Harrison Paxton had never heard of Tourette syndrome before Tuesday afternoon. Yet the fifth-grader knows what teasing feels like.
“When I first came to this school, I got bullied a little bit,” said Harrison, a 10-year-old with crew-cut blond hair. “I came in third grade (and was bullied) because I was new and sometimes I didn’t know what to do.”
Harrison could only imagine the cruelty he might face if he had uncontrollable body movements, like Jaylen Arnold, the 9-year-old boy who stood Tuesday before 400 or so students at Bartow Elementary Academy and described life with Tourette syndrome.
Jaylen appeared during a presentation along with actor Dash Mihok, who also has Tourette’s. The assembly, covered by a crew from the CBS Evening News for future broadcast, was the first in what Jaylen hopes will be many anti-bullying appearances at local schools.
A third-grader at Lakeland’s Victory Christian Academy, Jaylen said he has both experienced and witnessed bullying, particularly after briefly switching to another school in second grade. With the help of adults, he created a Web site (www.jaylenschallenge.org) in May.
Jaylen at first seemed intimidated as he gazed at the auditorium full of students wearing maroon, green or white polo shirts, yielding the floor to Mihok.
“I’m an actor in the movies,” said Mihok, whose credits include “Romeo + Juliet” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” “This is my buddy, Jaylen Arnold. He’s not an actor, yet, but he is an activist. … This kid here, Jaylen, is my inspiration for doing what I do.”
Eventually Jaylen took the microphone and ventured into the audience to field questions. A boy asked why he had been bullied.
“Because I was twitching at school and jumping and they said I was weird or psycho,” Jaylen said.
Answering another question, he added, “They never even touched me but they made fun of me with words. It felt really bad. I almost wanted to cry.”
When a boy asked whether Jaylen still gets picked on, he replied, “No, because all my friends defend me.” The audience erupted in applause.
Mihok talked about his own Tourette symptoms, which were more pronounced in his childhood but persist in the form of repetitive hand and head movements. He asked whether any of the students had been teased before, and virtually every hand went up. Then he asked how many of the students had teased other children. Only a few admitted to that at first, but eventually most of the hands rose.
The actor prowled the auditorium, asking students for examples of bullying. One girl said she was teased for being a slow runner. Another said her sister endures mockery because she has an attention-deficit disorder.
Mihok led the audience in a chant of Jaylen’s motto, calling out “Bullying” as the children answered in unison, “No way!”
Alli Rendell, a second-grader, was one of many students who made comments during the presentation. She said she had never heard of Tourette syndrome before but recalled seeing a friend teased at summer camp because he “acted a little weird.”
“I liked it (the presentation) because I wouldn’t bully him,” Alli, 7, said afterward. “I would feel really bad for him because if people were bullying him, I wouldn’t feel good if it was me.”
Harrison Paxton said of Jaylen’s appearance, “He was brave to do it.”
Jaylen’s parents, Howard Arnold and Robin Arnold, helped him hand out blue-and-yellow rubber wristbands saying “Bullying No Way!” and copies of a book, “Bullying: Why Would You Want To Do That?” They also gave the school’s principal, Carol Borders, a DVD of “Front of the Class,” a movie about a teacher with Tourette syndrome, and posters for the school’s hallways.
After the younger students filed out, Jaylen talked to the fifth-graders. One asked what was the best thing that ever happened to him. Jaylen answered without hesitation, “Right now.”
[ Gary White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 863-802-7518. ]
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