Names Day at GHS is an institution, but 12 years ago, the anti-bullying program was a tough sell. “The first year was challenging. Getting 30 teachers to volunteer for it was hard,” said Carol Sutton, who coordinates the annual program with a team from the Anti-Defamation League. “That first year, I made my poor father be a facilitator. He was a retired teacher and I made him come in and do it. And it was hard to get the students to participate.”
These days “Names Day” is a rite of passage for freshmen, who comprise the audience for a day best characterized as cathartic, but could also be described as a tribute to The Power of One. In fact, there is something of a wait list both for teachers and student volunteers who lead the event, which is attended by the entire freshman class. This year, according to Sutton, just 40 students were selected out of 120 applicants. “And, some of the teachers who had been on board for several years have been asked to step aside to let some of the newer teachers have a turn,” added Sutton.
The themes of Names Day are bullying and empathy, but the framework for discussion is broken down into “targets, allies, bystanders and perpetrators.”
The morning session is led by upperclassmen who relay their personal stories to an auditorium brimming with curious, but sometimes-suspicious freshmen. In fact, a handful of freshmen opt out because it is not unreasonable to anticipate that no one would brave the open microphones. Yet, “after the first three, a line forms,” said junior Henry Snyder.
According to junior Kate Webster, “The first few people were slow to come up to the microphone. After that, there were so many in line, there wasn’t time for everyone to speak.”
Some of those moved to speak share the pain of having been bullied (targets). Others apologize publicly for having been bullies (perpetrators). By the end of the session, some of the perpetrators confess to having been bullied themselves. Others share their epiphany after realizing that playing the role of bystander can have as dangerous a consequence as being a perpetrator.
“When someone got up and talked about an insecurity of what they’re being made fun of, people shouted out from the audience, “You’re beautiful!’” reported junior Annie Riley.
“Afterward,” said sophomore Alleyha Dannett, “There were so many hugs and tears.”
“Yes,” said junior Angelica Simionatto. “Afterward one girl hugged me so tight and she had tears in her eyes and said, ‘Now I’m not going to stand around when I see someone alone.’”
Snyder nodded knowingly. “At lunch today, you walked around seeing people you’d never expect to be friends sitting together. People were pushing tables together so that no one had to sit alone. It made me feel really good because it means we succeeded.”
After the morning of speeches and the open microphones, students and staff broke into discussion groups. Marji Lipshez-Shapiro, who founded the Names Day program many years ago, reflected on the morning with Bill Foster and Sandra Vonniessen-Applebee, also from the Anti Defamation League (ADL) and a group of students upstairs in the GHS media center.
“When I first had the idea for the program, I was a dean of a college and was aware of difficulties experienced by people who were gay and issues of anorexia … I wanted to bring it to high schoolers," said Lipshez-Shapir. Ever modest, Lipshez-Shapiro takes no credit for the success of the program, insisting that it works because “the students own it.”
Despite the humble nature of the ADL team, none of the success is accidental. “Part of the training we do is to please be cautious of what you share. Even in this protective environment, we want you to be safe,” said ADL team member, Foster. “It wouldn’t work if it was just us coming in to lead a program. One of the most important elements is when you students put your hands in the stew and the flavor changes.”
“You are the catalyst, so if you’re gutsy enough to get up there, it will work,” agreed Lipshez-Shapiro, who confessed to the group of upperclassmen in her de-brief group that at their age she didn’t recognize her own leadership potential. “You should be so proud. You are amazing. This is just the beginning for you,” she said. “Even if you don’t see yourselves as leaders, you are leaders. Take any opportunity you can find to further it.”
Foster reflected on the success of the open mic format. “We usually tell the students to turn of their phones. It’s confidential and we don’t want to have texting or students taking photographs, but we forgot today. And yet, not one phone was on. The confidentiality was just understood.”
“And,” continued Foster, “I watched the body language of the audience. It was interesting to watch students … you could seen them figuring out ‘Should I take the risk?’ and they did."
In the afternoon, all the freshmen returned to the auditorium for some more sharing from upperclassmen, which included a poem about Rosa Parks and the power of her one word, “No,” in bringing about desegregation, an interactive video presentation where the audience made decisions for the actors who portrayed allies, perpetrators, targets and bystanders, and, lastly, three MTV music videos on the theme of the The Power of One.
Lipshez-Shapiro explained that her team conducts 20 high school programs in a typical year, adding that she would like to see more visits to more schools. “But, each school requires five full days of visits from the team: Three days of training, the program event, and a day of follow-up. That’s 100 days right there,” she said. “In Connecticut alone, over 100,000 students have participated in Names Day programs since 1995.”
While some high schools host the program as a one-time event and others host it once every ten years, GHS students are fortunate to have the program annually. Now that’s something Greenwich High School can be very proud of.