The whole "It Gets Better" campaign has really been nagging at the back of my mind lately.
I feel like I want to add to the conversation and have a good deal to say about it from experience and as a parent but it comes with both very mixed and very strong emotions on both sides. I've also been hesitant to write anything on the subject because of the focus on the treatment of the gay community and not wanting to distract from it since I think that it's very important.
I think I finally decided to sit down and hammer something out because making issue a "gay thing" certainly makes it seem more isolated and a smaller, easier-to-ignore problem the parents and teachers can give the old "Not with my kids" denial to and look the other way.
Not only that but upon a lot of reflection I realized the motivation behind the actions are not really the problem - which is not the same thing as saying that targeted violence against gays and lesbians is not an issue, far from it - just that the acts of bullying and violence, the need and desire to victimize and dehumanize those around you and the wrong-headed idea that something...anything gives someone permission or the right to do so. That is the core of the problem. It doesn't matter WHY some people feel the right to stalk, brutalize and abuse their peers - no reason would ever make it ok - and that is why this issue resonates with me so profoundly.
I certainly had my experiences with being singled out for violence and it had nothing at all to do with sexuality or really anything else besides maybe just plain and simple individuality. I stuck out in some way and therefore attracted the attention of those small-minded motherfuckers that see themselves as entitled to abuse and dehumanize anyone they can.
I can tell you from experience that no amount of "fitting in" will protect you from this - I can assure you that there were days and weeks where I thought about little else than how to avoid attracting any attention. And really, what a sad statement that is - rather than see the violent and predatory actions of a small group of people (and yes, they are predators in exactly the same way that rapists and gay-bashers and serial snipers are. Don't kid yourself) that have nothing to define themselves with beyond "I am bigger than you" or "we outnumber you" as the problem, I sought to change myself in any way I could to try and fix it. What a horrible notion to try and operate within as someone coming of age, any age.
While the message has changed somewhat these days to tell kids that it gets better, there was no message at the time to tell this kid that he wasn't the problem - quite the opposite, in fact.
Before going any farther I would like to point out that I know there are people reading this (and those that never will) that would wonder how or why, after more than twenty years, I could still dwell on this and have such a reaction. To them I would say that unless you have been on the business end of 3 people beating you and holding your head down to a boot and telling you to kiss it - unless you have had to kneel there and really consider if it's better to kiss the foot that is about to kick you in the teeth and nose and be called a "faggot" or a "pussy" and possibly get kicked slightly less viciously...or if it's better to get savagely and repeatedly kicked in the face and eventually crawl home with some futile scrap of dignity - unless you have been there you can't possibly understand. Give it a try and then you and I can sit down and have a nice, rational conversation about what someone should and should not be able to "let go"
I also know that there are people that will never read this or really understand it - the antagonists in the story...the aforementioned "small-minded motherfuckers" - that would still merrily high-five and talk about how awesome it was that they did these things. Thanks to the wonderful future we find ourselves living in I can now occasionally get "friend requests" from those pieces of human sewage. Ah, wonderful. Somehow the "not now" or "ignore" buttons don't really contain the rage I would like them to convey, even now.
On to my point - which involves myself and four people (to begin with...that number only grew) that I found myself stuck in public school with.
It was the very beginning of high school, actually it was the orientation to the school so this is really my introduction to life in higher education. I had the audacity to provoke "them" by riding a skateboard, that was the only excuse or reason they needed - even though I'm sure when the four of them ran into me they would have thought of something else if I hadn't been on a skateboard - and only thing I was told as to "why this is happening". The reasons are not relevant.
In fact it started with violence, knocking me off my skateboard and then I was told the reason...
Then the four of them - Matt, Kelly, Steve and Nate, people I still have a hatred for that surprises even me, people whose dying screams I would actually love to hear - figured they had justified their decision enough and began punching me, after I went down it turned to kicking. In the face, then the ribs when I would cover my face, then the face when I would cover my ribs. None of which is easy to do with one hand since the other was clinging to my skateboard, which one of them was trying to pull from me to use to bludgeon me with. This went on for ... some time. Who the hell knows how long. Does it matter? This was my unofficial welcome to John F Kennedy Senior HIgh School.
My official welcome to the school came when my parents, rightly so, reported what happened to both the police and the school (since it happened on school property). The Assistant Principal, Sylvia Logerquist, actually spoke to my mother on the phone not long afterward and indignantly asked the question "What do you expect us to do, suspend our football players right before homecoming???"
Read that again if you have the stomach for it. Four people spent as much time kicking me in the face and torso as they thought the act of skateboarding deserved and the people that were directly responsible for putting a stop to such things were actually indignant that we would expect something punitive to happen to someone as important to the school as a football player. More than one football player?? it's like we were just being unreasonable people because we couldn't just shrug and come cheer for the Eagles.
Never mind the fact that I was entering the school in the gifted and honors programs. Ignore the fact that I had never before been in trouble at school for "acting out" - and even if I had, I don't accept that beatings are the logical result - Knowing nothing about me other than the fact that I was the victim of a criminal attack this woman decided her job was to protect my attackers.
I should point out that this same woman, our assistant principal, spent many conversations with me red in the face, in complete exasperation in her office trying to grasp my "clear and total lack of respect" for her and her co-workers. Yet another person that would need to be on the other side of the story to really ever understand the stupidity of the questions they were asking.
But the official message was clear and easy to read from all sides - if your peers don't fit in and you are big enough (or have great enough numbers) you go right ahead and beat them until they straighten up and fly right like a good student. A model student...no, not an honor student that has long hair and rides a skateboard...someone like a football player. That's better.
