Learning empathy, awareness of others

  • Tom Murphy, former professional MMA fighter and co-founder of Sweethearts & Heroes, talks to Bow students about bullying. Eileen O’Grady / Monitor staff

  • Rick Yarosh, a retired sergeant with the United States Army who was injured in Iraq in 2006, talks to students about overcoming adversity in a Sweethearts & Heroes anti-bullying training session at Bow Memorial School on Thursday. Eileen O'Grady / Monitor staff

  • Rick Yarosh, a retired sergeant with the United States Army who was injured in Iraq in 2006, talks to students about overcoming adversity in a Sweethearts & Heroes anti-bullying training session at Bow Memorial School Sept. 22, 2022. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/23/2022 3:31:59 PM
Modified: 9/23/2022 3:31:22 PM

Tom Murphy started his presentation by telling students he doesn’t like fighting – coming from a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, the message may seem unusual.

But for Murphy, a Vermont resident, speaking publicly about being a professional fighter who doesn’t use violence to solve personal problems is one way of setting a positive example for kids.

“I came here for the rest of you, because you’re the solution, you’re the key in this school, in your community and just as importantly, in the world,” Murphy told the students.

Bow and Dunbarton middle school students packed onto the bleachers in the Bow Memorial School gymnasium Thursday to meet Murphy and retired U.S. Army sergeant Rick Yarosh. They are part of the anti-bullying organization Sweethearts & Heroes which addresses topics like peer pressure, social acceptance and suicide prevention. Murphy and Yarosh encouraged the students to examine their social environment from a new perspective, to be kind to those who are struggling, and to “jump into action” to stop bullying when they see it occurring.

Murphy emphasized that his advice isn’t aimed at bullies – it isn’t even aimed at students who are being bullied – rather, his focus is on the “bystanders,” the majority of students who may see bullying happening and do nothing to stop it. Yarosh, who sustained serious severe injuries in an explosion while deployed in Iraq in 2006, spoke about the importance of having hope, knowing that a situation will get better, and watching for kindness from supportive people.

The program, which was funded by the Bow PTO and David Hodgkins of the Echelon Planning Group, was offered in Bow over a three-day period – at Bow Elementary School on Wednesday, Bow Memorial on Thursday and Friday, with a community-wide event at Bow High School on Thursday night. The student programming consisted of assemblies in the gymnasium followed by small-group discussion circles.

About 23% of New Hampshire high schoolers reported that they had been bullied on school property, according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. About 20% said they have been bullied electronically, which includes through texting and social media.

Bow Memorial School Principal Adam Osburn said social-emotional programming like the anti-bullying presentations is a major part of the middle school experience. Schools statewide have been focusing in recent years on a new model that integrates social, emotional and behavioral supports into everyday learning.

Bow Memorial had hosted the same program five years ago, with a more specific focus on anti-bullying and suicide prevention, and Osburn said they decided to invite Murphy and Yarosh back.

“I think it brings a greater sense of empathy and awareness of others, and how everyone is unique and different,” Osburn said. “For middle school students in particular, they are naturally going through an adolescent age of egocentrism. If you can inspire them and get them to think of others, they can be such empathetic and incredibly sympathetic people. That awareness of the larger world and each other is a huge thing.”

Murphy, who works to combat what he describes as “hopelessness” among young people, believes that teen mental health was already reaching a perilous point before the COVID pandemic hit, and has only been made worse since then.

“We were already on a massive slide both in empathy and destructive decisions that kids were making. What the pandemic did was probably amplify or exacerbate the trajectory that was already heading in a really scary direction,” Murphy said.

Murphy, who visits around 100 to 120 schools a year, says he’s noticed an increased demand for his programming among schools this year.

“Before last school year was over, we were booked through January,” Murphy said. “What that’s telling me is the need is greater than ever in history.”

Besides Bow, Murphy and Yarosh are also bringing their program to 15 schools in New Hampshire’s North Country this year, funded by the North Country Chevy Dealers.

Osburn said Thursday afternoon that he heard some positive feedback about the morning’s session, including from students who were overheard using the word “inspiring.”

“That’s good, that makes your heart feel a little bit better, like maybe they got the message they needed to hear,” Osburn said.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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