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Audacious with Chion Wolf: Transcript for 'Confessions of reformed bullies'

Audacious with Chion Wolf
Back to episode >>

Chion Wolf  00:02

From Connecticut Public Radio in Hartford, this is Audacious, I'm Chion Wolf. If you've ever been bullied, you know how all-encompassing it can be. You might feel scared or helpless or confused or humiliated. Sometimes bullying happens at home. Often it happens in school or online. And to avoid the bully, you become hyper-vigilant, you may try to hide or do anything to make the bully like you. So they leave you alone. It's a physical, mental, and emotional balancing act that can leave you feeling exhausted, or worse. And the bully may seem like kind of a natural at it. Like they were destined to be a bully based on how they sound or look or dress. At the same time, they can be kind of parodies of themselves. You know, it's like you've seen one bully, you've seen them all, a person who's manipulative and scared and well, insecure.

Clip (montage of movie scenes from Stand By Me / Back To The Future / Christmas Story)  01:08

Hello, anybody? Oh, hi. Why? What are you looking at, butthead? Hey, girls, where are you going? Come on, man, my brother chained me back. But you've given it to me. What, are you gonna cry now? Come on, cry, baby cry, come on, cry.

Chion Wolf  01:30

But on the inside, the bully is likely doing their own internal acrobatics to justify their words and actions. Today, meet two people who in their youth threatened, manipulated, and harassed other people. Find out what they think drove that behavior, and how they discovered to use it for good. And just to note, parts of this show might not be appropriate for kids. Robbie Romu is a writer living in Vancouver. And he's given himself a lot to write about, including an essay in 2021 called, "I was a school bully. Here's why I terrorized my classmates". I asked him to trace it back to a single moment.

Robbie Romu  02:13

Yes. I don't know why I suddenly got nervous. I was wrestling just in the playground with a friend of mine. And he was, had me pinned to the ground, and we were laughing and carrying on and then all of a sudden, I got an erection. And my life changed in that moment, it was just this shocking revelation that I was gay. And I guess I knew what being gay was, sort of, but I didn't really know. And what I did know was that being gay was bad. And being gay was dangerous. And that wasn't going to be me. It couldn't be possible. So I just panicked in that moment, and managed to toss him off of me and make a break for it.

Chion Wolf  03:13

Did he notice the erection?

Robbie Romu  03:17

He noticed. Yeah, for sure. And I just had to get out of that situation. And then, I then had to get out of that life that was suddenly presented to me. Like it was not an option for me to be a gay 11-year-old where I grew up.

Chion Wolf  03:40

It was after that experience that everything practically overnight changed in your heart and soul and mind and everything. Talk to me about what that shift was.

Robbie Romu  03:50

It was a conscious decision. First of all, I decided that I had to become somebody else. And the way that I saw the way out of it was to become the aggressor. Because I lived in a place where the weak were preyed upon, you know, it was a kill or be killed world, really, the strong people survived. And I saw that, I knew that. And so I knew that that was successful. You know, I knew that that would be a successful strategy.

Chion Wolf  04:30

So what did you do?

Robbie Romu  04:34

I dumped all of my friends that I had and made new friends, stronger, more powerful friends. I was not a particularly big kid. I was quite average. And so I found stronger guys to, you know, take care of the, the pushing and the shoving and the hitting. And I just concentrated on what I was good at, which was, I say it's like I was a psychologic assassin. I don't say that proudly. But that's kind of what I've become. I had a knack for finding people's weaknesses and their things that they were insecure about. And I would just attack them on those. Because if I was attacking them, they weren't attacking me.

Chion Wolf  05:18

How did it feel when you would unleash this kind of thing on them? What did it feel like for you?

Robbie Romu  05:23

I didn't feel. My eighth-grade teacher once picked me up and tossed me against a wall because I was so, just belligerent. And it was definitely just a survival technique, for sure. And to be honest, it was quite easy. There were a lot of willing participants. Because everybody at that age has something to hide. Everybody's afraid of being the one that's picked on. So they will go along with, you know, as long as somebody else is the focus at that moment, and it's not them, they're going to join in. So it was quite easy. And there was a girl that had a birthmark on the side of her face. And, boy, we didn't let her live that down. There was, like, some kids that were, I don't know, this is making me quite emotional today. There were some kids that were maybe less emotionally developed. So they were easy targets. Yeah.

Chion Wolf  06:27

So eventually, it did come out to yourself and to the world. And then, two years ago, you published this essay in HuffPost, which is how we found you talking about what you've done. And what, what it's been like and why you did it. Why did you feel like you wanted to come out with this, literally and figuratively?

