Earlier this month Jim Tuman got a frantic call from a principal at a school in metro Detroit.
The principal related how one student said to another student, who was a minority, “when are they going to deport you? I wish you would be the first.”
“(The principal) was in tears,” says the nationally known youth motivational speaker. “He said he had never seen anything like this in his school.”
The principal wanted Tuman, who has been speaking to kids about the importance of kindness and relationships for years, to come to his school and help change a vicious culture emerging there as it seems to be in so many other schools across the nation over the last year or so and more so since the presidential election.
In the last month Tuman’s had calls from a total of nine schools in the region – two in downtown Detroit and seven in Oakland and Macomb Counties. So far this year he’s been contacted by 156 schools across the U.S.
At 75 years old, he can’t do them all, so he sometimes he tells school officials to show the movie “A Girl Like Her,” in which he had a role. Sometimes he will come, do an introduction and then show the film. Other times he will give his whole day. In one school in metro Detroit a few years ago, he spent 11 ½ hours hearing stories from kids being bullied, offering advice and counsel and often ending up in tears.
After Tuman spoke at that school a young woman wrote him a note thanking him. She told him she had tried to kill herself and didn’t realize the difference between death and disappearance. She simply wanted to disappear and make the bullying stop. “I forgot to love myself,” she wrote.
“The problem is escalating,” he says. “It is now a given that many parents swallow hard when they send their kids off to school and hope they come home in one piece.
“This will be generational. When kids learn about hate at a young age it is hard to change. It is not just one group that is affected. The climate in the schools is getting tougher and tougher,” he says.
One kid who had been bullied and was contemplating suicide called him recently. Tuman listened intently and then told him to “go out and do something kind for someone. It will help you get beyond the crap.” The young man called him back later to tell him he’d taken his advice and “started down a new path.’’
Kindness does work miracles, and we need more of them. Young people are in more turmoil today partially because of social media and, I hate to say it, the words that came out of the mouths of some presidential candidates.
“No one won this election,” Tuman says. “We have created a divisive culture that will continue for a long time. We have had two years of this combative nature. Kids are like sponges. They pick up on this. Fear is driving this and that is making it a challenge to change.”
He tells kids to ask themselves what President-Elect Trump would do if his children or grandchildren were spewing this kind of hate when they had been brought up to do good things.
To further get the message across Tuman would like to see school banners hung across metro Detroit that say “(Such and such a school) believes every young person should feel safe, valued and loved.”
The problem is not just bullying ethnic minorities. He recently talked with a young man in a wheel chair who was being picked on because of his handicap and said Tuman he just didn’t want to go on.
“I’m spending at least an hour a day dealing with kids who want to commit suicide,” Tuman says. To help them cope, he gives out bracelets that say “Happy people live outside themselves.” He’s given out 25,000 of them.
“You know the scene in the Ghostbusters movie when the slime under New York City only bubbles up when there is anger and hate?” he says. “That is the same correlation in the schools.”
Tuman recently created a program called 26 Days of Acts of Kindness at his alma mater, Michigan State University. One student came to him and told him he couldn’t do 26 days, instead he wanted to do 26 acts of kindness in one day. He recruited some friends. For one of their acts they went to a dollar store and put $1 in each children’s book if a child wanted a book and the parents did have the funds the book paid for itself.
During his career Tuman has spoken to more than 2 million kids in more than 2,000 schools worldwide. A documentary called the Truman Effect about his work will air on PBS at 5:30 p.m. December 2. Here’s the trailer.
Even with all his speaking requests you’ll still find Tuman delivering Christmas gifts to needy families in Southwest Detroit on Christmas morning. He’ll be joined by volunteers who are Christians, Muslims, Jews, black, brown and white, gay and straight. They will all line up behind a 26-foot semi full of gifts parked in front of Stephen Lutheran Church.
Before they step up, take the gifts, head to their vehicles and begin delivering them Tuman always makes a speech. It usually includes this line “On a corner in Southwest Detroit for a few hours we will have achieved world peace.”
This year he’ll change it a bit and tell them “You are the hope. Go out in the world and take what you learn today and implement it in your families, your personal lives and your schools.”
Every kid … no, every person … deserves to feel safe, valued and loved. If we can’t make that happen, our city and our nation are doomed to failure.