In the crowded third floor of the Jim Rouse Visionary Center at the Visionary Art Museum of Baltimore on Jan. 17, the creator of PostSecret introduced himself and his mission: “My name is Frank Warren and I collect secrets.”
Warren, creator of PostSecret, spoke at the American Visionary Art Museum Anti-Bullying Program, which was held to combat the effect of bullying, particularly in school-age children and young adults. It also aimed to fight the 400 percent increase of teen suicides in the United States in the past thirty years.
Michael Phelps’s mother, Debbie Phelps, spoke as a long-time teacher, principal and superintendent, along with Jan Houbolt, executive director of The Leadership, a program of the Greater Baltimore Committee, who shared his own experiences with bullying.
Warren opened the event, explaining how the Post-Secret project became a worldwide phenomenon, inspiring blogs, books, and multiple art exhibits at the Visionary Art Museum. The PostSecret project began in 2004, when Warren stuck postcards in a variety of locations throughout Washington D.C. and Baltimore, including the nearby “Book Thing.” Over the past nine years, Warren has received more than 500,000 postcards in response and what started as a project has turned into a movement.
He related that as the secrets grew in number, the secrets also grew more personal. Warren presented a secret he received early on in the project: a photograph of a door broken down with holes. Written over the card were the words, “The holes are from when my mom tried knocking down my door so she could continue beating me.” After posting this secret, dozens of people around the world responded with their own pictures of “broken doors,” offering support and strength in times of hurt. In the span of hours, PostSecret became much more than an anonymous blog, it became a method of speaking out against abuse.
Later in his speech, Warren relayed stories of his own history with bullying, boldly referring to himself as someone who used to be a bully.
However, Warren also spoke about the relationship between bullies and the bullied, examining how he believes his being hurt contributed to his own hateful acts. Warren shared a secret published in one of the Post Secret books, relating his own bullying experience.
“When I was in the Fourth Grade, a new kid moved to our neighborhood. He was a charismatic leader who quickly became popular. Soon after, he convinced two of my friends to pin me to the ground and hold open my eyelids. They took turns spitting into my eyes,” Warren said.
Debbie Phelps commented on life as an educator and what you can do to try and help the bullied in these types of situations. She related how, in her experience, the students became like her children and she tried to support each and everyone of them. As they walked through the hallways, Phelps taught them to stand up to their bullies, empowering them to reach their full potential. She also spoke about her son Michael and the story of how after making the Olympic team, another swimmer approached Michael who had bullied him when in middle school. Instead of acting out against the bully, Michael said he did not remember the bully and walked away. Debbie Phelps referred to this as one of her proudest moments as a mother.
Towards the end of the event, every member of the audience was invited to write down their secret and then read it aloud. As members of the audience each shared their brief story of heartbreak, abuse, and personal tragedy, the audience applauded their courage.
Afterwards, Christine McComas, rose to speak about her daughter, Grace McComas’s, suicide following a cyber bullying attack. She spoke about the lack of public support for children facing bullying and the inability of society to overcome its own prejudices against cyber bullying. Each of the three speakers had words of support and encouragement for being able to speak out against bullying.
In a question-and-answer section of the event, Jan Hubalt recommended the Incentive Mentoring Program (IMP) as a great way to offer a support system for bullied children. The program matches under-performing high school students with a family that will encourage them to work hard and graduate. Two IMP volunteers rose to speak on behalf of the program and its great success. The program has a 100 percent graduation rate.
Hopkins, along with many other universities, has its own branch of the Incentive Mentoring Program. This past week, the program enrolled an additional 32 high school freshman and are currently looking for volunteers from the Hopkins and Baltimore area.
“Students in our program face many challenges outside of the classroom that can take an emotional toll. IMP becomes a safe-haven for our students by providing each student with a ‘family’ of up to eight volunteers to ensure each student always has someone they can go to for support,” Samantha Ritwo, a Hopkins junior and Incentive Mentoring Program member, wrote in an e-mail to The News-Letter.