Trigger warning: ableism, bigotry, bullying, callous disregard for others, dehumanization, forced isolation
Sorry to dredge up something from last year, but dissecting this cadaver in the name of science will do much to advance our understanding of mental illness and how it relates to autism. The Today Show ran a segment of Everyone Has a Story describing how a popular high school star athlete (Zach) befriended an Aspie freshman kid (Graham) sitting at an otherwise empty table in a crowded school cafeteria. Eventually Graham’s mom told Zach’s mom that the friendship was a life-changing event for Graham. Zach’s mom wrote this story up and submitted it to the Today Show as a candidate for Everyone Has a Story. Thanks to Landon at ThAutcast whose post was my first exposure to this debacle.
I have a particular take on this that I haven’t seen in any of the other commentary but I need to frame it with the relevant points from the segment first. The problems start with the entry submitted by Zach’s mom Nancy and go downhill from there. In her words, “It took time and patience, as well as a genuine concern for someone else for Zach to approach Graham that day in the cafeteria.” I’ll acknowledge genuine concern, but time and patience? She’s making it sound like this was a hardship for Zach, as though “poor Graham” is some kind of charity project.
Even Graham’s mom Melissa got caught up in the cult-of-celebrity narrative. When asked how the friendship had affected her son, she told the story of their first meeting.
“Graham came home that day and said ‘guess who I had lunch with today’ and I said ‘Who?’ He said ‘Zach Hirsch’ and I’m like, REALLY?”
Off camera comments at this point were “Big sports star!” and “Big man on campus!” to which Melissa replies, “Exactly! I was very surprised,” and then goes on to describe the life-changing effect the friendship has had on Graham.
I can certainly understand Melissa’s surprise to learn that a school celebrity had spent some time with Graham other than to bully him, and I suspect she does not believe that Zach’s status is the aspect of the friendship that affected Graham. However, the message that came across was that it was the celebrity itself that made the difference. Any ordinary kid talking to Graham would not have elicited exclamations of “Big sports star!” and “Big man on campus!” as though these somehow gave the situation more intrinsic meaning.
The only person among them who seemed to have a clue was Zach. When asked about his motivations, he said that “I just felt that no-one needs to be sitting at lunch alone, especially when it’s tough for him to make friends, being a freshman and everything.” Note that Zach attributes Graham’s difficulties to his situation – being new in school – rather than an innate quality of Graham’s, such as Asperger’s. Later, Zach was asked whether he got any flak from his friends for his actions. Once again, Zach turned a negative into a positive. He said his friends had also befriended Graham, but then deflected the praise to Graham by saying “that’s just a testament to him.”
Unfortunately, neither Graham nor Zach got much airtime and the worst was yet to come. Part of the Everyone Has a Story “prize” package is that a song is composed for the winner and performed during the segment. Here, the segment turned downright creepy. Everyone involved is more or less obliged to react happily about all this, or to be very moved with emotion. So when Zach and Graham both teared up, the camera zoomed in lingered so we could get a good look. Everyone in the studio, with the exception of Graham and Zach, appeared to believe these were tears of joy. Both Graham and Zach appeared to be more distressed than happy.
The song, delivered by Kate Baldwin from an elaborate set filled with flowers, trees, and accompanied by a pianist at a grand piano and a keyboard player, was called “All Alone.” Here are the lyrics:
We see them every day,
but too often look away
from the ones who are sitting alone.
We seldom hear their voice
because we make the choice
to leave them right there all alone
We see them everywhere,
but too often we don’t care.
We’re lost in a world of our own.
We rarely realize,
they’re angels in disguise,
so we leave them right there all alone.
Can you imagine if hello was a word you’d never heard?
Can you imagine if you’ve never had a friend?
Can you imagine if loneliness was all you’d ever known?
It’s more than we could ever comprehend.
A world, a silent world, without a friend.
But miracles can happen,
sometimes they really do.
And sometimes, the miracle
turns out to be you.
When you embrace a stranger
and show love you’ve never shown,
you will make the greatest friend
that you have ever known.
