Poetry Teacher Helps Bullied Kids Open Tortured Minds

Apr 8, 2018 by

By Kathleen Culliton –

Poetry Teacher Helps Bullied Kids Open Tortured Minds

WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN — Johnny Arce was a good kid with a bad problem — he was hounded by bullies. They beat him up, they made fun of his sneakers and his “nerdy” haircut, then they demanded, “What do you have to say?”

Arce was too scared to answer.

But Jeffrey Pflaum — an English teacher at Williamsburg’s PS 16 back in 1991, when Arce was a sixth grader — saw something brewing in the kid’s head, so he asked the same question in a different way.

Pflaum asked Arce to write a poem.

Untitled haiku by Johnny Arce
The howling wind
leaf flies away
never seen again

Years have passed since Arce penned his first poem, but Pflaum hasn’t given up on his innovative program that drew out kids he saw were having a tough time, made headlines and earned his students bylines in Newsday and Seventeen magazine.

The retired teacher is now trying to publish an anthology of his students’ work so that teachers, parents and children can better understand what happens inside the mind of the bullied kid.

“The kids really surprised me with their work,” said Pflaum. “The kids have a nihilistic attitude toward things — they accepted a lot of the pushing around and the taunts.”

Pflaum’s students are among an uncountable number of American children who face bullying — a phenomenon Patch will continue to examine in a year-long reporting project, “The Menace of Bullies: Can We Stop This?

And while many children resort to self harm — 160,000 kids stay home every day to avoid bullying while others, such as 12-year-old Gabriella Green, have even commited suicide — Arce and his classmates found another way to escape.

Untitled haiku by Nicole Agostini

Pflaum first began his poetry workshops back in the mid-1970s — not for the love of poetry but as an attempt to help his students cope with poverty, violent homes, a tough Brooklyn neighborhood and relentless taunting from other kids, he said.

Every week, the students would have a contemplation session — listening to classical music or reading a poem — then talk about their thoughts and write about them.

“You’ve been forced to have an inner world,” Pflaum told his students. “Okay, fine. Decorate it. Expand it.”

“My Name Is Nothing” by Lissette Toro
My name is nothing.
My eyes can’t see.
My ears can’t hear.
My mouth can’t talk.
My legs can’t walk.
My hands can’t touch.
My body can’t move.
My heart can’t love.
Nothing can’t do nothing.
My name is nothing.

Pflaum knew the bullies would continue to pick on other kids when he wasn’t there to stop them — which he did with the swift threat of a telephone call home — but the English teacher also believed he could do something to ease the isolation the bullying caused.

“There is no exit for someone who descends deeper and deeper inside a dying world,” Pflaum writes in the introduction to his anthology. But, he adds, “Confronting things — the self — and writing, just scribbling notes at times, worked.

“Writing poems made the bullied child STOP, think, reflect, and contemplate whatever experiences were living inside.”

“A Bubble” by Rafael Correa
The world is like a bubble,
a bubble itself,
But when the bubble pops,
the world is

Poetry helped many students manage their sadness and break through their isolation, said Pflaum, who after 34 years at PS 16 keeps in touch with as many students as he can.

Lisa Perez, another Pflaum poetry alumna, recently found him on Facebook and wrote, “You have no idea how many lives you saved.”

But others, like Juan Serrano, a talented poet who got lost in the shuffle of the public high school system, weren’t so lucky.

“A lot of my kids did get out,” Pflaum said. “Others … the neighborhood got to.”

Serrano was a smart and sensitive 11-year-old with a darker side. He wrote poetry about the Arctic, about the cold hand of death and wanting to be hit by a Mack truck, said Pflaum.

“He got bullied pretty bad at that school,” said Pflaum. “He just seemed in total turmoil.”

Pflaum ran into Serrano years after he had graduated from PS 16 and his energy and excitement were gone.

“Juan Serrano’s poetry might have been a predictor for his life after elementary school,” he said. “When you put the poems together, it seems like he just can’t win, at home or outside the home.”

Serrano is a big part of the reason why Pflaum has spent years looking for a publisher for his collection of student poems. “It opens up the world of the bullying and the bullied,” said Pflaum, who hopes the anthology will become a resource for parents and teachers across the country. “It gets into the head of the bullied kid.”

“There’s a lot of self-hate when someone gets stomped down,” Pflaum added. “These poems, they hurt.

“They’re sad, but they’re true.”

“The World of Man” by Juan Serrano
They return life
To this world,
The world of man:
A clever child
Was destroyed,
For the life
Of our future times


Over the coming year, Patch will look at the roles society plays in bullying and a child’s unthinkable decision to end their own life in hopes that we might offer solutions that save lives.

Do you have a story to tell? Email us at bullies@patch.com.


Source: Poetry Teacher Helps Bullied Kids Open Tortured Minds | Williamsburg, NY Patch

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