Heather Eng

Q&A: Lee Hirsch, Director of the New Documentary “Bully”

Written on April 5, 2012 at 10:49 am , by


In the new documentary Bully, director Lee Hirsch presents an intimate look at how profoundly bullying affects the lives of five children–including two who were driven to commit suicide–and their families. Here, Hirsch talks about making the film, his experience being bullied as a child and what he sees as the solution to bullying.

What inspired you to make the film?
I was bullied as a kid. In elementary and middle school, a group of kids made it their sport to get me every day after school. I had black and blues and my arms were constantly yellow with bruises. It was really, really terrifying. I carried this experience with me and when I became a filmmaker, I knew bullying was a subject I wanted to address—but I didn’t know how to process it and turn it into the right story. Then, around the time when a lot of high profile bullying suicides made national headlines, I knew this film had to be made.

What was your goal?
People often talk about bullying, but there’s a disconnect between the concept and the actual experience of how incredibly violent and terrifying it can be. In part from my own story, I knew how hard it is to communicate how bullying actually happens. We decided to really follow intimately a group of kids and their families to show what they go through–make it live on-screen, and in doing so, be a conversation changer.

How did you select the children you featured?
We found them in different ways. Alex [a 12-year old boy from Sioux City, Iowa] was the heart and soul of the story. The Sioux City district gave us access to film in its schools. On orientation day, we met Alex and saw how other kids would bust past him–we immediately knew he was a kid who was bullied. We learned of other families through the news. With the Smalleys [Ty Smalley, 11, committed suicide in 2010 after being bullied], we reached out to the family and met them the morning of Ty’s funeral. His parents let us know that they wanted us there and wanted people to know what happened. We found Kelby [a 16-year-old lesbian from Tuttle, Oklahoma] through Ellen DeGeneres and her staff. Ellen did a show with the moms of two bullying suicide victims, Carl Joseph Walker and Jaheem Herrera, and Kelby’s mom wrote in to Ellen’s website saying how her family lived in the Bible Belt and was struggling with bullying and how other kids ran over her daughter with a mini van after she came out.

All the kids live in rural areas. Why didn’t you feature any children from urban neighborhoods?
We filmed a family in Minneapolis, but ultimately, the stories were dictated by the access we had to families and schools. It wasn’t a conscious choice to only feature families from small cities, but they were the right choice for the film. Plus, there’s a difference if you’re a family stuck in a town and there’s only one school your kids can attend, no other ballet classes down the street—if you don’t fit into a specific mold, it can feel a lot more suffocating. But we screened the film for a group of black and Latino kids from the South Bronx and they were completely moved and inspired to make a difference. They were absolutely able to connect to the film, even though the settings were so different from their own.

Was it difficult not to step in and intervene while filming?
It was the hardest part of making the film. But ultimately, we did intervene with Alex [once concern for his safety became too great].

One of the most shocking aspects of the film was how clueless many of the school administrators seemed—they appeared unwilling to address bullying or admit it was an issue. Have they seen your film and reacted to it?
It’s been a really amazing journey from our initial conversations with principals, the school board and superintendent. They stuck by us. We screened the film in Sioux City and received a standing ovation. Afterward, Kim Lockwood [an assistant principal featured in the film] said, “I don’t always get it right and I’m trying to do better.” I applaud the entire community for their bravery in airing their dirty laundry in hopes that it’ll change the conversation.

Do you remain in contact with the kids?
I’m in touch with all the kids and their families. They’ve all bonded from being in the film and become their own family. In fact, Alex’s family moved to Oklahoma City to be near the Smalleys and Kelby’s family.

What needs to be done to end bullying?
I think there are many solutions. The one we’re excited about is the opportunity to touch hearts and minds. We want to give kids the encouragement and motivation to see how powerful they can be when they stand up for someone who’s bullied. We’ve had lots of school screenings and seen kids charged up in terms of making the choice. One kid stopped bullying on his school bus and said, “I never would have if I hadn’t seen this film.” We’re also working with school districts and putting together a Facebook tool set that’ll help families know their rights and policies, and talk to schools if their kids are being bullied.

Going back to your experience–when you were bullied as a kid, what’s one thing you wish someone had said or done that might have changed your situation?
There was a group of kids who did stand up for me, which meant the world to me. As I recall, my town was very racially divided—all the white kids ate lunch at one table, all the black kids at another. I was invited to sit at the table with the black kids. They protected me and made me feel safe. That was a game changer. And it goes to show that there’s extraordinary power to stepping up to someone who’s being bullied.

Bully is now in theaters in select cities. Go to bullyproject.com for more information.

Heather Eng is web editor of FamilyCircle.com.

Living with Autism: The Miracle Project and A Different Kind of Egg Hunt

Written on April 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm , by

Guest blogger Elaine Hall, creator of the Miracle Project, on raising her autistic son.