Robbie Romu  06:48

We don't talk about it, especially men don't talk about it. And we're taught not to talk about it. But someone has to talk. So it has to start. So I feel like, you know, if I can throw my crap against the wall, and people can read it and feel less alone, that's where I find I can find some forgiveness and compassion for myself. Because it's, it was a hard road to learn. And I'm still working on it. But learn to love that little guy who did those terrible things, and to forgive him for what he had done. I feel sad, I feel ashamed sometimes that I did those things. And I've had the opportunity to reach out and speak to two of the people that were part of my onslaught. And that process has been incredibly helpful.

Chion Wolf  07:51

You've mentioned shame. And it sounds like you're dealing with two aspects of shame, one because of your sexual orientation and the other because of how you'd hurt people. I'd like to hear more about your thoughts on shame.

Robbie Romu  08:08

I am not ashamed of him anymore. I'm not ashamed of him anymore. It took a long time to, and by him, I mean, the 11-year-old or the nine-year, you know, those that protect us when we're young. And from horrible things. And when I made that kind of jump from loathing that kid to loving that kid, it changed a lot for me in my life. And that's a hard process. It was a long time. It involves a lot of talking, it involves a lot of, I go on play dates, like

Chion Wolf  08:44

With him?

Robbie Romu  08:45

Yes! It's a, it's like a parenting thing I would imagine. I don't have any kids. But I imagine that's kind of what it's like. And I can even, I'm even at the point now where like, if I'm feeling a certain emotion one day or something is bubbling underneath, I will go, 'Okay, you need some attention. You're okay, you're safe. You don't have to protect me anymore. I'm an adult. Now. I've got you, go back to bed.' All I ever wanted to do was like, grab him and hold him and put him to bed. You know, like, you don't have to protect me anymore. So I'm not ashamed of him anymore. I am ashamed of my actions. I wish I had had the capacity to make different choices at that time. I didn't. And I hope that we can teach kids now. You know, I really hope we can teach kids now that to express these emotions and to talk and sometimes our school system is just, you know, the things that we're learning and the things especially when I was in school, let's say I didn't learn the fundamentals of life. And those are things that we need to learn. These are things we need to be teaching kids. We don't need to be taking counselors out of schools, you know, we need to be putting counselors into schools, we need to be, I don't know. It's just, yeah, it seems our priorities in those regards are a little messed up.

Chion Wolf  10:08

If and when you ever had the opportunity to be in the vicinity of someone who's showing bullying behavior, what do you do? If anything?

Robbie Romu  10:21

I think that it's something that needs to be addressed quickly and from a place of love and compassion. Because a bully is hurting. And what's better than love and compassion?

Chion Wolf  10:37

I have a spiritual teacher named Matthew who reminds me on a regular about the idea of approaching difficulty, by increasing the flow of care, which is hard.

Robbie Romu  10:53

Chion, I, honestly, I approach every situation, and I do it consciously, I'm going in with compassion first. I'm going with love first. I'm going with understanding first. I'm going with listening, I'm going with hearing. Because it's instantly this diffusion of tension, it's instantly a non-confrontational situation.

Chion Wolf  11:20

This is saying that goes something like when difficult things happen, they are opportunities for you to show yourself you are who you say you are. And so that's something that you've clearly taken the initiative to sort through and to own. And we've all been hurt before. I hope the people who you hurt, also saw whatever opportunities were in there for them through that experience as well. And obviously, we don't really know. But I hope that for them.

Robbie Romu  11:55

One of the things that helps me and helped me with this process is the ability for me to forgive, to learn to forgive others for the things that were done to me or the experiences that I had, and to put myself in their shoes, and to walk for a minute in that space. And understand that, wow, it's complicated. It's really complicated. And maybe I can find some room to, you know, have some grace in this moment. And yeah, so I find that if I can learn to forgive, then maybe others can learn to forgive me, and I can learn to forgive myself, ultimately, right?

Chion Wolf  12:39

That was Robbie Romu. He's a writer living in Vancouver, Canada. When we get back.

Robbie Romu  12:45

I'm an emotional guy. So I wish more people shared and admitted that they're not perfect. And then we all feel less alone, and maybe we can all help each other.

Chion Wolf  12:57

Then, a bully turns into a bridge builder, but only after she gets expelled and faces her mother.

Kristen Geez  13:05

Of all of the whoopings or trouble that I've ever gotten in that silence was more deafening to me than anything she could have said.

Chion Wolf  13:15

I'm Chion Wolf, this is Audacious. Stay with me. This is Audacious. I'm Chion Wolf. Today we're meeting two people who used to be bullies. And now they've turned their pain, the kind they caused and the kind they felt, into something useful. In a little bit, you'll meet a woman who found a lifelong passion for guiding young people after one fateful school expulsion. Now, she teaches the next generation how to tap into empathy. When we left off with Robbie Romu, he was sharing the changes he's experienced since being that little kid who lashed out. Knowing all he knows now, what does he wish he could say to that kid?

