Portrait of the Bully as a Young Man

Jeff on the outside

Intro from Jay Allison: Jones Franzel (she directs Generation PRX and is Blunt Youth Radio Project’s Senior Producer for their Incarcerated Youth Speak Out Program in Maine) has been focusing on stories about bullying lately, but this one was different. She thought it would be a youth-produced feature about Jeff, a bully who ended up in jail, but the portrait changed course, brought Jones into it, and tread on her boundaries between teacher and reporter. She writes thoughtfully about the process. The piece, the final one produced through the 2011 Donor Fund, features interviews which are remarkably frank, messy, and like life. No tidy endings here.

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About Portrait of the Bully as a Young Man

Sometime in the fall of 2010, after I had seen or heard or read another bullying story about terrible things happening to young people, I realized that the coverage of these terrible things was totally devoid of young people’s voices.

I started thinking that Generation PRX – the youth radio project I direct for PRX – could do something to change this. The 60 or so youth radio groups in the network encompass hundreds of teen producers or, put another way, a huge pool of actual experts on bullying. How could we give their stories more of an audience?

But sometimes, fields lay fallow a while. It took nearly a year before a grant came in to officially move the project forward (that project became Bullied: Teen Stories from Generation PRX, an hour-long special produced by Catie Talarski and Connecticut Public Radio). In the meanwhile, I put a call out to the GPRX network, I edited a story on bullying for Under the Sun in Miami, and I brought the idea of bullying to my students at the Long Creek Youth Development Center here in Maine. Which is when Jeff offered this: I’ve BEEN a bully. And not only have I been a bully, I’ve been a TERRIBLE bully. And the guy who expelled me? Works here now. I’ll talk about it.

And so it began.

Some Background or, Why this was all Terribly Uncomfortable

For the past 5 years, I’ve been Blunt Youth Radio Project’s Senior Producer for their Incarcerated Youth Speak Out Program. Along with Founder and Director (and unstoppable force of nature) Claire Holman, we teach radio broadcasting twice a week to 16-20 year-olds locked up at the Long Creek Youth Development Center. We use iMacs (remember those?) and MiniDisc recorders (and those?), and the kids spend six weeks producing features, which are then broadcast during Blunt’s regular weekly slot on WMPG. Students who have earned facility clearance come to the station to live host the show. Watching the kids on air – proud, nervous and getting through it all – ranks as some of the most exhilarating and rewarding teaching I’ve done. For many of the students, it’s the first time they are performing in public as well as the first time they experience the power of being listened to. They own that show, in every sense.

Long Creek Youth Development Center
Long Creek Youth Development Center

So when Jeff offered to do a story on being a bully, we always assumed that the students in the class would produce it. They took turns interviewing Jeff, the principal, and local bullying authorities. They started to write and record tracking. But then the story started to get more complicated. It took longer. One by one, each of the other students was released from the jail. And finally, it was up to me, Claire and Jeff to see it through. Transom provided just the right motivation.

I should say off the bat: I’ve never tried this kind of collaboration before. I’ve been teaching radio to teens for nearly 10 years, but the roles have always been clear. The students produce, voice, imagine, create; I facilitate, guide, help where needed. Part of what I love about teaching radio is staying behind the scenes and witnessing my students arrive in themselves as storytellers.

With this piece, I found myself acting as both reporter and teacher, and what I discovered was…palpable inner conflict. As a teacher, if there’s tension or danger, I step in right away. I take seriously my obligation to keep the environment safe (double that in a jail, where most of my students have suffered trauma). But the reporter? The reporter needs to capture the moment on tape, to collect evidence of what’s actually happening. So, me? I often felt half way between – not quite putting a stop to uncomfortable interviews, not quite chronicling events unfolding. I was lucky that Jeff was both patient and honest, giving me chances to learn and relearn this balancing act.

The Amazing Disappearing Reappearing Story or, Saying Goodbye to the Story you Thought you were Telling

As I worked on this, I found myself relishing Chris Brookes’ wonderful Transom Sidebar, Three Secret Ingredients in Great Features (which even breaks the rules it sets out in the title), especially this part:

Feeling, blind feeling. Feeling what it is, but not knowing. Having a hunch about the direction it lies in. But if you KNOW what it is, then there’s no point in making the feature. Give up. The feature is the search, the journey. It’s a process, explicitly not leading to a destination, but just vaguely pointing in the right direction.

A lot of us have an idea about bullying that goes something like this: Kid becomes a bully because he’s secretly insecure and wounded, maybe has a hard life, kid grows up, changes, and gets better.

