Norfolk, Virg. — When our child is bullied we hope our love and platitudes will heal a wounded spirit. Shane Koyczan’s spoken-word poem, “To this day,” just released as a gripping anti-bullying video, instantly cured me of repeating the mother’s mantra - “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” – because it’s a lie we must stop telling our kids.
“To this day” does something no other attempt to end bullying has ever done, like the classic “A Christmas Carol,” it takes us on a journey of past and present to show us what may haunt our children from the classrooms and other bullying grounds into adulthood.
The old rhyme “Sticks and stones” is the underpinning the poet methodically, almost hypnotically, deconstructs for us throughout the work in the hope we realize that ugly names may affect us in a more painful way.
In a phone interview from his home in British Columbia, Canada, Mr. Koyczan, author of the “Stick Boy,” an intense novel – about a bullied kid who becomes a bully – talked about “To this day” which was released as part of Canada’s anti-bullying Pink Shirt Day (Feb. 27).
Yes, he was the child bullies cruelly named “Pork Chop,” abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandmother. The poem was written from life experiences of the poet and others he knows, with poetic license taken only to soften some of the horrors, not inflate them.
“My hope is [that the video] would reach some of the people who were just out there looking for something to get them through another day,” he explains. “When I wrote the poem two years ago and people started coming to me because they just needed to talk after hearing it, I realized this is not a Canadian problem or an American problem, it’s everywhere.”
After watching the poem, I started thinking about my 17-year-old son, who recently told me, “I only hate four people in this world.” Not being a fan of hate, I asked him to explain. He “hates” with an active passion the one who bullied his girlfriend, another who bullied him, and the witnesses who failed to help either of them.
My son – bullied as a high school freshman at age 14 – vanquished his bullies verbally, physically, and socially after taking the Gracie Bullyproof course. Now a high school senior and jiu jitsu blue belt, he daily comes between bullies and their prey, choosing to ride the bus when he could drive.
He conquered the bully, but not the hate that grows like an invasive weed enriched by feelings of humiliation, fear, helplessness, and worthlessness that the bullies heaped on him and those for whom he cares. While I spoke to him about it at the time, I wasn’t motivated to follow-up and up and up, until I watched “To this day.”
Koyczan’s video is rapidly becoming a phenomenon, a candle in the global window that has lit the way for victims to find unity and former bullies to repent and seek redemption, the poet says.
“It’s amazing to me how common [bullying] is and that it’s not just the victims but the bullies who come up to me to talk,” Koyczan says. “I believe the bullies must be forgiven. That’s how we heal.”
He believes in forgiveness for two reasons: “The very first e-mail I ever got when e-mail first began was from a tormentor of my youth. A long letter asking for forgiveness and detailing every incident and explaining what was going on in his life and how what he was doing to me really had nothing to do with me at all.”
“It was so meaningful that just talking about it gives me goose bumps right now,” he says. “Also, I became a bully myself at about 14 or 15 when we moved and I thought it was a chance to reinvent myself.”
Koyczan recounted the feeling of sitting before the principal beside his grandmother and hearing the man say to her, “Your grandson is a bully.” He says, “I became the thing I hated.”
He also explains what it was about his grandmother’s parenting that raised him up and helped him make the course correction he needed at 15: “You always felt safe around her. She built up that trust. That’s hard to do.”
“The news and everything we see is so dark, there needs to be a light,” he explains. “Parents need to keep the lines of communication open. We need to keep a light shining. There are always people out there who will try and dampen that light.”
What Koyczan is doing with this video is what he asks us as parents, teachers and friends to emulate by providing a beacon that shines on our ability to love and forgive and in the process, blinds us to hate.
Shane Koyczan makes spoken-word poetry and music. His poem "To This Day" is a powerful story of bullying and survival, illustrated by animators from around the world.
Why you should listen
Shane Koyczan is a poet, author and performer. He performed at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, where an audience of more than 1 billion people worldwide heard his piece “We Are More.”
He has published three books: Stickboy, Our Deathbeds Will Be Thirsty and Visiting Hours, selected by both the Guardian and the Globe and Mail for their Best Books of the Year lists.
In 2012, he released a full-length album with his band Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long. The album includes the viral hit “To This Day,” which explores the anguish of anyone who grew up feeling different or just a little bit alone. To bring visual life to this image-rich poem, Koyczan invited artists from around the world to contribute 20-second segments of animation to the project. Posted on YouTube on February 19, 2013, by the close of the month the video had been viewed 6 million times.
What others say
“Shane Koyczan is electrifying. It’s a rare poet who can make his audience laugh and cry; this is a writer who will break your heart, then heal it.” — Val McDermid