Robbie Romu  14:08

I love you. It wasn't something that he heard, wasn't something that he felt, and was something that he really needed. I mean, a child doesn't need to be an adult. So I would say 'I love you.'

Chion Wolf  14:38

There have been a few times in our conversation. You've gotten really emotional. It's been a couple years you've been talking about this. What is this like for you to talk about? Is it helpful?

Robbie Romu  14:48

Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. It's helpful. This was the hardest thing, the hardest essay I ever wrote. It took me forever, because it was the thing that I was most ashamed of, but putting it out there and the responses that I've got back, the hundreds and hundreds of people that just pour open their heart to me and told me their stories. When I'm reading that, and someone says ,'Thank you for this, it helped me,' then I know that that's my purpose. That's why. That's probably why all of this happened to be honest. In the cosmic sense, i's probably why it happened because that makes me feel like it was a valuable experience. But talking about it, making me emotional, yeah, it's okay. It's okay. I'm an emotional guy. So I'm not afraid of that. I kind of embrace it. And I wish more people were emotional and more people talked and shared and admitted that they're not perfect. And then we all feel less alone. And maybe we can all help each other. You know.

Chion Wolf  16:04

I remember being called sensitive when I was a kid. And I thought that was a shameful thing. And now I realize being sensitive is a superpower.

Robbie Romu  16:11

It is absolutely!

Chion Wolf  16:14

May there be more sensitive people in the world, please?

Robbie Romu  16:17

Yes, more sensitive people that lead with compassion, boom, boom!

Chion Wolf  16:22

Pow. I mean, not pow. A loving pow.

Robbie Romu  16:25

Yes, a loving tap.

Chion Wolf  16:28

It just occurred to me: So you're a gay kid, who didn't want anyone to know he was gay. And so you were totally anti-gay and mean, accusing other people of being gay, too. When you hear politicians, you're in Canada, but when you hear anyone, especially politicians, railing against gay people, and and then inevitably, they are caught in a compromising position with someone of the same gender. I mean, does that make perfect sense to you now? Do you feel like you understand them?

Robbie Romu  17:08

Yeah, I understand that need to hide. Often when I've told this story, people are like, if he's a bully, he's probably gay. And I don't want that to be the narrative because you don't know anybody. Right? And ultimately, who cares? Let's find out what's going on. Let's find out why. Because bullies aren't bullies for no reason. There's something happening in their life, that's making them act this way. And we need to talk. And we need to express compassion and say, 'Maybe you're not ready to talk to me about this right now. And that's okay. I'm here to listen when you want to.' And even that is enough. I wonder if someone had talked to me, if a parent or a counselor or a teacher had taken me aside and said, 'Hey, what's going on with you, because you're like a completely different person, all of a sudden?' It would have sparked something, it would have shown me something that I could have latched on to in dark times, maybe, or it would have maybe made the seed grow faster, I'm not sure. But it definitely would have helped.

Chion Wolf  18:18

When you say that you would tell yourself, if you could say anything, 'I love you', it reminds me of this, this great demonstration. So imagine you've got a glass of water in front of you, and you dump a handful of soil in it. And the soil is like all the shame and all the bad stuff and things you don't like about yourself, and you take some, you take a spoon and you try to spoon out the soil, but it's all in the water, and it's all mixed up. And just but if you take a giant jug of water, and pour it into that cup of soil water, just inundate it with water, it will clear out the soil and it'll be just a clear glass of water. And that, that jug of water is love. And so, it's not about picking out the bits of yourself - you can't, it won't work. It's tedious, and it's ineffective. But when you douse that pain with love, that's what clears the water out. That's what clears the pain out.

Robbie Romu  19:10

I could not have said it better myself. I want, I hope that we are teaching this at younger ages so that kids are learning this early, early, early because it will make a huge difference in their life and will make a huge difference to our planet. Love for our planet even, you know, like it would just make this big, big difference. And this adage that being sensitive or soft or crying and all this stuff is not manly, and, you know, all that stuff, we just need to throw it in the garbage as quickly as we can and just say, yeah, love, compassion.

Chion Wolf  19:49

That's funny because I also imagine somebody who's being bullied and they hear, you know what, bullies need love. I can imagine a sort of contracting in that person like, 'I need love in the form of his bully leaving me alone.' Like that's a hard, in a way, that's a hard sell to have compassion and love for a bully.

Robbie Romu  20:08

Well, I will pose this to you then. What's the answer?

Chion Wolf  20:13

What's the better answer, you mean?

Robbie Romu  20:15

Yeah, what's, what's a better answer?

Chion Wolf  20:17

Not punishment, not exile, not...