Someone who used to be,
someone who used to be,
but now will never be
After this stunning display of narcissism in which Graham was painted as a pathetic loser doomed to a tragic life of solitude and depression and Zach his savior, they cut to commercial. I don’t know how long that took since the commercials were edited out of the clip I saw, but if it’s a standard break about 2 to 3 minutes passed. I was embarrassed for the kids and hoped they’d recovered their composure during the break. On return, Graham doesn’t quite look recovered and Zach looks as bad as he did before the break. Kathy Lee says “I looked over and there was… you had tears in your eyes, buddy. Did you like your song?”
“Nah, it was a little too sad,” Graham demurs.
At which point, the room bursts out in laughter, then Kathy Lee starts singing “All alone! All alone!” while swinging her arms and snapping her fingers in an up tempo beat. “We’ll jazz it up next time,” she jokes. The camera cuts to Graham and he looks like he’s trying hard to hold back tears. The room continues to laugh.
This is so bad on so many levels that it predictably resulted in a tremendous amount of commentary on the net. I wouldn’t bother to write more, except that I haven’t seen anyone with my take on it and I think it’s important. To set up the discussion, let’s do a little thought experiment.
Imagine two parallel universes. In the first universe, kids in school have adopted a cultural bias toward respect for diversity, compassion and dignity. In this world, Graham would not have been an outcast in the first place, and the thought of a popular kid spontaneously befriending a kid new to school who hadn’t made any friends would be the norm rather than the exception. This is the universe we like to think we live in but obviously do not.
In the other universe the social structure is stratified by any convenient criteria, such as weight, skin color, disability, speech or behavior. The cool kids occupy the highest layers and the kids at the bottom are pariahs. The degree of respect shown toward a given individual is determined by their position on that hierarchy. There is some variation in compassion according to the hierarchy but for the most part it is absent because those at the top don’t need it and those at the bottom don’t deserve it. This is the universe we deny that we live in, but I assure you such denials come only from those at the top strata. Everyone from about the middle on down will tell you, “yup, that sounds exactly like my school.”
My objection, a position I have yet to see in any of the other commentary, is simply this:
THERE IS NO POSSIBLE WAY TO SPIN THIS AS A POSITIVE STORY.
IT SHOULD NEVER HAVE AIRED IN ANY FORM.
THERE WAS NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO CELEBRATE HERE.
The story that was told started in the second universe and ended there. Not only did we not move toward the compassionate universe, but the existing one turns out to be orders of magnitude worse than we thought. How bad? It isn’t merely an anomaly that a cool kid showed basic human decency, it’s nothing less than a miracle. This is not worth celebrating. In fact, just the opposite. It should be profoundly sad and highly distressing to anyone with compassion, and I’ll give you several reasons why.
Underlying premise that there’s something wrong with Graham.
The description of Graham sitting at an empty table while the rest of the cafeteria is busy and crowded makes it sound like he’s radioactive and there’s a buffer zone around him. More importantly, Graham is supposedly so broken that this is portrayed as the normal and expected state of affairs. Zach doesn’t know why Graham is alone, by the end of the story, Graham now hangs out with the cool kids thanks to Zach’s intervention. The picture painted is of a kid who cannot function socially who finally overcomes his challenges, thanks to Zach. The real story was that Graham had been excluded socially and deprived of friendship and human contact. It’s easy to tell a story where Graham is broken and Zach fixes him. But if they had told the story that Graham’s development had been delayed due to social ostracism, there would be nothing to celebrate.
Underlying premise that Graham is worthless.
Everyone is surprised that after getting to know Graham, Zach discovers there’s an interesting human being in there. What assumptions must one start with to be surprised at this result? Why are these the default? If we start with the assumption Graham is a worthwhile and interesting human being, there would be nothing to celebrate. The only universe in which the discovery that Graham is a pretty cool kid in his own right is surprising is the second one, in which he is assumed to be worthless. The fact that people were taken by surprise confirms that’s the universe we live in and that fact is nothing to celebrate.
The transformation described is of bringing Graham into Zach’s world.
A two-worlds story is presented in the segment. Graham lives all alone in a depressing world of isolation and Zach lives in a wonderful world where he has friends, excels at sports and is popular. What a happy ending now that Graham can experience life in Zach’s world.
