Saturday, March 24, 2012

Anti-Bully Activist Jesse Saperstein Urges Students to "Give 'em Something That Resembles a Fighting Chance"

When student members of the Cohoes Anti-Bullying Committee were asked what they thought would be an effective motivator to help students embrace more tolerant attitudes toward their classmates, they said "to hear from someone who had been a victim of bullying." Enter Jesse Saperstein: an author and activist who has turned his years of being bullied into a powerful teaching tool for young people.

Appearing at Cohoes High School on November 3, Saperstein brought a mix of humor and humility as he shared his life story with an audience that included students, parents, teachers, and staff. Diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at the age of 14, Saperstein told the crowd that his experience as a victim of bullying began before he was diagnosed with the Autism Spectrum Disorder that causes those afflicted to suffer great difficulties in most social situations.
"Kids just thought I was weird," said Saperstein, the author of Atypical: Life With Asperger's in 20 1/3 Chapters. 
"I was obsessed with the postal system. I would say inappropriate things at inappropriate times. At the time, I didn't know that these were things Asperger's Syndrome could cause and they didn't know either."
Saperstein described how those relatively stable early years gave way to intense bullying, including cyberbullying, during his teen years and beyond. "It doesn't get easier as you move into adulthood," noted Saperstein as he told story after story about the misunderstandings and miscommunications that are a hallmark of Asperger's Syndrome.

One anecdote involved Mr. Saperstein's lack of subtlety in admiring a female teller at his local bank. Confronted by the bank manager after a particularly long look at the teller, Saperstein explained that he was not trying to make anyone uncomfortable and explained that people with Asperger's and autism don't often recognize common social cues. To that, the manager responded coldly, "Is STARING part of your autism?"

"Staring and not getting caught is a fine art form," Saperstein wryly noted.

Of his cyberbullying, the author told of a disturbing set-up by high school classmates, who concocted a fictional girlfriend named "Elizabeth West" who would contact Saperstein regularly via computer chat, something that was relatively new in the late 1990s. The aggressors were so invested in their scheme to harrass Saperstein, they persuaded a girl to pose as Elizabeth West and meet him at a local restaurant to continue their relationship.
"I thought the people who had been tormenting me were my friends. Six months went by before I discovered Elizabeth was not even real," recalled Saperstein. 

 "Cyberbullying is the most cowardly act imaginable. Their bullying campaign didn't even give me a fighting chance.

He added, "If there is any advice I can give to kids who may even contemplate bullying, it would be to give them (the targets of bullying) something that resembles a fighting chance."

Saperstein told the CHS audience how he has been able to successfully channel the negative energy he has encountered since middle school. He began with a 2,174 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine that took 7 months and nine days to complete. His trek raised $19,000 for pediatric AIDS research. 

"The only negative energy is energy that negates any positive action," he said.

Students at Cohoes High School shared their feelings about bullying through works of art created during the month of October. As part of the evening's presentation, the audience viewed a video featuring the artwork.
Book Jesse to Speak at Your School or Conference

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