Robbie Romu  20:19

They tried. I was punished, I was grounded, I was suspended, I was all of those things. It didn't matter. I was getting the result I wanted, I was getting the only result that I thought I could get. There was no option. I was, my life was completely governed by fear, 100% of it was fear-based. And that carried into my adult life, until you start to recognize patterns and go, 'I need to get into therapy, and start working through kind of that stuff, right?' But, you know, if we're, if we're teaching the wrong things at a young age, eventually we're gonna have to figure it out. So why not? Let's start figuring it out a lot earlier. But that thing, the point you just made about telling the child that's being bullied that all the bully needs is love and compassionate? Oh, that just struck me. Because in no way do I want to at all condone bullying, of course, like it's not the answer. And yes, we need to make sure that the children being bullied are, or the adults being bullied, are looked after, and protected as well. But it's a two-prong thing. You also must look after the bully or find out what's going on, and try to help them. We just have to.

Chion Wolf  21:46

I've asked everything I planned on, and we could also talk for another eight hours. Did I miss anything? Is there anything that we left off the table, any message you want to make sure people, I mean, you've given us a lot to chew on, and it's beautiful. But is there anything else that you want to make sure our listeners hold in their heads and their hearts?

Robbie Romu  22:04

I just want people to take the time to get to know themselves. Take the time to love yourself. Take the time to find out like who you are and what makes your soul sing and do that. And approach every situation you can with kindness and compassion and love, and the world will be a better place, and your life will definitely be better.

Chion Wolf  22:35

Robbie Romu, thank you so much for talking with me.

Robbie Romu  22:39

Thank you so much for having me. Honestly, it's lovely. We need more people who want to heal the world. That's what you do. And that's amazing. And I'm honored to be a part of it, thank you.

Chion Wolf  23:00

When Kristen Geez was a child, her home life was extremely difficult, unpredictable, painful. Her two step-brothers were regularly sexually assaulting her, a fact that she kept from her mother. The chaos and powerlessness she experienced at home made her feel small, scared, and voiceless. But at school,

Kristen Geez  23:25

I became a totally different person. So much so that if I saw someone that looked like they were having too much joy, or if I saw a teacher that looked like they had too much authority, I always took it upon myself to say, 'No, we're not doing that,' or, 'Hey, I'm gonna get in a fight today', or 'You look like you're having too much fun, and I need to kill your joy because you don't know what I just dealt with last night.' And so I think for me, the bullying really stemmed from me being so angry, and having all of that aggression that was going on at home that I was never given an outlet to talk about. And so when I got to school, that was my outlet. And unfortunately, that outlet was hurting people. And the saying hasn't changed, you know, 'Hurt people hurt people,' which is exactly what I was doing.

Chion Wolf  24:10

What kind of things would you do? Can you give me some examples?

Kristen Geez  24:14

One quality that I have always had, and I think that some leaders have, and if you're not put in the right space, you won't know how to use it correctly. But I've always been able to get people to follow me to do something. And so I could wake up that day, have a horrible morning at home with my step-brothers or an encounter with my brothers and get to school and say, 'Today's the day that we're going to take everybody's cell phone out of their locker!' or 'Today's the day that we're going to take somebody's lunch money!' or 'Today's the day we're going to go shoplift at the at the local store on the way to school, right?' I always had an entourage of people that would be willing to do these things with me. No one even actually questioned me to say 'Kristen, we shouldn't do XYZ today.' It was just like, 'Oh yeah, that's fun!' And then we did it. And did I ever feel a sense of joy after we got done beating someone up or stealing something or, you know, going against authority figures? I never did. And I also never got spoken to, or the help that I needed to even be able to see. I never had that experience in middle school.

Chion Wolf  25:12

So it sounds like you had a tremendous amount of fear and an utter sense of powerlessness, so much so that you could answer it by being powerful in this arena of school.

Kristen Geez  25:28

Correct. And because I moved every year, I always went back and forth to different schools. So a new identity, right, even though my transcript traveled with me, so every time I was sent to an office, a new school would know that I was a problem child. So I never got met with, until I got to high school, I never got met with a new leaf, right? So we're talking about from kindergarten up until my ninth-grade year, just realizing that in that space of learning my power, right, because they say when you're younger you, the gifts that you have, or your skill sets, they're already being developed. So I was already going to be a leader. But if there was not a program specifically for that, right, just in-school suspension, or suspended or detention, right, or sit in a corner and be quiet, all that did was give me time to think about what I was going to do next, right, that never...

Chion Wolf  26:17

Plot!

Kristen Geez  26:18

Yeah, that's what they, that was one of their keywords, they used to call me a plotter. But I'm like you're sitting in a room to be quiet. Next time, now I'm thinking, 'How could I have done that exact same thing and not got caught?' Right? Never once did it say, 'Hey, if you're able to arrange people together, let's get you involved in Student Council, let's get you involved in something that allows you to kind of execute these negative traits that we're seeing,' not until I got to high school.

