ATLANTIC CITY — Just after noon Saturday, a group of young boys and girls stared slack-jawed and wide-eyed at a time-lapsed video of Desmond Blair painting a black-and-white portrait of Muhammad Ali with cherry red boxing gloves.
Blair has no hands and was using both his wrists to hold the brush.
“You accept the fact that you don’t have hands,” Blair said. “You were born different. And then everything that came after that was just the process of figuring out how you were going to do something.”
The children were among dozens gathered at the Noyes Arts Garage for a discussion on the culture of bullying presented by the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey and moderated by Dallas-based artist Blair as well as former Dallas Cowboys cornerback and resort native Pete Hunter.
Blair learned how to write with the help of his grandmother, who started him with chunky crayons and coloring books. He tried writing with his feet and mouth but finally settled on using both his wrists.
Although he could write just like any other kid, what Blair called a “random genetic mutation” made him an easy target for bullying.
Instead of lecturing the crowd, Blair and Hunter opened the floor to parents and children who had something to say about bullying, from how it starts to how to deal with it, and the cycle of being a victim, internalizing the trauma and becoming a bully.
While there’s no textbook way to deal with bullying situations, Hunter said, there are choices, including speaking to a parent, teacher or friend, meeting bullying with kindness and knowing your self-worth.
Michele Farrell, an anti-bullying coordinator for Atlantic City schools, said last year alone, the district investigated close to 300 bullying cases in the high school and an additional 100 in the elementary schools.
She said after the forum that the kids in the resort look up to Hunter, and he’s a positive force in the community.
Among the crowd was a group that drove two hours from Faith Temple in Franklin Township, Somerset County.
Pastor Lydia Staton brought her 27-member youth group to the museum inside the Wave parking garage after finding it online, she said.
“It’s important for children of color to see where they come from,” she said, adding they had no Ellis Island.
After she found out about a bullying incident that had affected one of the girls in her youth group, she wanted to attend the forum, too.
Staton said the big takeaway for her was the idea of finding solutions that come from within. While the speakers stressed the importance of bringing any bullying to the attention of a teacher or parent, the conversation seemed always to return to creating a sense of authentic self and confidence in children.
And if a child gets bullied because they are different, Desmond said, they can look at it like an opportunity.
“Learn to accept yourself,” Desmond said. “That’s what you have to do in order to reinforce yourself in such a way that when those bad things happen, you don’t go fight fire with fire — you focus on the good.”