Hundreds hear message of valuing what 'makes you tic'
"I've seen and heard a lot of kids in my school get bullied," said Marla Friedson, 16, a junior at Staples High School.
"People will jokingly pretend to be nice to people ... to get a reaction out of them," she said. "They do it in a way so you may not even realize you're being made fun of."
Judging by the positive reaction to speaker Marc Elliot, who has Tourette syndrome and is the author of "What Makes You Tic," many Westport students share Friedson's disdain for bullying in all its subtle forms.
Elliot spoke to student audiences at Staples and both Bedford and Coleytown middle schools this week, as well as a community forum attended by hundreds Wednesday night at Staples. Many in the audience for Elliot's nighttime presentation had heard him at their earlier school assemblies, but returned with their parents to again hear his message of creating a culture of tolerance at school and in the larger community.
Having not only had Tourette syndrome but an intestinal disorder known as Hirschsprung's disease, Elliot gave an intensely honest and humorous account of how these conditions have affected his life.
"I really just had a chance to see what it's like to be different from everyone else," he said.
But Elliot decided to use his physical maladies as a means of teaching others the importance of tolerance based on the idea that one never knows the reasons behind anyone else's behavior.
"Do you really know what's going on in that person's life?" he said. "Maybe we just happened to experience that person at that one bad moment in their day."
Elliot also spoke of the lessons he has learned about personal tolerance and acceptance.
"If you could be totally okay" with yourself, he said, "it wouldn't matter what anyone else was thinking about you."
He likened his Tourette condition to having "an itch," and said it became an obsessive-compulsive coping skill to use different "tics" -- cursing, shouting out and banging his teeth among them -- to satisfy that itch.
"I actually believe everyone has Tourette in that we have that itch," he said. "We do different things to make this bad feeling go away."
"What if I could actually change my perception of the itch ... so when I feel the itch, I can have a totally different relationship with it?" he said, attributing his diminishing symptoms the affliction to his personal work with "human potential courses" in New York.
" `Live and Let Live' goes both ways," he said, noting the importance of changing personal perceptions also plays. "I could keep trying to get rid of the bully, but if that bully never changes, is my life gonna suck?"
He said outside factors, such as an obsessive pursuit of a 4.0 grade-point average, can become just another Tourette-like attempt to scratch an itch.
"If you aren't happy, it's worth nothing," he said.
He cautioned parents to be mindful of passing on the itch. "If we don't change that as adults, we breathe that into our children as well."
After hearing Elliot's message, "I told my mom to come, and I wanted to experience it again," said Jennie Blumenfeld, 15, a junior at Staples.
"His story is really inspiring and it said a lot," said Nicole Burns, 13. "He was different all his life, but he didn't care what people thought.
"He wasn't afraid to be confident in telling people that he had a disability," she added.