I remember a point in my life when being different was dangerous. A period when words such as “smart”, “amicable”, and “Hispanic” were replaced with derogatory terms such as “nerd”, “gay”, or “dirty.” I never understood why I was subject to such cruelty; I don’t know why someone is humiliated because they prefer to play the violin to playing football. Or why one can be teased because they would rather play Pokémon over going to the school dance. None of these qualities seem offensive? They don’t seem to induce harm onto himself or herself, or anyone else for that matter? So why is it that individuals still continue to struggle to embrace their individuality?

We live in a world where individuals struggle to be valued for their intrinsic beauty. People are negatively judged by the color of their skin, sexual orientation, intelligence, taste of Netflix shows, career choice, etc. and etc. Because of these differences in personal characteristics, people are teased, shunned, and, at times, even killed because of it. I’ve seen people desperate to find acceptance within the cyber anonymity rather than in the real world because the real world would treat you differently.

It took me awhile to come to value facets of my personality, to embrace my unique qualities rather than be ashamed of them. But I sympathize that some individuals still struggle to find acceptance within them.

When I was a Youth Leader for the Holy Rosary Youth Ministry Program, there was a project I got to lead called “Words Will Never Hurt Me.” This was something I was passionate about teaching because it was an excellent way to demonstrate the impact negative comments or jokes can have to a person’s character and self-esteem. I’ve included a step-by-step process of how the lesson goes in the event that you wish to demonstrate this to a group of individuals yourself.

Supplies: large sheets of paper (preferably the size of a person), some coloring utensils, scissors, tape, and people (the more, the merrier!).

Step 1: Divide the participants into groups. This will all depend on the number of participants and your personal preference. Try to have as many groups possible with no less than 4 people.

Step 2: One individual should volunteer to be lay down on the sheet of paper and be traced onto it. It would be best that whomever traces the individual be of the same gender (e.g. if a male decides to lay on the paper, then a male should trace him; if it’s a female volunteering, then a female traces).

Step 3: Make the tracing aesthetically appealing and human. Decide which gender to make it, give it some hair, mouth, eyes, etc. Use color and make the new pseudo-human as real as possible.

Step 4: Create a story for the constructed doll. There are no limitations here—give it a family, interests, academic and career aspirations, favorite movies, perhaps a pet, fears, anything and everything you can come up with! Be creative. Again: there are no limitations. However, be respectful and mature. Do not create anything offensive or that will make individuals in the space uncomfortable.

Step 5: After all the tangible and intangible characteristics are completed, have each group present their dolls. Have them show what they drew and describe which qualities and/or story they gave their creation.

Step 6: Once each group has presented, then swap dolls amongst the groups. Make sure each group has another group’s construction, and that no group has their own.

Step 7: With the dolls swapped, have the groups insult the dolls. For every insult, tear off a piece and hang onto it. Make sure each person gives at least one insult.

Disclaimer: This is in no way to encourage bullying or offensive behavior—this is only necessary to get the full effect of the activity. Do make sure no boundaries are crossed, and that insults are not direct or insinuated to any individual in the group. It is paramount that people feel safe during this activity.

Step 8: Once each person has given at least one insult and have torn a piece, give them about 5 minutes of reflection. Let the groups talk amongst themselves and discuss what they have just down and how they feel.

Step 9: Now use the tape to repair and construct the dolls back. RULE: If you need a strand of tape, you must offer a genuine compliment.

Step 10: Once the dolls are brought back to their original state (as best as possible, of course), offer another 5 minutes of reflection. See how the participants feel now compared to how they felt before. What are their thoughts on the activity? After groups have talked amongst their niches, have each group share at least one insight their group discussed. Once each group has done that, allow anyone to share their thoughts.

The entire purpose of this project is to figuratively demonstrate the emotional impact individuals feel from a verbal assault on their character. When the groups initially created their respective doll, it was perfect in their eyes—they created it, of course. And when the groups presented it, they should have no problems announcing to the whole class the specific qualities of that creation. However, once you put them in a new environment—a new group—they can be ridiculed, bullied, made fun of, negatively judged, make crude assumptions, or just not accepted or liked.

When the groups offer an insult and tear off a piece, this is to symbolize the damage done onto them. And when they offer a compliment and try to tape it back up, this is to show that even if you apologize or try to ameliorate the pride and self-esteem of an individual, they are still left with a scar that shows the adversity they endured. Additionally, this also shows how simple it is to cause damage, and yet how difficult it can be to put something (or someone) back together.

This project exemplifies the need to prevent any derogatory or offensive thoughts regarding individuals who are not entitled to such behavior; that our world should be one of tolerance and acceptance on a grand scale, and that no one should ever experience the pain of discrimination. I will forever remain passionate about this subject and continue to lead this so that, one-by one, group-by-group, we can begin moving in the right direction for universal equality and acceptance. So that we can live in a world where to be different is beautiful.