Spring is finally here, and with the coming of warmer temperatures and longer days, the humble egg, once again, is promoted from morning-mundane to sacred icon. Whether being roasted and prominently displayed in Jewish homes on the Passover Seder plate, or hidden and searched for in joyous Easter egg hunts, the egg is transformed.

During the holiday season, usually in April, we will celebrate miracles. Rebirth. Renewal. Redemption. How timely that we also celebrate Autism Awareness Month in April. Autism, for just this one month, also leaves its secluded ubiquity to take stage in our communities’ public forums. Autism Speaks encourages us to “light it up blue,” and the world gets a glimpse of the challenges and joys of families journeying with raising a child with autism.

A little over sixteen years ago, coincidentally, when I received the sad news that my womb would never become a home to my “biological eggs,” I began a new journey. In the month of April 1996, I adopted my now almost 18-year-old son, Neal, from a Russian orphanage when he was 2 years old. He was malnourished and had liver toxicity; he spun around in circles, stared at this hands, banged his head on the floor, never slept, rarely visually referenced others, and he could tantrum for hours.

At the time, I thought all of these disconcerting behaviors were attributable to deprivation in the orphanage. Today we know the signs of Autism – once diagnosed 1 in 10,000, today diagnosed in an astonishing 1 in 110.

In less than a year, Neal grew physically healthy, but he did not “catch up” developmentally.  Shortly before his 3rd birthday, he was diagnosed with severe sensory dysfunction, mental retardation, and severe, nonverbal autism. Soon after, the well-meaning question from friends and family came my way, “Didn’t they tell you,” followed by the crushingly insensitive suggestion from a few, “Send him back.” “He’s my son!” I would respond.  After a few weeks of reeling from this “advice”, I jumped into action. I sought therapists and ‘cures’ from wherever I could find them.

When traditional behavioral treatments did not seem to work for Neal, I turned to the esteemed Dr. Stanley Greenspan (may he rest in peace), who encouraged me to understand Neal’s sensory system, to follow his lead, to join his world, and then to challenge him with adult directed activities. At the time, this methodology was seen as unconventional, so I sought out my friends, actors, musicians, dancers, and other creative people to join Neal’s world 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, until Neal slowly emerged into our world. These methods coalesced into the fundamental approach for The Miracle Project, a theater program I created for children of all abilities, profiled in the HBO film, AUTISM: The Musical. I later chronicled this journey in my memoir, Now I See the Moon, and formulated this methodology into Seven Keys to Unlock Autism (co-authored with Diane Isaacs).

Today, Neal is a happy, joyous, calm, peaceful, and still nonverbal, but extremely intelligent young man, who uses an iPod touch, iPad, and sign language to communicate with the world.  He is adventurous and capable of so many things. Our task now is readying him for adulthood and independence.  One of the common challenges with autism is motor planning and sequencing. To assist Neal with this challenge, every single task must be broken down into small, incremental steps so that he can map on (learn) to do the task. For the past few months, my husband, Neal’s stepfather, Jeff, has been teaching Neal simple cooking tasks. One of which is boiling an egg. Since Neal enjoys eating three hardboiled eggs for breakfast lately most every morning, it seemed appropriate that Jeff would start his cooking lessons with learning to boil eggs. Think about all of the different tasks it takes to boil an egg: Get the pot, fill with water (Neal learned on his own the right amount), take the eggs out of the refrigerator, place eggs ‘gently’ into the pot, turn the fire on, wait 10 minutes, etc., etc., etc. This simple task took months to learn. With the exception of a few broken eggs and several undercooked yolks ending up in the bottom of the sink (Neal never forgot to turn off the burner and use a pot holder), Neal mastered this task and had become our morning chef, even adding another egg in the pot each morning for me.

A few mornings ago, as I was frantically working against a deadline for a grant proposal, Neal motioned to me that we were out of eggs. Pressed for time, I couldn’t go to the store and get them. For the past few weeks, Neal had been working with Ryan, one of his coaches, on going into a store and buying an item on his own. Ryan would wait outside and Neal would return with an apple, or an energy bar. “Hmm, maybe Neal could go get us some eggs?” I thought. “Dare I risk this? If not now, when?” I called Neal over to me and asked him if he wanted to go to the store down the street and buy eggs by himself. He signed ‘yes’ and smiled. “Okay,” I said, and reached into my wallet to hand Neal a five-dollar bill. I instructed him to use his iPod touch to let the man at the counter know he wanted eggs, and then to pay for them and bring back the eggs, the change, and receipt.

I held my breath as Neal walked out the door. I called the store in advance to let them know that Neal was coming in, and then asked them to call me when he left. I clutched my keyboard, not being able to concentrate on the grant proposal – so I reached out to my Facebook friends to calm my anxiety. In less than 15 minutes, Neal returned with the eggs, the change, and the proudest look on his face I had ever seen. He was beaming! And so was I.

Neal’s triumphant egg-hunt, which would be viewed as one small step for a ‘typically developing’18-year-old, was a giant leap toward independence for my sweet son with severe autism. Neal is a constant reminder to our family that the miraculous occurs every day if we’re willing to risk breaking a few eggs.

