Bullying can be defined as an aggressive behaviour that is intentional and implies an imbalance of power and strength between the bully and his victim, and comes in repeated, sometimes relentless, forms. As a child, I was a victim of bullying, although I suppose in many ways we could all say the same.
For me, it was never a chronic thing. I wasn’t afraid to show my face on the school, or worried to leave my very own backyard, for fear of whatever cruelty might await at the hands of my tormentors. But I was different, this I knew, even back then. I stood out, even in the most subtle of ways. As a child, I was small for my age, skinny, awkward, with thick glasses, and a cow lick that, despite repeated ongoing coaxing, would never stay put. I remember the start of the school year in Grade 2, stepping onto the school yard, my shy and quite nervous younger sister clutching my hand at my side. On that particular day, I’d worn new overalls to school, one’s I’d chosen with my mom from the local Kmart where she worked late evening shifts so she’d be home in the day to drop off and pick up my younger sister and I from school. I was proud of that stark, crisp, rough blue denim, the straps snug over my shoulder as they secured and almost protected me in a way from whatever unexpected things this new school day might bring. I felt happy, comfortable, confident, ready to take on Grade 2 in all it’s wonder and glory, and then suddenly….a small group of kids, mostly older, surrounding me, taunting me, calling me Old MacDonald (you know, he of the farm) and laughing at my bold new “look”. And before long, a tap to my shoulder, a slap to my back, a push to the side, and hands seemingly flying everywhere, boys jeering in my face, singing about cows and ducks and laughing….and then one curly haired boy in particular, direct in my face, snarling and laughing the most, and my little sister, frightened and tearful by my side. And then, with some primal instinct I barely recognized, I felt my hand fly out, in some semblance of a punch I didn’t know how to throw, and pain shooting through my knuckle and wrist as I connected with a nose, a nose soon bloodied, and then a shocked cry and a stinging slap across my face, resulting in my also recently acquired and quite expensive new glasses flying off my face and skittering across the pavement, to the sound of broken, tinkering glass. And next… silence. Followed by the sound of little bodies scurrying away, and the fast approaching and booming voice of the vice principal, a giant of a man, his strong hand clamped tightly on my arm and that of the bloodied boy next to me, dragging us off to the office, my sister inconsolable and screaming my name, with a duty teacher trying to comfort her, left far behind.
As an A + student, this was a rather traumatic moment. Not so much listening to the painful howls of the boy who teased me most (at the time, I wished I’d knocked out a tooth or two as well), but rather visiting the interior of the dreaded principal’s office. I’d never been in trouble at school before….I didn’t KNOW what trouble was…but I did soon come to realize (possibly after seeing the hurt, disappointed look on my parents faces later that day) that my actions – my aggressive, irresponsible actions – were in no way a solution to the problem. As I grew older, however, the school yard bullies came calling much less. I won’t say it’s because of that incident, although at the immediate time I’m sure it made some think twice. With all due modesty, as I grew older I simply looked different, and when it came to the part of the victim or the “geek” let’s say, I didn’t quite look the part, even if inside it was how I sometimes felt. Now I’ll never be mistaken for a Greek god, not even close. However, I like to think of the way I look as the equivalent of the performer with the heart of a small indie actor but with some of those leading man looks. Or, truth was I became taller, with strong, broad shoulders, a quick wit, and very soulful puppy dog eyes, and suddenly it seemed girls (and, in retrospect, boys) LIKED me, and wanted to be around me, and so the invites to parties or the junior high dances became more common. But still, I was something of a gentle soul, nothing so much rough and tumble about me, and smouldering glances aside,that was something I could not so easily hide. My brothers could be mean, not out of hatred or viciousness but more out of ignorance…..they loved Rambo and Rocky, I loved Footloose and Flashdance, and that, it seemed, was simply that. And to make matters even more difficult, I was somewhat in awe of my pretty, popular and ever so worldly seeming older sister, and modelled myself after her in a way, so they’re hockey lovin’, beer sneaking, girl chasing ways seemed rather foreign to me, and to me that seemed just fine.
I remember when I was about 13 years old, wandering the local shopping mall, my first solo jaunt “over town” all by myself, without a parent or an older sibling in tow. I’d spent half the day browsing through Sam the Record Man, with my love of music just beginning to peak at its all consuming high. Engrossed in studying every loving detail of the covers of new vinyl from the likes of Duran Duran, Culture Club and (my favourite) Stevie Nicks, I failed at first to notice these two pretty blonde girls from my school an aisle or two away. When I did glance over, I saw the shorter, freckle faced girl give me a shy smile and a wave, to which I smiled and waved back, then returned my attention to Stevie. But as still I turned away, I couldn’t help but notice the other girl’s poorly painted on lipstick smirk as she turned to her friend, let her wrist hang rather dramatically limply, and mouth the word “faggot”. Faggot. I didn’t even know what it meant, but its very sound seemed to hang in the air and then hit me like a slap. (Much to my regret, I discovered it’s true meaning by asking my oldest brother what a “faggot”was just before bedtime that night, to which he laughed hysterically and christened it as my new nickname). Unsure as I was of its meaning at the time, their giggles and lipstick girl’s scornful stare were enough to tell me it probably wasn’t a compliment, and with that I felt my heart sink, and walked, dejectedly, the rather long walk home.
I still carry some scars from that day. Not from my misguided big brother, not even those silly giggly school girls. Not from what they said, or what they did. I wouldn’t allow bullies to have that power over me. But no matter how I steeled myself, I couldn’t shield away from my introduction to THAT word…its sound, it’s meaning, and mostly how it made me feel. With two simple, stinging syllables. Strange. Different. Dirty. Ashamed. Unwanted. Alone. Bad.
