The Power of Words

Taken from a chapel talk given on November 17, 2017.

Picture this: I am 11 years old, and it is October 31st. I am walking with five of my 6th grade classmates – two boys and three girls – in a neighborhood less than 4 miles from where you sit right now. This would be a night I will always remember. My mom dropped us off in the neighborhood a few blocks from my house as it was a better neighborhood for trick-or-treating because the houses were closer together. John (not his real name) was my friend that was always very persuasive. He also was what my mom would call a “bad influence.” I didn’t agree with her at the time. This night “John” decided that we should steal some pumpkins that had been left out on the doorsteps and smash them on the road. I had a pit in my stomach – I knew what he was suggesting was wrong – but I wanted to be cool. I didn’t want to tell him no, especially in front of all of our friends, so I went along with it. I never actually smashed a pumpkin that night, but I served as the lookout while “John” did. About an hour later my mom picked us up from where we had been trick-or-treating, unaware of what had occurred. On the way home we drove directly over the pumpkins that we had smashed. My mom said, “How sad that those pumpkins were smashed. I wonder who would do that?” The pit in my stomach grew larger. I spoke up, “There was a crowd of older kids in the neighborhood. It must have been them who smashed the pumpkins.” The rest of my friends sat silent. The pit in my stomach grew even larger. I had now doubled down on this bad decision. I had covered for our actions by lying directly to my mom’s face. There was no older crowd. It was us, and it was me.

Now I am going to discuss three important terms before getting back to the story.

First – Bystander
The definition of a bystander is a person who is present at an event or incident but does not take part.

Next – Bystander Effect
The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. This is interesting because you would think the more people that see something would actually lead to a higher chance of someone saying something, but studies say that isn’t true.

Finally – Bystander Action
Bystander action is simply a bystander taking action. Typically this is meant in a positive way by stepping in to do the right thing or to speak up.

In my case, I was really more than a bystander. I was a participant, but I failed to take action at two major points. I didn’t tell them to stop, and I didn’t own my actions when I lied to my mom. Within a few days, several of my friends had talked about this event and word got back to my mom. My mom, who worked at the school I attended, came out to my PE class and dragged me off the field in front of my entire grade. I was devastated. I had made a tremendous mistake. I wrote apology letters to the families in the houses from which we had taken the pumpkins, but I will never forget the feeling as soon as the lie came out of my mouth in the car that night.

The idea of the bystander is incredibly important and can be tied to a number of things here on campus and in the broader world. Bystanders hold tremendous power, especially when they take positive action.

I want to show you a video now that relates to the importance of bystanders, but also the prevalence of bystander inactivity.

There is a part of this video that is intended to be humorous, but please don’t let the humor take away from the message it is trying to get across.

Burger King video about bullying (Read Today Show article about this ad)

Our own Honor Pledge describes the role of the bystander in our honor system. Can anyone tell me what part of the pledge I am talking about?

“Nor am I aware of any breach of the honor code.”

We all live by a code that if we see someone lie, cheat, or steal we are expected to choose the hard right and turn that person in.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s code reads “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”


Now I am a generally positive person. I usually see the best in things. Sometimes to a fault. There are so many positive things going on in our middle school. There is nothing that brings me more pride and joy than celebrating the successes you all have throughout the year. You all are a very impressive group. Your teachers feel the same way.

Unfortunately, there is currently one area where we are not at our best. One area where the bystander effect is present. I am talking about some of the language that we use and the way that we sometimes treat each other. We do not always stand up for the hard right when we hear or see people mistreating others in person or online. I have recently spoken with a few students who represent a growing group of you who are unhappy with the actions and words they see and hear around campus.

These words, whether spoken or written, in person or electronically, are words and phrases that cannot be tolerated here at St. Christopher’s. They run counter to what we strive to be as a community. We can be better than that. We must be better than that. If you are someone who uses these words or phrases, I challenge you to stop and think the next time you do. Why are you saying those things?

One way for these phrases and actions to be removed from our community relies on bystander action. It is up to the bystanders who will speak up and not let it stand. As a community and as a Middle School we must speak up. It is our job as teachers to give you the tools to know what to do when you see or hear these things. After Thanksgiving we will be doing some activities around the power of words and we will dive deeper into this topic.

By doing nothing, we allow these comments and actions to fester and to infect our great community.

By letting your classmates get away with saying and doing these things without checking them on it impacts all of us.

What if we had a written character pledge at St. Christopher’s the way we do with our Honor Pledge?

It might say:

I will not use ethnic, racial, or other discriminatory language to put others down. I will not bully or harm others with my words or actions. NOR TOLERATE THOSE THAT DO:

Unfortunately choosing the hard right is hard. One roadblock to action relates to the idea of being labeled a tattletale, or if you are older – a snitch – if you speak up. However, taking action, and taking a stand when you know something is wrong is what is expected of you in this community. It is what makes us stronger. It is what makes us great. Anyone who is willing to call you a snitch doesn’t understand that.

I want to close by reading “The Boy’s Prayer.” You have probably recognized that I have already repeated an important line from that prayer several times in my talk. Once I have read the prayer we will exit quietly from the front with the candles still lit.

Please bow your heads.

“A Boy’s Prayer”
O God, give me clean hands, clean thoughts.
Help me to stand for the hard right against the easy wrong.
Save me from habits which do me harm.
Teach me to work and play as fair in Thy sight alone, as if the whole world were looking on.
Forgive me when I am unkind, and help me to forgive those who are unkind to me.
Keep me ready to help others at some cost to myself, and so grow more like Thee. For Jesus Christ our Saviours’ sake, Amen.

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