Chion Wolf  26:41

So there was a canon event in your life when you got expelled from your school, which you thought was maybe like the worst thing ever, but turns out it wasn't. Will you tell that story?

Kristen Geez  26:55

Yeah, I remember being in cheerleading. My mom's solution to my bad behavior was to make me do a whole bunch of activities, right? And I also used to have to write the dictionary. Whooping me got old, and so that was one of the things. But I just remember, I was in eighth grade. And I just remember one of my cheermates, not even a close friend of mine, came to practice and said her boyfriend was dating a girl from another school, she just found out and she got her phone number. And I just remember getting on the phone, using the school phone. Because this is at the time when, you know cell phones worked after seven or after nine, you had your...

Chion Wolf  27:33

Like free nights and weekends?

Kristen Geez  27:34

Exactly. Yeah. I know, simpler times. And so I didn't want to use my cell phone. So I use the school phone, not ever thinking that they could track it back. And also not realizing that over the weekend, my cheer coach actually put cameras in the gym so that she could catch us being disrespectful to her because it was always her word against ours,

Chion Wolf  27:57

Which is how bad it was.

Kristen Geez  27:59

Which is how bad we were acting. Yes, absolutely. But I remember using the school phone calling this girl that I did not know for a boyfriend that was not mine. And going off on her, you know, and her mother, we kept calling. And I just remember us sitting in the circle and me getting a piece of paper. And me asking each person what were they going to say. I was always a planner. And when I think about what I do today, I don't, I still start off meetings that, I hold meetings. And that's what I was basically doing in eighth grade. Unfortunately, not for good. But, you know, and I just remember journaling each girl, what they were going to say and then dialing the number for them and then holding up the paper so they could read what it was that I had written. And that evening, actually, my cheer coach came to practice, and we should have known something was off because she was in a really good mood that day, and she's never in a good mood. And I just remember leaving, getting in the car, and my mom gets a call. And they say, 'Hey, tomorrow we're asking all the cheerleading parents to come up to the school in the morning. There's going to be a big meeting. This is very serious. You need to miss work.' And I remember my mom turning around to me saying, 'Kristen, did you do anything today? And I'm thinking what could I have done today? Today was a great day because that was such a small factor in my radar, right? Now when we were calling and threatening we were saying we were going to kill her. We were going to shoot her, didn't have a gun, didn't know where a gun was. But this is right around the time when Columbine was there. And we were leaving voicemails, right, when the mom took the phone off the hook. And so you've got that old school recorder where you can press play and it can be heard. And so I just remember that next morning coming to school, and police officers walking in, this girl and her mom that I had never seen in my life walking in. And we're just sitting in the bleachers. I'm sitting next to my mom and they pull down the PowerPoint kind of presentation to show the video of us in the gym. And all I remember thinking in my head was, 'They've got video, there's no way we can get out of this.' But then the other part of me was like, 'Well, they don't have any sound so we could get out of this.' And I felt confident in that. And then the girl, when her mom played the recording, and who do you hear on the recording? Me, me. And my mom was able to get me out of there that day without the police taking me, and I just remember her driving in silence, you know, of all of the whoopings or trouble that I've ever gotten in that silence was more deafening to me than anything she could have said, you know, I just remember us driving for two hours in silence. And me wondering, 'Is she gonna whoop me now, is she's gonna slap me now, is she's going to save me now, is she's going to let them take me, what?’ You know, I just, it was just silent.

Chion Wolf  30:45

That was Kristen Geez. She's a public speaker. And after the break, we'll hear more about what her life is like, as a CEO of Advising Generation Z, a nonprofit mentoring program. And hear how that shift began when someone in a position of power saw her potential.

Kristen Geez  31:02

She said, 'You know, everything that I see on this transcript tells me that you are a leader and we just haven't given you the right opportunity to feel fulfilled.'

Chion Wolf  31:11

I'm Chion Wolf. This is Audacious Be right back. This is Audacious. I'm Chion Wolf. Kristen Geez used to be a bully, but she decided not to be defined by her past mistakes. Now she's dedicated her career to showing young people how to learn from those mistakes. Today, she's the CEO of Advising Generation Z, a nonprofit mentoring program. And she's the founder of Advising Genz, an edtech company, which is nothing like the bully she was growing up. She was surrounded by severe abuse and unpredictability at home. And so at school, she developed coping mechanisms that gave her a sense of power. She learned to strategize to lead and influence people but not in the way she does now. All the way through ninth grade, she used those skills to bully other students. But after getting expelled, and starting in a new school, Kristen met the person who sparked an enormous change in her life, Assistant Principal, Dr. Linda Parker.

