Bearing Witness to Violence, a guest post at Teen Librarian Toolbox

Hey, I have a guest post up over at one of my favorite sites, Teen Librarian Toolbox. You can read it here, or click the link below, and read at Karen’s site. She has a treasure trove of excellent content, so be careful to set aside a few hours.

Bearing Witness to Violence, a guest post by author Eric Devine — @TLT16 Teen Librarian Toolbox.

Recently I was at a school in Harlem, giving my standard presentation of how I became an author and what my work is about, and I found myself at the section on Press Play, which many of the kids had read, and I was nervous to speak about the story’s roots. There, before me, sat multiple athletes and the athletic director, and I looked at them and said, “I hate jock culture. That doesn’t mean I hate athletes or sport, but I do detest the privilege athletes are given merely because they are strong, or can run fast, or throw a ball well. Those same privileges, by and large, are not afforded to students of similar academic prowess, and that is a problem.”

Boy do I know how to work a crowd :)

Yet, in spite of the bristling athletes and the way the director looked at me, they began to nod as I talked about how I looked at this concept in my work.

Press Play is about Greg Dunsmore, who is his own worst enemy. Bullied for being overweight, he has turned to his phone and the movies he makes with it for solace. He lies with his film and has a reputation because of it. He is a pariah, especially in a school dominated by its devotion for the boys’ lacrosse team. So in his senior year, for his film class documentary, as a way of demonstrating he is more than the lies and the taunts, Greg decides to film his weight loss. He wants this for himself, not for them, or possibly as a way to make one honest film. Therefore, he sets out with his “friend” Quinn to train. While doing so, the boys hear something going on during the lacrosse team’s indoor practice in a nearby gym. Greg grabs his phone and they investigate. This sets in motion the dilemma of the novel, because Greg finds the team brutally hazing the underclassmen and gets it on film.

What does one do with such evidence? Go to the principal or the authorities. But how does one do that when the principal is the coach and seemingly everyone in the town has either played the sport or is financially connected to the team?

And so the story takes on these two dimensions: the will-he-won’t-he-Hamlet-like waffling of Greg, alongside the increasingly horrific abuse. This scenario is an unfortunately common parallel to so many who find themselves in sexually violent scenarios. Who can you trust when your trust has been taken? How can you move on when you have experienced what you have, and yet in your gut know others may be victims?

Because it’s all about power, and so often victims have only their voice matched against entities infinitely more powerful than themselves. And so they stay quiet, and who can blame them?

Yet, here we have Greg, witness to the acts, with evidence, and in the age of all things internet, the possibility of a voice powerful enough. But he’s a liar. Has proven that time and again. What can he do, after years of being abused and subsequently and callusing himself with lies, to now help these victims?

I’ll let you read the story to find that out.

But I can tell you that after I detailed this scenario to the athletes and the school’s athletic director, it opened up a conversation in which the director asked about hazing in their school’s program.

Now, on the spot like that, I’m not one bit surprised that the kids said nothing occurred. So of course I asked, “Does it not occur, or do you not recognize it for what it is?”

That caught them off-guard.

And I think that this question is the key to the #SVYALit program. Replace “hazing” with “rape” and then ask the same question above to a teenager who isn’t comfortable talking about sex, much less a violent encounter with sexual elements. I think the response is universal, and is the one I received from the boys: shrugged shoulders, and a “maybe.”

This is why I am proud to be a part of the conversation. Because teens do commit violent acts against one another, and many have sexual aspects that make them rape. And yet teens are not fully aware of this, nor how to talk about it. Therefore, the chat Anthony BreznicanJoshua Cohen, and I will have on 1/28 is important. Hazing abounds in high school, in small incidents and in massive, conformist ways. And often it teeters on, and then falls into, sexual assault, and may be the one area in this spectrum of violence where boys are more represented than girls. That worries me. That predilection, or at least that shoulder-shrugging acceptance of violence, sexual or not, paired with the privilege of athletics, is a noxious creation.

Please, tune in, or catch our conversation after the fact. The angles of this issue are vast and knotty, and only through relentless exploration and discussion will we ever make headway. Because a shrug in the face of the aftermath of such violence is not only unacceptable, it is reprehensible.

Join us on Wednesday, January 28th, 2015 at 12 Noon Eastern for a Google Hangout led by Press Play author Eric Devine and featuring Brutal Youth author Anthony Breznican and Leverage author Joshua C. Cohen. The topic will be hazing. Learn more about the #SVYALit Project.

