Marissa Burns has had plenty of experience with bullies.
She’s never really been bullied herself. Neither has she ever been the one doing the taunting and teasing.
But the 18-year-old has intervened plenty of times. Always ignoring the risk of becoming a target herself, she has stepped in multiple times to stop her peers from inflicting pain on each other with words and insults.
This so impressed her parents, James and Laura Burns, that they nominated her for the diocesan Hands of Christ award. This honor is given annually to high-school seniors who’ve been actively involved in service to their communities, churches and schools. Last spring Burns was one of approximately 800 diocesan teens who received the recognition.
"She tells us of the students being bullied in the school hallways, and she takes it upon herself to stop (it), removing the student being taunted from the scene, and finds a way to make them smile," Burns’ parents wrote in their nomination letter.
A member of Good Shepherd Catholic Community in southern Cayuga County, Burns said she’s not trying to earn recognition, but just trying to live out her Catholic faith and help others.
"I try to have good morals. I try to do good things for people," said Burns, who later this month will enter Wells College, where she plans to major in English and hopes eventually to become a journalist.
Before graduating this past June, Burns was a two-sport athlete at Southern Cayuga High School, where she played soccer and basketball. She also belonged to the school’s drama club, portraying such colorful characters as the town drunk in school productions.
"All through high school … I had lots of different groups of friends because I did sports and I did the plays. There were lots of cliques in my school, so I was kind of in the middle," she said.
Burns frequently put her influence with peers to good use. She said she didn’t tolerate malicious gossip, even if the target of the gossip wasn’t within earshot. If she heard someone saying something negative about another student, Burns said she would gently remind her friends that their target had never done anything to warrant such poor treatment.
"Usually they were just like, ‘OK Marissa. Fine, we’ll stop,’" she said.
Burns said she also intervened when she saw other students being picked on, or when the teasing took place face-to-face. Bullies sometimes picked their targets out of the crowd and taunted them because they didn’t have a lot of friends or dressed differently than most of the other students, she said.
"You kind of have to handle that differently," she said. "I wouldn’t put myself in any physical harm, but I guess I would tell (bullies) to stop doing what they’re doing because it’s not nice. If they’re insecure with themselves they shouldn’t take it out on other people."
"It could turn towards you, but you just have to take that risk," she said of her choice to intervene. "They were never mean to me."
That’s not to say it was easy for Burns to step in. She said it definitely would have been easier to just walk by instead and pretend she didn’t see the teasing taking place, but that she never was able to do that.
"You really have to think about their feelings, too, the people that are getting picked on. In the end it’s always better to just do what you need to do and help the person out," she said.
Burns said she firmly believes personal insecurity is at the root of most bullying behavior. She said some of the girls she occasionally hung out with at school were "stereotypical popular girls," who spent a lot of their time together bemoaning their supposedly too-wide hips and a host of other perceived flaws. When they’d finished tearing themselves down, these girls then turned their attention to their peers, she said.
"After that they would just start up a conversation about someone who they didn’t perceive as being perfect," she said.
Armed with this insider knowledge, Burns tells other teens not to let teasing get to them, although she admits this may be easier said than done.
"The kids who are bullying you really are insecure in themselves. You’re probably a better person than they are, so don’t take it personally," she advised.