Thursday, May 17, 2012

End Bullying

It has been said that I don't care about any one thing enough to move me to protest or participate in a movement to support a cause. Well ok, I might have said that. And, it's mostly true. It is primarily because I am a lazy person by nature but I believe  it has a lot to do with the fact that I believe in governing my own life and don't rely on other people to set rules for me. As long as you're willing to accept the consequences, I think everyone should do what makes them happy. However it would take very little effort to persuade me to rally against bullying, especially the bullying of gay youth. I think that people tend to tune out when someone says we need to "End Bullying" for several reasons but I attribute the main reason is because they've never experienced it first hand. Some people also believe that a little bit of bullying makes you stronger or that if you can't handle it, it makes you weak.
Some people, you know who you are, walk through life with very few complications. Its not a bad thing. Some people  are favored with wealth, good looks, luck, talent, smarts, power, or other blessings that make life a little easier. They very rarely meet any opposition and when they do, they have the support system to overcome it. This is definitely not the story of many, especially those struggling with the acceptance of their heterosexual friends and family members. We aren't blaming you, but we are asking for your help because we can't do it alone.
These aren't stories of people with blank faces. They are the lives of are our friends, kids, nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, and cousins and they are hurting. If you haven't experienced bullying affecting you or your loved ones, don't wait for it to find you because it will. For those who aren't as lucky, their story is harder to tell.  
Its important to remember that each word we speak means something and you never know how your words can affect someone. You are not the only person dealing with stress and sadness and there is no way of knowing what someone else is going through. If we keep that in mind, we're likely to be much more sensitive to the people we come in contact with. Once you put something out there in the universe, you can't take it back and I would hate for any of us to live with regret. Try to limit your sarcasm and "just joking" comments. I know I am as guilty as anyone but I have honestly made a huge change this year on how I speak to the people in my life. I wasn't always aware of how much my words could hurt until my first year of high school.
I'm not proud of the story I'm about to tell you but as attempt to do my part to end bullying, I think I will share it now. This is an example of how the bullied are not the weak ones. (

I changed the names in this story so if there is any correlation to anyone with these names, it is purely a coincidence.)

The person in this story has both haunted and inspired me since I met him. Clay and I were in mostly the same classes because we forecasted into the same advanced education track in middle school. There were about 25 of us that had almost the exact same schedule for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. Many of these students were "popular," smart, good looking, wealthy, and athletic. They were the student government, sports teams, leadership class, royalty of the school age.
Though my personality has generally allowed me to blend in to most social situations, this has not always afforded me the best of friendships, especially when I was younger. I didn't care so much that I had common interests as long as I was mostly accepted and fairly well liked. Technically these people were my friends by I hardly consider myself as one of these "beautiful" people. Even then, I didn't feel like I was fitting in and I was probably the reason I was so miserable to other people. Even subconsciously, I must have figured that if I pointed out people who fit in less than I did, no one would notice I didn't belong here either.
Visually, Clay was definitely a sore thumb in the group. He was shorter than average, heavyset, and dressed in secondhand clothes. He had dirty blonde hair which he wore in a disheveled bowl cut usually tucked up onto a tattered Yellow Stone Park baseball hat. His skin was pale and littered with freckles on his arms and face. He usually wore plain brightly colored tee shirts, mis-matched gym shorts, white tennis shoes (a size or two too large), and gym socks pulled up mid-calf.

He distinctively waddled from side to side as he walked, always shuffling frantically about from class to class, clutching his notebook to his chest, staring down at the floor in front of him. Because he kept his eyes fixated on the ground in front of him, he would often bump into people passing him in the hallway which would elicite commented like "Watch where you're going, fat ass," from numerous students on a daily basis. We would mock him as he passed by our lockers saying "He's late, he's late, he's late for a very important date," then, clutching our own binders to our chests, imitated him waddling down the hallway in the manner that he was famous for.
He didn't usually speak up, but when he did, he had a very scratchy and high pitched voice that did not fit his large stature. If he was brave enough to raise his hand to answer a question from our teacher, the roomed echoed with our snickering and silenced squeals of laughter. We would do what we could to exclude him from group projects and it even resulted in him having to partner with one of our teachers from time to time. When he did partner up with a few of the guys in the class, they always gave him the female roles telling him that he was the most "feminine" and should be in charge of the "girl stuff."
Even band class offered no relief for Clay. He played the flute and was the only male in a flute chair. The teacher would say "Ok, ladies, let's take it from the top," without correcting himself when referring to the flute section and his students were not afraid to follow in his footsteps. His large build would cause him to sit forward and awkwardly hold his flute by resting his elbow on his stomach. It didn't go unnoticed by the other students in our class, especially the other boys, who would try to imitate this by sitting forward on their chairs, holding their instruments slightly askew, stating that they were “playing Clay-style.”
The bullying continued incessantly for 6th-8th grade. Obviously we knew that it isn't nice to tease people or make fun but I don't think we really realized the impact we were making in Clay's daily life.