Throughout my career I have come to know human nature at its best, and at its worst. I may hope for the former, but oft times I’ve come to expect the latter. And over time one constant to which I’ve been an unfortunate witness is that children can be cruel. Sometimes they come hardwired that way, some twist of fate that passes on some genetic anomaly, some unchecked chemical imbalance, that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a child to be kind, compassionate, and loving to others. But most times, what children learn has been taught to them or modelled to them, handed down in families from generation to generation, or some hard lessons learned in dark places by cruel, sadistic adults that brand them, damage them, and oft times sadly affect them for life. On a daily basis I work with masterful expert bullies and I work with those cruelly and harshly bullied. It’s never been my job to judge either them or those who’ve raised them, or as much as I might want to protect or shelter them from the outside world, or even to wonder or ask why life circumstances has brought them here, to this way of living. Instead, it’s my job to hopefully impart some knowledge of a different way of doing things, a different way of being, in the hopes of building some resiliency and self awareness in these children, of bringing about, and into their little lives, some positive, hopeful, all encompassing change.
A few nights ago I literally cried myself to sleep after hearing of the fate of Jamie Hubley, the Ottawa teen who after years of sadistic bullying by peers over his brave, open sexuality and private mental health issues, took his own life, but not before chronicling his sad fall through his personal blog he titled “You can’t break….when you’re already broken.” Although even the darkest days of my own despair would never match the pain this troubled soul must have felt in weeks and months leading up to his suicide, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that little boy on the playground or the young man in the record shop might have also shared some similar dark, fleeting thought that to be somewhere, anywhere, but here would be a relief from these painful, guilt ridden feelings. Guilty because I was left feeling that I had chosen to be different, that I had chosen who I could and could not love and desire, instead of being able to recognize that very real fact that perhaps I was simply, as Mother Monster Lady Gaga herself put it best, simply born this way. In one of his farewell posts, Jamie referenced the “Its Gets Better” campaign, the project of hope for LGBT youth created by Dan Savage to bring some sense of community and comfort to those harassed, asking how could one wait 3 years for the pain to get better? And how could one ever be sure it would? Jamie was 15 years old. To feel he must be patient until he turns 18 and perhaps escape some small town, small minded life for some opening, progressive, loving metropolis….well, I can only imagine that wait must have seemed insurmountable, like a whole other lifetime. A lifetime he couldn’t, sadly, bear to live out.
Recent statistics on bullying amongst Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered youth state that 9 out of 10 children report harassment due to their sexual orientation. 9 out of 10. Gay kids are 2 to 3 times more likely to be bullied then their straight peers. More then 1/3 of gay kids have attempted suicide (and keep in mind these are youth self identifying as gay, not those necessarily identified or singled out by others as such). LGBT kids are 4 times more likely to make that attempt then straight teens. LGBT teens from “highly rejecting” families are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide then those from accepting families. And the saddest fact of all….reports claim these growing trends are the same sad statistics we’ve known for almost thirty years, yet until recently, until cry to arms in the form of organizations like the Trevor Project and It Gets Better, little light has been shone upon them. For LGBT youth this, then, is nothing short of genocide. And years ago, when I was a little boy, no matter how cruel the outside world might be, you could always shut it off in the safety and comfort of your own home. But not today. With all of our high tech gadget wizardry and love of and proficiency for social media, “cyber bullying” is often a driving tool in the victimization of our children, and cruel words and images, perpetrated by others, live on in cyber space for infinity, for the entire world to see. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Bloggers. WordPress. Myspace. Meaning no one is safe, and no where is safe, not even inside the sacred bedrooms walls of one’s comforting family home.
By anyone’s standards, surely this is an epidemic of global proportions. Children are dying. Young, vibrant, beautiful children with worlds to live for are slipping away. Bullying in all its forms is a hateful exercise. The bullying and persecution of LGBT youth is a hate crime, and in turn must be treated that way, punishable to the full extent of the law. Will that teach tolerance? No. No more then a misguided punch on a playground did years before. But might it deter some vicious, devastating act and perhaps save a life? Yes. Yes, I believe it might.
We can make change for the better. We can teach each other to BE better. With more awareness, more sensitivity, more compassion and more understanding for our fellow human beings, with whom we share this planet, not in isolation, but together. As members of our world community, we must become more open and accepting, more loving of differences and diversities, and more hopeful of brighter futures and better tomorrows. It WILL get better, but only if we can allow that to happen. I know this. I’ve lived this. And yet it seems I was one of the lucky ones. Jamie Hubley. Jamey Rodemeyer. Tyler Clementi. In no way would I dare to disrespect their memories and even suggest that my own struggles towards acceptance in any way equalled theirs. Those personal struggles they battled with adolescent demons for years on end ended both suddenly and with brutal, decisive finality, with those that dearly loved them left behind, hurt, confused, and utterly devastated, to pick up the broken pieces that remained. Let’s not let another young beautiful life slip away in vain. Hug that special little someone in your lives a little tighter. Love them for who they are and what they are, with all their wonderful myriad differences. Help build within them strength of character and promote a sense of resiliency, so that they might go out into the world and be better people, to be someone who might make a difference, who are open, willing and motivated to bring about a brave new world made of positive change. Give them that chance….the chance perhaps that you, that I, that clearly these poor precious lost souls likely never had.
I don’t pray for much, but for this, I’m willing to try…