Problem is, Zach’s world is still the second of the two universes from my thought experiment. Admittedly, Graham’s life is much better, but they aren’t saying he is now one of the cool kids. (Which may be the case and I hope it is, but if it is, shame on them fornot mentioning it.) What they do tell us is that Graham now has immunity from bullying and is allowed to hang with the cool kids. The root cause remains and surely some other kid now occupies the social slot once held by Graham.
If this were worth celebrating, it would be told as a two-worlds story in which Zach rejects the culture of bullying in his world and says “enough is enough.” In my version, Zach would have befriended Graham not out of curiosity or compassion, but out of outrage and refusal to participate in a social system that pegs human worth to someone’s position in the social strata and in which it is acceptable for any kid to be cast out of the group. But the story as the Today Show framed it was that all of the personal growth occured on Graham’s side and that Zach was just being himself. The real story here was that Zach stepped out of his world to took a moral stand, and it improved his life as well as Graham’s. But you can’t tell that story without acknowledging the culture of bullying, in which case there would be nothing to celebrate.
Perpetuation and endorsement of the social structure.
The entire basis of the song is the us/them distinction. “We see them every day,” “we see them everywhere,” we rarely realize, they’re angels in disguise…” Who is “we” and who is “they”? Clearly, Kathy Lee includes herself, the audience, Zach, the guests, the families, pretty much everyone but Graham, in the “we” group. Graham is in the “them” group, and apparently has a lot of company because “we” see his kind loitering about alone everywhere and every day.
To what does Kathy Lee attribute this situation? What conditions result in a kid sitting alone at a table for ten in an otherwise crowded lunchroom? Does malice play any part in this? Not at all. “We” are simply misguided. As Kathy Lee put it, “We see them everywhere, but too often we don’t care. We’re lost in a world of our own.” If it were a matter of being lost, some of “us” would have randomly crossed paths with Graham, not formed a 10-foot contact buffer around him that was consistently honored by pretty much the entire student population.
Not only is there no outrage over the social structure that could result in the large population of outcast, invisible, and worthless people described in the song, but Kathy Lee frames it as an opportunity for those at the top to do something charitable. “When you embrace a stranger and show love you’ve never shown, you will make the greatest friend that you have ever known. Someone who used to be, someone who used to be, but now will never be all alone.” There’s an implicit endorsement here of the social structure which resulted in this situation and an expectation that it will continue to provide charitable opportunities to condescend to the untouchable kids by letting them taste the good life. Had the Today Show highlighted the school culture that allows, indeed depends on, bullying there would have been nothing here to celebrate.
The degree to which the social structure is broken.
According to the narrative spun on the segment, Zach was a popular athlete living the good life while Graham was shell of a human with no friends and no prospects. But Zach risked his popularity and invested his valuable time to turn this fixer-upper of a kid into one of the cool kids. So unusual is this event that Kathy Lee pens the words “But miracles can happen, sometimes they really do. And sometimes, the miracle turns out to be you.”
Did Zach kiss a frog that turned into Graham and I missed that part of the story? Because that would merit this kind of media attention. That would actually be a miracle. But frogs turning into princes only happens in fairy tales. In the real world, Zach is a cool kid, Graham is untouchable and the two coming together are like mixing matter and antimatter. It should have caused the fabric of space-time to unravel but it resulted in a stable bond of friendship. It’s a miracle.
Zach’s actions reflected nothing more than or less than the basic human dignity that should be routine in any civilized society. Zach said “hi” to the nerdy kid and got to know him as a person. That’s all that happened. The only universe in which this should be celebrated as a miracle is one that is many orders of magnitude worse than the second universe from my thought experiment. Whether the culture of bullying is extremely worse than we thought or merely as bad as we thought doesn’t matter if the question is “should we celebrate this story?” Unless some action was taken to move the culture, not Graham and Zach individually but the culture itself, closer to the compassionate universe, there’s nothing here to celebrate.
Celebration of late intervention.
