Kids sit at a midtown bar in the middle of the day – a school day – speaking their minds, speaking out of turn, pushing buttons. Adults look on from the back of the room, nodding their head, giving their full-fledged consent.
It’s not something you see every day. But if the folks at the New York Museum of Tolerance had their way, it’s something you’d see more often.
A group of 16 students from Columbia Secondary School in Morningside Heights swapped their run-of-the-mill classroom desks for new-wave barstools at the museum’s Point of View Diner, an interactive exhibit covering sensitive issues, Thursday afternoon for a lesson on the dangers of bullying. A lesson that couldn’t come at a better time for these kids. A lesson best taught outside of the classroom.
“It’s a place where people let their defenses down and talk about issues they don’t normally talk about,” says Mark Weitzman, the museum’s director of government affairs, describing the ambiance of the interactive diner bar as “disarming” and offering a “more honest perspective.”
In the faux diner, a discussion leader kicks things off with brief introduction of a hot-button topic, such as bullying. Next, visitors complete a short questionnaire about the topic by pressing buttons on their individual monitors before a brief film about the issue begins. When the film ends, visitors have two minutes for a one-on-one Q&A with the film’s characters. Using the same buttons as before, visitors select pre-prepared questions on their screens and listen to their responses with a wand-like earpiece. When the clock runs out, the discussion leader wraps things up, leading the crowd in a conversation about ways that they can handle themselves in sticky situations.
Since opening to the public last August, the museum says that hundreds of students, teachers and law enforcement personnel have sat in the same modern-looking seats as Thursday’s batch of seventh, eighth and ninth graders and participated in open-forum heart-to-hearts on sensitive topics, ranging from bullying to racism to terrorism.
“The connection is it all revolves around hate,” said Director of Operations and Community Affairs Michelle Hartman. During her two months working at the museum, Hartman says that she has been emotionally affected by the video and has seen viewers break down in tears during the 15-minute video presentation.
In the film, produced three years ago, “the new girl,” Brianna, a quiet kid student starting at a fictional high school, encounters real-life problems when a group of up-to-no-good teens come across her profile on a faux social networking site titled MyLife, and spread gay rumors. High school drama peaks when embarrassing photos of Brianna surface online, forcing her to transfer out of the school.
After the seemingly ripped-from-the-headlines plotline wraps, but before a staff-led discussion begins, the video directly references the suicide of Megan Meier, who at 14, made national headlines with her 2006 suicide after being cyber-bullied by the mother of a former-friend.
Despite several similarities, Thursday’s presentation made no mention of the recent suicide of 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge and to his death after footage showing the teen engaging in a sexual activity with another man surfaced online.
Social studies education student Joe Avvento, who just began working with Columbia Secondary students and served as a chaperone on the field trip, says he’s seen how intolerance toward alternative lifestyles like homosexuality can lead toward bullying among teens. During his time student teaching at Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, the 27-year old says he often hears students call their classmates anti-gay names and sees a great deal of bullying among the school’s population of at-risk, special-needs and low-income students.
“A lot of it comes from the home,” says Avvento. “If you’re never exposed to it, there’s a fear of the unknown.”
Only one student of the 16 students on this field admitted that he hadn’t seen much bullying around the halls of Columbia Secondary. In an interactive survey during the presentation, however, nearly three quarters of the group said they have been the victims of bullying; almost half said they saw it happen at least once a week.
Admission runs ten dollars per-person, but Hartman says the hands-on experience at the Museum of Tolerance is well worth the cash.
“Let’s face it, at any given point and time you can be the victim or you can be the bully,” says Hartman. “The most important thing is obviously that the students learn and know what’s going on and are educated.”