Wishing you and your family a blessed holiday. May we all continue to embrace the miracles in each and every moment.

Elaine Hall (“Coach E”) is the creator of The Miracle Project. She is the author of the memoir Now I See the Moon which was chosen by the United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day and co-author of Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Making Miracles in the Classroom. The methods Elaine developed to reach kids with autism were profiled in the Emmy Award winning HBO documentary, Autism: The Musical.  Elaine directs an arts enrichment and bar/bat mitzvah program at Vista Del Mar in L.A.  She lives in L.A. with the two loves of her life, her son Neal, and husband Jeff Frymer, a play therapist.

Read all our posts about autism here. Plus, share your experiences with autism, or raising an autistic child, in the comments below.

How Do You Help Your Kids Overcome Rejection?

Written on January 31, 2012 at 6:46 pm , by

Break-ups. Friendship falling outs. Getting passed over for a promotion. Even for us adults, dealing with disappointment isn’t easy–and, in most cases, we’ve been there before and know what we need to get over it, whether it’s time, support from friends and family members, or just keeping busy and staying positive.

But for a teen getting dumped by her first love or receiving a thin envelope from his dream college, the experience can be crushing–especially because it’s something they’ve never dealt with before.

In “How to Help Teens Deal with Rejection,” in Family Circle‘s March issue, writer Ashlea Halpern gets experts’ advice on helping your kid through those social, romantic, extracurricular and academic letdowns that make them feel like their world is ending. Check out the full article here, then tell us:

What crushing disappointments have you helped your kids overcome? Would you have done anything differently? Share in the comments below.

Teens Who Make a Difference

Written on October 25, 2011 at 7:11 am , by


In Family Circle‘s November 29 issue, writer John Hanc profiled five young adults who are changing the world, one small project at a time. Kristen Powers, 18, cleaned up an abandoned lot and started a community garden in its place. Jordan Coleman (pictured above), 16, created two films that educate his peers about dating violence and staying in school, respectively. Sisters Ritwika, 15, and Radhika Mitra, 19, provide Indian artisans with tools to help them make crafts–and a living. And Adin Lykken, 20, holds road races to raise money to support a local animal shelter. Read about them and learn how to get involved in their causes here.

I find their stories humbling and inspiring. I’d love to hear about other teens involved in similar pursuits. Do you know of any? If so, share their stories below.

Should You Discipline Other Peoples’ Children?

Written on September 29, 2011 at 10:50 am , by

When your kid’s friend gets out of line or you see a rowdy tween misbehaving in public, is it your job to step in and lay down the law? Family Circle‘s executive editor, Darcy Jacobs, shares her take on the subject on WCBS. Watch the video below.

What’s your personal policy? Do you feel okay disciplining your friends’ or relatives’ kids? What about strangers’ children? Share your thoughts below.

How Far Would You Push Your Kids to Learn a Second Language?

Written on September 19, 2011 at 11:55 am , by


In today’s increasingly global society, there’s more emphasis than ever to teach kids a second language. But how far would you go to make your kids bilingual?

This weekend’s New York Times magazine featured the fascinating and thought-provoking piece, “My Family’s Experiment in Extreme Schooling.” The author, Clifford J. Levy, a reporter at the paper, was transferred to Moscow for four years. His family accompanied him abroad. But instead of enrolling his kids (then in kindergarten, third and fifth grade) in an English-speaking international school, he and his wife opted to place them in a Russian school. No matter that they didn’t speak a word of the language and wouldn’t have translators or English-speaking tutors. But Levy and wife hoped they would become fluent by immersion. The kids eventually did, but not without lots of effort, resilience and strife. (Not to mention daily did-we-make-the-right-decision doubt on the part of the parents.)

As someone who only speaks one language, I regret never becoming proficient at another, earlier in life. (Though I’m slowly trying to rectify that by studying Spanish.) But now that I know how important and useful it is to be bilingual, I definitely plan to emphasize language-learning when I have kids–even if it’s not as extreme as four years of Russian immersion in Moscow.

How important is raising bilingual kids, to you? Are you pushing your children to become proficient in a second language? If so, which one? If your family ever moved abroad, would you make them learn the language of whatever country you’re in? Share your thoughts below.

photo via ChernoVAnton/flickr

Should Students Be Required to Take Sex Ed?

Written on August 10, 2011 at 2:26 pm , by

In New York City, they will be. Starting this year, sex ed will be a mandated part of NYC’s public school curriculum for middle and high schoolers. The semester-long, co-ed class for 6th or 7th graders and 9th or 10th graders will include lessons on the proper way to use condoms; discussions about pregnancy and STDs; and role-playing exercises teaching kids how to say “No” when they’re being pressured into sex, according to the New York Times.

The article also notes that nationwide, only 20 states and Washington D.C. require sex and H.I.V. education in schools.

Readers, what’s the sex ed situation where you live? Are you for or against mandated classes in school? And when did you start giving your kids “the talk” at home? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.