Jumping forward many years for the sake of contrast, let me present this scenario from the point of view of a parent:
My twin sons are smart. Incredibly smart. Fucking gifted little geniuses almost begins to give you the picture. Aidan reads at better than a high school level and has cognitive skills that frighten me. Owen has a natural grasp of mathematics that I find amazing and I fear for both of them as a parent for different reasons.
Some are familiar and I understand them firsthand: the idea that my small, talkative little Aidan will probably find himself having to consider trying to not "act smart" or think about what he's not quite doing right enough to stop bigger kids from picking on him makes heart pound and fills me with a protective hatred for the world we send him out into.
Owen has autism on top of the curse of being intelligent and because of that I worry about entirely different things - like if he will understand when people are being mean to him early enough to take action or if he will have the capacity to process the complex emotions that come from being victimized in a place that is supposed to be safe and run by adults that he is supposed to trust. I have been trying to process it for more than two decades, sometimes with professional and chemical help, and haven't gotten there yet.
The really striking bridge between my experience as a kid and my concerns as a parent both focus squarely on the people we entrust with our children. I had my share of social abnormalities which would probably fall into the same spectrum Owen deals with today - I often didn't know social cues or how to blend in and that made me a target for violence. My reaction to that violence was to turn to the people I was taught to seek help from and, failing that, I reacted in complete resentment of those people.
As a direct result I was treated as though I was unteachable, uncontrollable and sometimes dangerous to be around.
I hear and read stories about kids with autism, smart kids with amazing potential and no ill-intentions toward anyone, that have outbursts and are considered to be uncontrollable and unpredictable. I do not want my son, who is sweet and sensitive beyond any reasonable measure, to have to live with that connotation because he lacks the emotional vocabulary to express something typically-fucntioning people have such a hard time coping with that they would take their own lives.
All the while, we treat people that stalk, victimize, dehumanize and ritually abuse anyone they can as "normal" because they blend in when it counts. When people are looking. And they get away with it even when they are caught.
I think "bullying" is far too mild a word for what they do, the impact they have on the people around them.
There's a word for something that attacks and destroys otherwise healthy things around it: Cancer.
I don't think that's too harsh. I don't think it's "just part of growing up" or has anything to do with "boys being boys"
They suffer from, at worst, a self-image of such superiority that justifies anything they might do to those they see as lesser than them...something that you wouldn't hope to see outside of archival footage of the Nuremberg Trials or a stomach-turning film by Steven Spielberg to remind us just how evil humans can be to one another.
At best they lack basic understanding of how to treat human beings to such a terrible degree that they should be relegated to a special segment of classes where nobody expects them to achieve anything, they are spoken to softly and slowly and kept away from sharp objects until such time they can maybe learn to just get by in the world and work at a gas station without hurting themselves or anyone around them - maybe one day one of them will have a heartwarming story about them made into a movie because, despite all they had to overcome with their mental disability, they were still good at football.
I hear and read, from TED talks to professional articles on child psychology, how we need to make it "ok to be smart" in schools so kids can feel comfortable actually trying to achieve without fear of the social stigma that comes with it and I'm saying "social stigma" is nothing compared to having six or seven guys that you have to see every day gather around you and beat you until you stop moving and knowing that tomorrow they are going to call you a "pussy" and a "faggot" for it and there's nothing you can do to prevent it.
It doesn't compare to knowing that if you happen to run into the other Assistant Principal, Ed Donahue (who was eventually made principal of the same school) in the office he will see your purple hair and introduce himself by telling you that you're obviously wasting your time going to school and he has papers you could fill out that make it possible for a 15 year-old to drop out legally. He will say these things without even knowing your name or what you experience on a daily basis just to attend his school or that you started at that school in all Honors and Gifted classes and are now getting failing grades because usually distracted by how to get from one class to the next without being cornered somewhere alone.
We don't need to make it "ok to be smart" we need to treat the cancer to the student body as such - and remove it - so the healthy and normal parts can live and function and maybe even grow up happy, having never considered how they could hide who they are to stay invisible.
They can grow up having never even entertained the thought that it might be easier to experience a couple seconds of very final and devastating pain than to see what the cancerous sociopaths might come up with tomorrow or when they decide to stop next time nobody is looking.
They can go to a school that isn't run by ignorant, narrow-minded administrators who decide that the kid with long hair is an idiot and the violent predator that dresses like everyone else needs a hockey scholarship and is a valuable asset to the school.
They can grow up without needing a whole generation of people to tell them that it gets better to help them get through it.
Because it doesn't need to be this way in the first place.
But for me, it was. But even still... it got better. It got much better.
To think of how much better it could have been makes me mourn for all the time and happiness I lost to those people.
They weren't and aren't worth one second of my time and energy, which makes the loss of the person I could have been if I had not been their victim all the more frustrating.
FOOTNOTE FOR THOSE MENTIONED BY NAME (AND SOME NOT) ABOVE:
If you're reading this and you even have to ask yourself "I wonder if he means me?" - I do.
If you stood by and watched and said nothing. Or, better yet, cheered - I mean you as well.
I will hate you until my last day. There is no making up for these things. There is no excuse. You are human filth.
Even though I know, as an adult, that you are the problem - I'm the one that has to deal with the affects of your problem.
If there was any justice in the universe, it would be your children that were abused and bullied and picked on until they decided to end their own lives. You would know that kind of senseless and endless pain and anguish.
And I would look you in the eye and say that we're almost even.