Suddenly, the neat, redemptive, uplifting story I thought I was telling was… gone.

That, in fact, was the story we thought we were telling when we set out. In those early interviews, the way that Jeff talked about his bullying sounded like someone looking back from a changed place. He was sorry; he was older. Things were different. But the more I got to know him, the more that didn’t hold up. Jeff doesn’t have intentions of changing a habit that’s gotten him this far.

Suddenly, the neat, redemptive, uplifting story I thought I was telling was… gone. But blind feeling in the dark? A search without a destination? That we had in spades.

With the help of several genius saints (see below), I started to feel my way through a much messier story: bullying works for Jeff. As a teacher, I struggled with wanting to steer away from this truth. But the reporter in me – who was actually on the job – knew that only an honest account would create a meaningful piece.

Over the course of the next year, I interviewed Jeff in jail, with various friends, getting out, and finally back at his aunt’s home in rural Maine. His relationship to bullying is evolving.

Not to get too awards season, but I would like to lay flowers down at the feet of some amazing editor friends without whom this story would have floundered: Viki Merrick, Patty Wight, Laura Starecheski and Jon Courtney. Patient generous geniuses, all. Claire Holman and Rob Rosenthal stepped in with their kind expertise too. And of course, deepest gratitude to Jeff White, who came forward with unflinching honesty and made all of this possible.

Tools and other production notes

Recorders: Sharp MD-SR60 (note to self… time to upgrade!)
Mike: Beyerdynamic M58 or motley assortment used by LCYDC students
Editing and sound design: Pro Tools 8 on an MBox Mini

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Additional support for this work provided by the Transom Donor Fund.

Jeff on the outside

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Jones Franzel

About
Jones Franzel

Jones Franzel, as the Project Director of Generation PRX, helps youth radio groups share their stories with the world via PRX. She is also Senior Producer for Blunt Youth Radio's Incarcerated Youth Speak Out Project and regularly teaches and writes on all things youth media-related. Jones co-founded "Youth Noise Network," at the Center for Documentary Studies and studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. She lives in Maine with her husband, two-year-old, and the world’s sweetest dog.

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  • david krest

    3.13.12

    Reply

    Congrads
    whatever it takes to survive we will do

  • Jeff Emtman

    3.15.12

    Reply

    Great work, Jones.

    You chose a really fascinating topic for this piece. Jeff’s speech–his blunt stories and his rhythm really drew me in.

    My favorite part was his interaction with the principal of his school. That back and forth is great because it pulls the listener out of the story to look at the bigger picture: bullies do end up somewhere–they don’t just disappear into the ether after middle school.

    The moments that made me lean forward were the brief encounters with others (former principal, bill collectors, etc.) and I wished that there were more of them.

    The ending caught me a bit off guard. And while I liked that you caught up the listener where Jeff is today, it sounded cookie-cutter, especially with the closing line, “maybe that’s all any of us need.” It just came off a bit flat–a generality that isn’t entirely applicable, but closed off the story.

    This is a fantastic story. Great work, Jones.

    Jeff

  • Jones

    3.19.12

    Reply

    Thanks for the kind words and the close listening, Jeff – very much appreciated.

    And your points are well-taken. One of the challenges of recording in a jail is how difficult it is to orchestrate genuine encounters with others. Because individuals – and their interactions – are so closely regulated, we struggled to get those real moments on tape (many interviews with Jeff and his friends ended up on the cutting room floor precisely because they lacked that conversational back and forth).

    Appreciate your feedback on the ending, too – excellent food for thought.

    Again, thank you!

    Jones

  • Gerald ( Jerry ) Hill

    1.04.13

    Reply

    Interesting story, but there’s more to how bullying works than just this. The dialogue between Jeff and his old principal start to reveal an important aspect of the culture, when the principal has a hard time admitting what he did in HS was bullying.
    I’ve found that most bully’s have been bullied them selves by an adult family members they couldn’t stand up to.
    But does it really start as bullying or could it start in preschool/kindergarten when young children are trying to find out
    what power they have over their world. There are a lot more questions we need to get answers too.
    This is a great open story on one person and I hope you’ll explore deeper into the subject.

    Thanks,

    Jerry

  • dtaylor32ford

    8.06.13

    Reply

    A sense of community…belonging, the authors last sentence, right on. That’s why unemployment or welfare does not work for people, it’s very unhealthy to not feel a sense of community without a job.

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