More on Hazing at TLT:

Take 5: Hazing

Initiation Secrets: Press Play and a look at hazing with author Eric Devine

Breaking Tradition: BRUTAL YOUTH author Anthony Breznican on the fight against hazing

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Eric Devine is the author of fearless fiction: Press PlayTap OutDare Me, and This Side of Normal. He is also a high school English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Eric is represented by Kate McKean of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency.

About Press Play:

Greg Dunsmore, a.k.a. Dun the Ton, is focused on one thing: making a documentary that will guarantee his admission into the film school of his choice. Every day, Greg films his intense weight-loss focused workouts as well as the nonstop bullying that comes from his classmates. But when he captures footage of violent, extreme hazing by his high school’s championship-winning lacrosse team in the presence of his principal, Greg’s field of view is in for a readjustment.
Greg knows there is a story to be told, but it is not clear exactly what. And his attempts to find out the truth only create more obstacles, not to mention physical harm upon himself. Yet if Greg wants to make his exposé his ticket out of town rather than a veritable death sentence, he will have to learn to play the game and find a team to help him.
Combine the underbelly of Friday Night Lights with the unflinching honesty of Walter Dean Myers, and you will find yourself with Eric Devine’s novel of debatable truths, consequences, and realities. – October 2014 from Running Press Kids

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Sayreville vs. PRESS PLAY: when truth is stranger than fiction

Sayreville

I wasn’t surprised by the hazing allegations in Sayreville, NJ. I was disgusted, especially as details about the hazing came out, but not surprised.  I have been involved with athletics as an athlete and as a coach, and I know, firsthand, the danger of the locker room mentality. As an educator, I have heard more stories about abusive events than I ever wanted to. This isn’t to say I have ever been around circumstances of the severity of Sayerville. But I’m not sure that severity is the key issue. The complicit nature of those in the know, is.

Trust me, in no way shape or form am I blaming victims. Those boys have been traumatized. Nor am I so foolish as to expect the perpetrators to turn themselves in. They should, but that is not how they operate. My concern is with the rest of the team, the school, and the community. I do not live in Sayreville, and I won’t speak ill of a town reeling from such a scandal, but I think the question that needs to be asked–and hopefully is being asked by investigators–is who knew, what, and when?

The thing about teens is that they talk. They tell stories. Often they can’t keep secrets. Based on the media reports out of Sayreville, the hazing that occurred is as much tradition as is the support of the team. And so it is only fair to deduce that someone knew. Or a lot of people, really. Not just the team. Not just their immediate friends. But certainly the coaches, and maybe some of the staff; possibly administration. I’m willing to bet former players knew. Yet, no one spoke out, so far as we know. That fact speaks to the power of abuse and the grip it holds. Everyone feared speaking because of the potential victimization he or she would receive. With good reason.

In Press Play, the lacrosse team is involved in brutal and systematic hazing. No one talks because they know better. No one talks because the powers that be are complicit, possibly more than. No one talks because the town’s economy depends on the team. No one talks because there is no one to talk to.

Some people have had a problem with that concept, of students not trusting adults, or adults being cast in such a negative light. I respect that. And more often than not, teens should be able to trust adults. Except for when they can’t.

That’s why I was thrilled to see a recent review by a librarian who went back and reread Press Play after the allegations is Sayreville came forth. In her words, “I had to reread Press Play this week after hearing about the hazing in Sayreville, NJ, on the news. When I first read the book, it seemed like an over-the-top version of team hazing and bullying, designed to get people talking. After watching the Sayreville superintendent’s press conference on his decision to completely cancel their football team’s entire season, I realized that there is much more reality to this than I ever wanted to believe.”

No one wants to imagine that anyone is capable of being involved on any level with something so atrocious. But people are. And it is as bad, if not worse, in reality, than any fiction I can write.

The reviewer goes on to make a powerful statement in support of Press Play: This is well-written, gripping, and I recommend this for 8th grade and up.
I really want my…graduates in high school to read this. But I also want my 8th graders to read this. There is a lot of swearing, and the bullying scenes should literally make your blood run cold. The reason I want my 8th graders to read this is that I want them to think carefully about what kind of person they want to be when they get to the high school. What do you want yourself to do when the lights go out and you hear the wolf howl signal? Will you step up and say something, and will you keep saying something until someone listens? Will you hide in the back and say nothing while you watch? Or will you be laughing and egging someone on? What kind of character does it take to do the right thing in the face of certain ostracism, and possible violence?”

These are the questions posed to Greg, the protagonist in Press Play. He, who has been bullied and victimized for as long as he can remember, has to decide to step up or stay silent. His journey into the darkness is disturbing, but so worth the read if you care to understand the impotent rage that these athletes feel, these students feel, that you will feel.

Press Play will be published two weeks from today. Read, and continue the conversation, because events like the one at Sayreville are far from behind us.