EAST HARWICH – Students at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School played host to country singer Jessie Chris last week as part of a school-wide celebration focused on raising awareness about bullying.
“Hi. I’m from Massachusetts and grew up coming to Cape Cod for vacations,” Chris said to the cheering sixth, seventh and eighth graders, many of whom wore hand-knit blue hats in celebration of “Hats not Hate” day, a movement started by Lion Brand Yarns. The yarn company began its effort in 2018, inviting people to knit, wear and share blue hats as a “symbol in the craftivist moment to eradicate bullying.” Last year, 2,600 hats were knitted; this year that number was nearly 30,000.
With an eye toward Chris’s concert, a handful of parents and grandparents, family friends and knitting groups pitched in to make more than 100 hats for students to share at CCLCS. Each grade nominated a number of peers whom they believed to be extra helpful or kind; those students received the handmade hats. Other young people chose, encouraged by their student government representatives, to wear their own blue hats to the Chris concert. Students School Director Paul Niles presented Chris with a hat.
“It was really great to observe a sea of blue hats last Tuesday,” Niles said. “The support from the folks who did the knitting, and the enthusiasm that students and staff showed for the cause was really gratifying.”
Chris, 22 years old and recently named “Artist to Watch” by Billboard Magazine, has visited more than 150 middle schools where she tells her own story, offers a question and answer period, reads her new children’s book Dreams,” and performs several songs.
The beginnings of Chris’s story is a familiar one for victims of bullying. She described herself as a happy, active, and involved student in elementary school. Her school days turned lonely as she moved through middle school. She described being bullied because she was quirky, different, and dreamed of becoming a country singer.
Chris wound up skipping field trips, clubs, and dances. Retreating to her bedroom after school, her “safe place,” the songs she wrote about her experiences became her “diary.”
“I am actually thankful for all I went through,” Chris said. “It shaped me and made me who I am.”
Having heard about Chris’s efforts to spread kindness among children, New Kids on the Block artist Danny Wood asked Chris to record the song “Bodyguard.” Her music video “Rome” was featured on the children’s channel Nickelodeon. Students were dazzled by Chris’s “who I’ve met” list, which she named for them with seemingly equal incredulity. Her easy, friendly banter with the children clearly resonated.
“If I have one thing to say, it’s never, ever, ever let anyone talk you out of your dreams,” she said. “As long as you know in your heart you’ve always done everything you can to be kind, you know you’re doing the right thing.”
Chris said her favorite expression is that “dreams come in a size too big so we can grow into them.”
Following her performance, students swarmed around Chris, posing for pictures with the performer, and asking for autographs.
Jennifer Hyora, the school’s special education and ELE coordinator, said she admired Chris’s emphasis on inclusion and acceptance.
“Those are core beliefs and values of CCLCS,” she said. “Students can relate to her call for kind words and gestures, whether they be big or small. We see those acts in our students every day.”
Niles agreed, adding that role models for middle schoolers, “be they an artist like Jessie Chris, or a scientist, or a writer, who has overcome adversity in their middle school lives and can describe their experience skillfully and genuinely can help students see beyond their own struggles to the light beyond.”
While Massachusetts has one of the strongest anti-bullying laws in the country, the Center for Disease Control says nearly 30 percent of high school students report being bullied at school or online. However, reported cases in the state each year hover around 2,000, suggesting few students report incidents of bullying.
“The power dynamics that underlie bullying are as old as human socialization, which is to say that some aspects of bullying have not changed,” said Niles. “The story of a perpetrator trying to fill gaps in their own emotional landscape through aggression towards a target is timeless. Obviously, the tools available for 24/7 social discourse is a big part of the story today, and makes social management more challenging for adults.”
However, Niles optimistically pointed out that for every time he has to closely examine a social media thread because of a violation of some sort, “for every insult thrown out there are many times more supportive comments from kids trying to make the situation better.”
Parent Maggie Langway said she was excited by the challenge of making hats for the students. Chris, a cousin of the Langway family, heard about CCLCS through Maggie.
Langway said her intention was to make 10 hats. However, she made many more and gathered additional blue hats from family and friends.
“I’m not a knitter or crocheter so I recruited a few family and friends to help out. A friend, Rhonda Garran, offered to teach my daughters and me how to loom knit,” she said “Well, I got hooked and starting making hats in my spare time. And before I knew it, I had a ton and family and friends continued to help me out.”
Langway said wearing a “hat not hate” hat is a simple reminder that “we all need to be a bit kinder.”
“We are all different and unique in our own way and should not judge those that are not like us,” she said. “We need to embrace everyone for who they are and the hat reminds kids to be kind.”