It really sucks that I have to tell you this story. AGAIN.
I hate repeating myself. I hate that I have to rehash the past and repeat what I’ve said before. I’ve shared a sliver of my own challenging, bumpy, landmine-filled road through high school. I almost didn’t make it.
And now, I have to tell this story again.
In the last week, five kids have killed themselves. They were bullied because they were gay, and they saw no other escape than to end their lives. They ranged from young teenagers to a talented musician who was just starting his life and his secondary academic career at Rutgers.
Five young lives with an immense promise ahead of them. Five people so horrified and fearful of simply living their lives that they had to find a way to escape.
Been there. Wrote the book, saw the movie. Have the postcards – and the scars – to prove it.
So, quickly, I’ll repeat my story. Because people are still hurting, still dying.
From an earlier blog post in 2007 (written after Eric Hainstock, a tormented and bullied teenage boy in Wisconsin, opened fire at his school and killed the principal):
I’m a responsible, even-keeled, professional adult now. I’ve got some friends and a support system around me. In high school, however, things were a lot different for me. In any given school surrounding, children are thown into an environment where homogeny and assimilation are rewarded or even mandated. Anyone who deviates from that is the target of a lot of hatred and harrassment.
There are different ways a teenage boy can open himself up for harrassment and teasing – kids pick on the brainy kid, the chubby kid, and the gay kid. In that department, I hit the trifecta – I was all three of those things.
Every school has kids who, from the moment the first junior high class bell rings until graduation day, is the recipient of teasing, taunting, and challenges. In my school, I was that kid.
It’s my nature to fight back and ask questions, but in a scenario when you’re outnumbered by 10 to 1, my only sane choice was to hide or flee.
It was a horrifying four years for me, like living and walking in a war zone, where every move had to be pre-examined, every classway path planned, every interaction analyzed to determine any risk for humiliation and physical violence.
The worst of it was my senior year, when in addition to the students, the faculty (and administration) began to join in the taunting, teasing, and harrassment. The phys ed teacher told all of his students to make sure that they did everything they could to “make that faggot drop out”.
I snapped in my senior year. Like Eric and like many others, I broke and I made a very bold, rash move. The only difference was one of direction – instead of killing someone else, I tried to kill myself.
I had a meltdown at school. My parents, thankfully, stepped up to the plate for me at a time of crisis. They intervened and, after a long absence, got me back into class and into an independent study program – away from the heinous gym teacher and from abusive students – so I could focus on my education and graduate.
I was really, really lucky that I managed to survive those years. And it makes me immensely, overwhelmingly sad that these young men didn’t make it through the battle field.
The question I keep coming back to isn’t even specific to being an LGBT student, as I was, as all of these boys were. My question is this: No company worth its balance sheet would even think about having a workplace where physical bullying was permitted.
WHY, THEN, CAN WE NOT GIVE CHILDREN – children of any race, religion or sexual orientation – A SAFE PLACE TO STUDY?
Then again, perhaps I’m placing too much faith in the capacity of our public schools to be able to mentor and protect our children. After all, we are experiencing a crisis in education. The film Waiting for Superman outlines a crisis in our public schools to cover even the simplest task it has: to educate our children.
Kids are kids. Boys will be boys. There will always be conflict. But we learn how to deal with other people, how to interact with them and how to resolve conflict as kids and young adults. Why aren’t we getting better at this?
It couldn’t have anything to do with the adults in these kids’ lives, could it?
I grew up in an age where my parents had friends who were of different religions, of different political affiliations. They had spirited debates, but at the end of the day they respected one another.
Now we appear to have a mindset in politics of absolutism: my way is the ONLY way. We demonize those we don’t agree with (and yes, this comes from both sides of the political spectrum). Those words get awfully ugly from adults that should know better. (A man in Wisconsin who is considered a “community leader” and is this year’s leader of a river festival told a young girl of fourteen holding a pride flag to “go to a country where they will hang you!”)
And at a more personal level, many kids have divorced parents, some of who are overwhelmed with unresolved conflict and rage and often find ineloquent ways to express it. So this conflict shouldn’t be a surprise: children model themselves on adults, after all.
But it’s not just about teenagers.
I did an interview a few years ago with a young man who was eighteen for the LGBT magazine Our Lives. And one of the most at-risk groups, after teenagers? Young LGBT adults – young men, women and transgendered people who are 18 to 24 and who are old enough to be tossed out of their parents’ house, but often too young to be eligible for employment help, homeless housing and other benefits that could help them get a start.
And if you’re a parent who thinks this is all a big fuss? If you think this is much ado about nothing, that it’s a few bumps and bruises and scrapes, and that it’s character building with no lasting effects? Let me share a final thought with you.
I’m here. I’m happy, I’m content with my life, and I am glad to be here. And yes, I survived high school, diploma in hand.
But I was so consumed during many of those years with simply surviving that it completely sabotaged my actual education. I was a smart kid in grade school – testing at college levels on many standardized tests – but by the time I actually got to college, I had no educational foundation to build on, and my grades showed it. My academic experience IMPLODED, and I left after a few semesters.
You think there’s no lasting effect? It’s been twenty years since I left college, and I am still looking at course catalogs, wondering if I will ever have the time, the money, or courage to go back to college.
We don’t often realize it at the time, but those years are such crucial ones for laying the foundations of our adult lives and careers. It’s important for everyone to remember that our words and our actions DO have repercussions….and that no matter what pathway a child takes to get to adulthood, it’s important that they have a safe journey, and one that gives them every opportunity to become a well-rounded, fully functioning adult.
For Justin Aaberg, dead at 15. Asher Brown, dead at 13. Tyler Clementi, dead at 18. Billy Lucas, dead at 15. And Seth Walsh, dead at 13. Too many, too young, to be lost.