Kristen Geez  32:28

I just remember her picking me in the hallway and telling me to come to her office. And I just remember thinking, 'I've been at the school for three days, there is no one here that I want to bully, they're also friendly. No one wants to get in trouble. If I tell them, 'Hey, let's do something.' They're like, 'Why? Here you go.' So there was nothing, I just remember that three days, I was like, I don't know how I'm gonna survive at the school because no one is into doing anything that I'm used to doing. And she pulled me in the office. And she said, you know, this was right around November. And she said, when I got to that school, and she said, 'You know, I know we're gonna get out for Thanksgiving break soon. But it's been brought to my attention about your record. And we've never done Black History Month. And Katrina just hit. And we're going to have this influx of African American students that are going to be coming here. And I don't want those kiddos to come to this school and not feel welcomed. So I was looking through all of the transcripts of all of the students that we have here that are students of color. And in the entire district, you're probably the only one that could even rally a group of kids to agree to this because it can't just be Black students, we need Caucasian students to also join to assist and help and support for us to create the first-ever Black History Month program and celebrate Black History Month for the whole month. And then I want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. And then I want to celebrate every heritage. But I want to start with this one. And I feel like you are the student that could lead this big school into doing this.' And that was the first time that I had ever had someone outside of my family telling me that I could do something. When I used to get in trouble, I would hear all the time from my mom, 'You're a leader, not a follower. Why are you doing this?' But you can't have that conversation when your child is the leader, and they're leading disruption. Right? So finally hearing someone say, 'So I noticed at this school, you got a group of 10 kids to steal from people's lockers,' and she's reading everything that I've done. So she said, you know, 'Everything that I see on this transcript tells me that you are a leader, and we just haven't given you the right opportunity to feel fulfilled. So I'm going to give you the other nine students, they're going to help you do this. They're a little bit younger than you, they are very good kids. They're going to follow what you say. And I'm going to give you two faculty members and you have a budget and whatever you decide, you're going to have to do some research. You can't just make up stuff. We're not just gonna say Black people eat fried chicken and watermelon, like you got to actually give us some facts and some days of the week and I'm gonna have you every morning, get on the morning announcement and give us a Black fact for the entire month and it's going to be your job to remember for that fact.' That was my very first time ever speaking positively in school.

Chion Wolf  34:13

So that was the beginning of a real shift for you in your life. That Black History Month culminated in this pep rally with members of the Dallas Cowboys, you got on the mic and addressed the whole school with total confidence. And that is not the typical story that people tend to imagine when it comes to the future of a bully. So I wonder what are some other misconceptions about bullies that you see?

Kristen Geez  35:34

I think the biggest misconception is realizing that as adults, we are their everyday influencer. While they might watch people on social media and listen to things in the other part of the world. It's the person they see every day that makes them decide, 'Do I want to get to the part of my life where I'll become an adult? Does adulthood look fun? If every adult that I see looks miserable, it looks like they hate their job? It looks like they hate me? Why am I going to get past this moment of discomfort when I'm a child? Why, what, what's the point?'

Chion Wolf  36:05

I feel like we overall have a challenge in our lives as human beings to oversimplify to two-dimensionalize people. And so we've got the good guys and the bad guys. And the good guys are the victims. And the bad guys are the bullies. And that's it. And by the way, no one can change. People don't change ever, not even a little bit, not even, really, any less than that. Even if they do, they're probably acting, they're probably just trying to manipulate some more. Right? So we've got this binary thinking. And I love that we're in an era where binaries of all sorts are breaking down. But I'd love to hear your thoughts on this sort of like black and white, good evil thinking that we all, all including me and you still, anyone with a heartbeat, still, like simmers in.

