred and racism, war and holocaust. Instead, we need to reach out and accept each other."

He used the occasion to blast television reality shows that see how far they can go to humiliate others.

"We have a culture of put-downs to make people feel bad about themselves," he said. "It's become an uninterrupted cycle of mean-spiritedness. If we can only get kids before they're taught to hate to value each other."

"Don't laugh at me / don't call me names / don't get your pleasure / from my pain / because in our hearts / we are the same," he sang.

And, oh yes, he made us all sing along to "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "I'm Gonna Let it Shine" and "Blowing in the Wind," songs us old-timers had memorized and could still recite word for word from our causes in the '60s.

It was good to learn that Peter, Paul and Mary are still trying to make things right.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.

© 2008 Capital Newspapers

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