When we returned to school for our Freshman year, I didn’t even recognize Clay at first. Rumors flourished through the halls about him and his new look. It was in the last class of the day when I had my first sighting of him. He had grown a few inches over the summer and lost a significant amount of weight. It was obvious that he had been working out because he his arms and legs were toned. Though he had clearly developed his own style, he still wore his clothes baggy as if he wasn’t accustomed to his new physique. His hair was cut short and styled well. He walked upright instead of hunched over, and looked straight forward into our faces as he strutted down the hallways.  He had finally managed get the kinks out of his squeaky voice and now he spoke in deep, steady tones with a new kind of confidence.
A combination of “What I Did this Summer” essays, gossip, and an anti-bullying presentation Clay delivered to the middle school, gave a pretty eye-opening look at what caused the change in Clay's demeanor and appearance.
He coordinated with the principle of our old middle school to spread the word about bullies to the incoming 8th grade class. He stood on a empty, undecorated stage at a pulpit in front of a single microphone to deliver his message. He clicked his stack of papers on the wooden pulpit nervously a few times and it echoed around the celiing in the silent auditorium. He seemed slightly nervous but he cleared his throat and told his story without falter.

He explained that after enduring hurtful comments and ridicule from the students in his classes, on most days, Clay walked almost 5 miles home to stop at the food bank on his way home. Because thee school bus wouldn't drop him anywhere but his home address and his mother was not able to leave her home or drive, these types of basic household chores fell to him.  He lived with his mother in a run-down one bedroom home. Clay slept on a cot in the corner of the main dining area, partitioned off by old ratty sheets. The only bedroom in the home, and the location of the only bathroom, belonged to his mother. She had been battling terminal brain cancer for a few years and was resigned to her bed. She had lost some of her motor functions and due to the family’s low income, Clay was his mother’s sole caregiver. They were able to pay a nurse to administer her chemo therapy twice a month but Clay was trained to give her any other IV medications, prescriptions, and grooming she required.

His father committed suicide a few years prior from alcoholism that eventually lead to a severe depression. He shot himself in the family's only vehicle, an old rusty Chevy station wagon, and was found by his unsuspecting 10-year-old son, Clay, one day after school.
He told everyone about how hard it was for him to stay positive. Every day, he came home, headed straight to his "room," and cried into his pillow. He stared into the mirror stretching out his chubby cheeks at different angles to thin out his face. He glanced down at his dingy wardrobe and pictured what he might look like in a fresh new suit with matching hat with shiny black shoes. He would daydream of busting through the front doors of the school and wow-ing everyone with his snazzy pinstripes, jaws would drop to the floor as he strutted down the hall. He looked back into the mirror and watched  the tears streamed down his pale freckled face as he realized he hated the boy in front of him.  He wondered if there was anyone who didn't hate him. He tried to think of anyone who might miss him if he weren't around and seriously considered killing himself. He thought that if his first 13 years were this miserable, he didn't want to stick around to see what other hands fate might deal him.

It was that particular time in his life when he decided that he didn't want these other people to dictate the way the rest of his life would play out. He managed to finally find some escape near the end of 8th grade when he started playing basketball and getting in shape. He used the negativity as motivation to make a change in himself. He wanted to be confident enough to confront his bullies, teachers, and other peers when he returned to school and felt that his physical appearance was the first step. He spent every day running, lifting weights, swimming, shooting hoops, and playing guitar. He loved the music, the dancing, and the performances. It was during this time when he finally started to figure out who he was. He wrote about the pain and frustrations that he had been carrying with him. I think what he said next really caught us all by surprise.

"Even after all of the bad things I've endured over the years, nothing was as difficult as telling my mom that I was gay."

Though he debated not telling his mother because of her ill-health, he worried that he would later regret it and chose to come her about 5 months before she died. His mother came from a very old-school Christian way of life and even in her cancer-weakened state, she made it very clear to her son that this was not a lifestyle that was acceptable. She spent her last days sick in bed, ridiculing him for being gay. She stopped calling him by name and referred to him only by offensive gay slurs like "homo" and her "faggot son." No matter how it affected her health, she would not allow him to assist her in showering herself (which he had previously done multiple times a week for over two years), insisting that he was sexually corrupt and would likely molest her. The day before she passed away, she told him that their family legacy would die with her because she did not want a homosexual on their family tree.

After being bullied by everyone in his life, including his mother, he decided to fight back. He used his optimism to push through the negativity that surrounded him and take a stand against bullying. He stood up there and talked about his experience with bullies in middle school and from his mother like they were old, healed battle scars. It was amazing to see his transformation after only 6 short months. He talked about journals he read of teens who'd taken their lives as a result of the bullying they received at school and how he wanted to be a voice for them. He ended by saying that if he only stops one person from saying one negative thing to another person, he would consider that telling his story was a success.

I hope that repeating it now will yield the same success.

As Ellen would say "Be kind to one another."

1 comment:

  1. OMG, that poor kid. I hope he is doing well now. What a lot to overcome! Did things work out for him? Are you in touch? He deserves a medal, more than a medal.