Kristen Geez  36:57

I've learned to give myself grace. You know, life is too short for me to put that type of pressure on myself or for me to allow other people to put that pressure. I think, realizing that let me realize that people can be good, bad and other right, they don't have to be good all the time or bad all the time. And it's not bad to stand up for yourself and say no and set boundaries, right? So I think even as we start categorizing people, you know, we always say, you know, point one finger and four are pointing back at you, and you never really know what that means until you really take time with yourself. And I will say as a bully, one of the things that I never did was spend time with myself and my own feelings. If I had done that, if I didn't, I didn't know if I could come out of really vocalizing what was happening to me at home, right? And so I think as you, as you are getting older, and you know, for young people, and especially for those that are leading or raising young people, and they're listening to this, and you're wanting to say, 'How can I show?', I think even as a kid you see your parent as either they know things or they don't know anything, right? You get to an age where you start judging all of their decisions. And you start looking and saying, 'Well, they've really got it together, why can't they pay their bills? Why is that light always off? You know. Or why're they always telling me not to cuss but here they're cussing or telling me not to smoke, but here they're smoking, right? We get to where we always compare and contrast, even if you're not trying. And I think realizing that people can, don't have to be one-dimensional. You can be multiple things. I think that's the good part of social media. But the bad part of social media is it appears that everyone is either thriving, or you're a failure, right? There is no in-between and there is no fluctuation, right? You don't just get to the thrive. You know, I think a lot of times when people see the things and the work that I've done, they're like, 'Oh my God, you're amazing!', not realizing I started off as a bully. First of all, that's why, that's why the programming is effective, because I'm looking at it from the eyes of what would have made me change, right? And I'm asking current kids that are bullying, what do you want? Now that I know how to communicate that? Let me figure out how I can get that to pass by the adults that are working with you every day. Now. Or, you know, when someone says, 'How did you get, how did you get all these things going on?' And it's like, 'Yeah, did you see how many degrees that I have? So I actually went to school to learn.' And I think we forget the in-journey. There's a 9000-hour rule for a reason, right? That 9000 hours is 'Stay in something and do it for 9000 hours, and you can become an expert in it.' But how do you become an expert in rating someone to be good or bad? There's not 9000 hours because if you've done 9000 hours bad, are you permanently bad, does that mean you can never change? And that's not really always the case, there has to be grace. And there also does have to be boundaries. But I think more importantly, when you spend more time with yourself, you're able to understand other people that you can allow them to be multiple reflections of themselves and not deem them as being fake or deem them as thinking that they're better than thou just because they don't want to do things, right? A lot of things in the way that we judge other people are really the things that we tell ourselves. So if I tell myself that I'm bad, every time I see someone else, I'm gonna think they're bad. If I tell myself that I'm never enough, I'm always gonna think someone else's enough, therefore, I'm going to judge every little thing that they do. Right? And so being nicer to myself internally has allowed me to give room to other people to say, 'Maybe today was just a bad day, and they're not a bad person.'

Chion Wolf  40:20

So what kind of conversations are you having with young people now to help them put their fingers on the nuances of feeling as opposed to two-dimensionalizing a person or situation?

Kristen Geez  40:31

I think one of the things that I write about in my book, "Like StreetLIGHTS", for youth workers and parents is realizing that they need us to actually name the feeling. I think so many times we're we tell kids to, you know, grow up or have resilient and it's like, 'Okay, does having resilience mean that I also can't acknowledge that I'm sad, or I can't acknowledge that I was hurt, that they stopped being my friend, or that I'm sad that you and my father got a divorce or that I'm upset that, you know, someone is touching me inappropriately? And can you tell me what is inappropriate?' Right? I think today, the lines are so blurred on the shows and the music and the things that they see all the time, that as adults, we cannot say I want to shield them from one part of the world when they're being heavily exposed and the other part of the world and no conversation from us as adults, right? And when I say adults, meaning the people that see them everyday, their everyday influencer. So one of the things that I would challenge, anyone listening that's working with that young, younger group, and that's anyone under 26, right? I would say, help them name and articulate and also be patient that this is a generation that does not know how to use their voice. You know, I'm a professor. And one of the things that I do, I teach freshmen, college freshmen. And one of the things that I do the very first day, and I am in a mandatory course, so every student has to come through my class. And it's a very intense class, it's four weeks, it's, you know, two and a half hours, and they only have eight actual classes. And one of the things that I have them do is go on the balcony every day, in the first few minutes of class, I first let them come in, I reassign their seats so that every time they come to class, they have a completely different seat, they have to get their mind used to that. And then I tell them what we're going to do for the day. And then ask them, 'Are we good?' They say, 'Yes', I say, 'Alright, let's go outside.' And we go outside, and I make them screen. And I make them screen three or four times.

Chion Wolf  42:27

Can I take your class?

Kristen Geez  42:28

You know, I have people that say that, like 'Who are you, Professor K?', I'm like, 'Yeah'. But I have them scream because one of the things that I did in college, you know, straight out of leaving high school is, I would go to the park with one of my friends. And we would swing and scream. And I think as you start growing, you start forgetting that you can actually scream out loud when you're frustrated, right?

Chion Wolf  42:52

I don't need to take your class to scream.