The only way the level of isolation described occurs is to develop over time, and when it occurs it is a deliberate exile imposed on an unpopular kid. It isn’t mere coincidence that Graham sits alone at a table designed for 10 day after day. It is indicative of a culture of bullying that exists at the school. What’s more, Graham is a freshman and this didn’t happen overnight. It sounds like the social ostracism is long-standing and followed him from middle school. If so, then intervention years ago would likely have had a similar effect on Graham. What they are saying amounts to “Wow, this one made it through 10 years of a 13 year school career without friends and actively shunned by his classmates until someone finally intervened.”
They seem to think the duration and depth of Graham’s suffering makes this a better story. Kathy emphasizes this in the song: “Can you imagine if hello was a word you’d never heard? Can you imagine if you’ve never had a friend? Can you imagine if loneliness was all you’d ever known?” It’s like the old game where one kid pushes another off the curb just to catch him and proclaim “saved your life!” Except in this case it’s more like pushing the kid off a cliff, letting him free-fall through 10 years of school then catching him and proclaiming “saved your life … SPECTACULARLY!” That’s not a successful intervention, it’s a tragedy. That aspect is never acknowledged because if it was there would be nothing to celebrate.
If you keep someone in isolation and starved for human contact for a very long time, then show them “one single act of kindness” as Kathy Lee says, their outlook is transformed. Yes, yes, we know this. If you do it to adults, it is called “extraordinary rendition.” If you do it to kids it’s called “school.” The question is, why is anyone surprised? All other factors being equal, kids wither under mistreatment and thrive when treated with kindness. This is intuitive to me and I had always assumed it was for everyone else as well. The only conditions I can imagine in which a person could possibly be surprised by this is if they had never shown kindness to someone consistently over a duration sufficient to produce an observable result. There’s a story to be told here that at least some of the people involved were so totally unfamiliar with simple human decency that they were surprised at the positive effects of kindness. Of course, if they told that story, there would be nothing to celebrate.
Other commentary has focused on various aspects of the segment, and in particular how completely oblivious the hosts were to how this all affected Graham. I certainly agree there. Those two could not be more self-absorbed if they were Sponge Bob. However, all the other comments I’ve read either condemned the Today Show and were neutral on the story, or condemned the Today Show and found parts of the story heartwarming.
I propose that it never should have been considered in the first place. If there was any story there at all, it was an investigative journalism piece looking into Graham’s school history, the culture of bullying and some proposals or attempts to change that culture. The existence of the story that aired requires the school system to have failed, the school social structure to be broken, that everyone assumes Graham is himself broken, that the social structure has correctly awarded little intrinsic worth to Graham and considerable intrinsic worth to Zach owing to his popularity and athletic prowess, that nobody involved appreciates the soul nourishing effects of basic human decency, and that there’s nothing wrong with any of this that cannot be fixed by changing Graham. Furthermore, the producers, directors and hosts, whose success is measured in ratings, must have believed that their audience would receive this story with much enthusiasm. I object to any one of those premises, and am horrified by the abomination represented by the totality of them.
I’m not denying that the transformation in Graham’s life was a victory. But the tragedy of all the ways in which our world is broken and the damage that inflicts on feeling, caring human beings so completely eclipses the good parts of the story that it is cruel and reprehensible to omit the bad parts in order to spin it as a positive story.
Going back to my thought experiment, I don’t expect to see that first universe in my lifetime. But I do expect that we could get part way there if we tried and I believe it is our moral obligation to try. I realize that we have lots of anti-bullying programs, special education and other interventions. But what I have not seen is any acknowledgement that the social structure in the schools is broken. The interventions proposed by many anti-bullying programs either assume the bullying will always occur (“What to do if you are bullied”), or they impose order from the top down by making school administrators responsible for policing student behavior. The first of these is fatalistic and the second works only at school, if it works at all. Neither addresses the root cause.
One program that I believe may have the right approach is Not In Our Schools. This is part of the Not In Our Town organization which was started after an entire town decided that hate crimes being perpetrated on their neighbors were not acceptable, banded together, and stood up to the perpetrators. They took the same approach and applied it to schools. The idea is to change the culture of the school to one based on compassion, respect, dignity and community rather than one based on power, control, exclusion and dehumanization. This, I believe, attacks the problem at the root cause and I would encourage anyone reading this to check it out. I would welcome any feedback from anybody who has worked with NIOS in the past as a student or administrator.