Kristen Geez  42:53

I just I think that's one and I, the other thing I do is I give them all bubbles, you know, go outside and blow bubbles and blow, not your problems away, but blow your frustration away. And the reason why I have them do those two activities, and I have them do it every class, and I'll see them even after they're done with my class that they one, have made friends with someone in class, which is my goal. But two, when they're feeling frustrated or overwhelmed that they know that I can actually let out the scream. And that they know you don't have to go to drugs or alcohol. When I'm feeling too much tension in me, if I need to slow the inside of me down, I can just blow this bubble. And I can see my problems go away like these bubbles. When I'm done, I'm gonna have to face those problems. But in the meantime, I can take a moment and a beat. I think teaching them how to sit in their feelings other than to just keep music in their ears all the time or lay in their bed because that's what I did as a child, I laid in my bed hugging my teddy bears crying. Never once did my mother know that I was crying. Right? Not because she didn't love me. But because it was that boomers unfortunately, have dealt with so many hard things to get the world where it is today. And the Silent Generation, I think we forget to talk about them. But their endurance of things that they dealt with just to survive is very different from Gen X and Millennials, and Gen Z is, right, and I'm a millennial, realizing that if I had been told as a child, not just by my mother, but by all the adults that I saw, 'So clearly today you came and robbed someone or you came and stole someone. Did someone steal something from you? Is that why you're adamant about stealing things? Okay, today you came and you hit people. That wasn't your reaction yesterday when you left. So did someone hit you?' Asking those questions open-endedly, but then teaching me to say, 'If you're frustrated or you're mad, let's go show you what to do with that energy. And if you feel like you don't have a voice and you don't even know how to articulate the voice. Let's go outside. Let's scream, let's let you hear yourself screaming so that you remember you do actually have a voice that works. And so now when you have a question, I need you to remind yourself, you know that you know, you have a voice. So you can't have the whole conversation in your head', which is what this generation does. They stare at you like a deer in headlights, they're thinking all of these things, but no words come out. Why are the words not coming out? Is it just because of the pandemic? Or is it because what they were doing during that time, which is listening to headphones, staring at a device, watching someone talk to them having to have no real response back to them, right? And so I think teaching young people how to actually respond. And as as adults telling them, there are some times that I scream, I just scream when I'm not around you, they need to see that you scream because then they won't feel so awkward thinking, I'm screaming, right? Or when you're frustrated, you might go to a drink, but tell them that 'I also work out,' tell them that you meditate and teach them not just telling them, teach them, and they may be resistant at first. Those kids don't come in my class saying they want to scream, I tell them it's a grade, and it is a great, right? So it's a participation grade. And it's what you're going to use as extra credit. So when you want extra credit from me, because this is a, this is an eighth class course, right? And it's two and a half hours, you're going to need extra credit, I'm not getting extra credit, if you don't use your voice outside. Because you can use your voice outside. That means when you were in this classroom, you definitely didn't use your voice. And I'm teaching you how to advocate for yourself. I think that's what's needed to get those emotions out for young people.

Chion Wolf  46:22

So you're saying that we don't need another Silent Generation.

Kristen Geez  46:28

We can't afford to have another Silent Generation. And I think that's what, you know, I love corporate America, and I love those who are in work and they're already thinking about, 'Okay, we've got to get job skills.' But the reality is that if young people are already so disconnected from the everyday, do they really care about climbing up the corporate ladder? Do they really care about going to school for eight to 11 years to be our next doctors? Do they really care about working for the energy company and making sure our lights are on? Do they care about these jobs? Right? Or will they all just work at small jobs or have lazy grow jobs so that they don't have to get super involved in anything that requires a lot of effort or work because we're not talking to them about effort and work? What we say to them all the time is you need to have resiliency, you need to persevere. Okay? When Yes, you may have dealt with a pandemic, but I dealt with slavery. Okay, how do I compete with that? Right? So let me just not compete at all. And the reality is, they're getting older, they're not staying in the same age. So who's going to take the baton when all of us retire? I mean, the, the the era of the great resignation was not the younger generation, it was the older generation. And so we're going to start to see really crucial jobs not being fulfilled because these kids are lost from the silence of the world and the pressure that they feel every day that none of us will ever know because we didn't grow up in their time dealing with the way that the world is today.

Chion Wolf  47:50

Well, Kristen Geez, thank you so much for talking with me.

Kristen Geez  47:55

Thank you for having me. It was definitely a delight.

Chion Wolf  47:58

We'll have links to Kristen's work, and to Robbie's essay at ctpublic.org/audacious where we'll also have a link to resources about bullying, including Stopbullying.gov. This show is always so lovingly produced by Jessica Severin de Martinez, Khaleel Rahman, Meg Fitzgerald, Meg Dalton, and Catie Talarski at Connecticut Public Radio in Hartford. If you liked this episode, check out the one we did about how to find meaning, purpose and maybe some peace after accidentally killing someone. Or for something completely different, listen to the one that aired recently featuring Jada Star. She talks about what it's like being the niece of the least likely bully of all time, Dolly Parton. Check them out wherever you get your podcasts. Stay in touch with me on Facebook, Instagram and Tiktok at ChionWolf, and you can always send an email to Audacious@ctpublic.org. Thanks for listening.