Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bullied into Silence



    "Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made
a victim. Accept no one's definition of your life, but define yourself,"
said American industrialist Harvey S. Firestone (1868-1938).
     Brave words from a magnate of industry. Impossible words for a
twelve-year-old Florida girl with cerebral palsy who was repeatedly
taunted and humiliated by a group of bullies on her school bus. Tired
of seeing his daughter mistreated, the girl's father finally put an end to
the abuse by boarding the bus one morning and confronting the bullies
himself. His much publicized rage, caught on the bus security camera,
garnered the support of parents across the country. Most people are
calling him a hero for defending his daughter. I certainly think he is.
     Yet I know his daughter's ordeal is far from over. In the span of
a week her private pain has become so very public. It is no surprise
to me that she is in the hospital, suffering from stress. When she gets
better, more transitions await her. Her father may be spending time
in jail for his actions. She will be going to a new school, making new
friends. Wondering, I would guess, who she can trust. Hoping, if she
became the victim of bullying again, that her new friends would not
be afraid to stand up to the bullies.
      Like I was.
      It was a warm spring day, 1968. The tall. screen-free windows in
my high school Spanish class were flung open. The scent of lilacs filled
the room. A gentle breeze rustled our papers.
      Just before the class began our vivacious Cuban teacher was called
away. She was only a short time, but it was long enough.
     "Hey, your briefcase is open, nerd," I heard someone say.
     Turning, I saw it was Jeff, one of the most popular boys in school.
He was directing his observation at a quiet, awkward boy. Giggles
rippled across the room while the targeted boy squirmed. One by one,
Jeff's friends chimed in.
     "Yeah, and your shoe's untied, dweeb."
     "Your fly's open, spaaz."
      I wish I had told them to stop. But back then, I caved into peer
pressure, afraid of risking the wrath of the popular crowd. So I sat
in captive silence as the insults escalated. I am ashamed to admit that.
But I want to believe I would have said something if I'd known the
boy was going to jump up, scramble over several desks, and dive
through one of the open third floor windows.
      What I remember is seeing the sole of his brown Oxford shoe
oddly suspended in midair in the unobstructed opening. Just before it
slipped away a girl screamed. Then I saw a hand fly out and clamp
down on the boy's ankle. A crowd of boys rushed over to help. Among
them were theones who had been taunting him seconds before he tried
to take his life.
      He was not grateful. With all his might he kicked and wrestled to
free himself from their grasp. Girls started crying. I could only sit there,
frozen in shock, while the boy fought against his rescuers. His chilling
wail, more animal than human, rang in my ears.
      At last his body went limp from fatigue. Four boys were pulling his
dead weight back into the classroom just as the teacher reappeared.
      "Are you crazy!" she shouted, running over.
      Furious, she scanned our faces for an explanation. Not getting one,
she turned back to the trembling, sweat-soaked boy. Looking into his
glassy eyes, she tried to get him to talk but the only sound he emitted was
that strange moan. Gently, she coaxed him to his feet and led him out the
      I never saw him again.
      To the best of my recollection, the bullies were never punished. Soon
they were telling wide-eyed admirers about the "nut case" in their Spanish
class. About how they were the ones who saved him from certain death,
leaving out the part about how they drove him to do it. It was a collective
lie that got better with each telling and became the official version of the
      But I've never forgotten what really happened. Or the feeling that I
failed my classmate by sitting idling by. Over the years, I have tried to
rationalize my actions. Or shall I say, inactions. I was young, I was
insecure, I was afraid. All of that is true. But I know I was also a witness
to cruelty that day and I did nothing to stop it. Each time I read another
story about bullying, I am reminded of that.
      Adolescence is such a tenuous journey. While so much of it is joyful,
there are moments of regret that haunt us forever.
      My moments can be found in 1968, in a third floor Spanish class, on
a warm spring day.


budamart said...

What tragic stories! I believe that same kind of story rings true for most of us. And many of us have been bullied at one time another. I've had similar experiences with both. The important message here is to teach our children how to take action & help those who are being bullied. We can't go back and change what happened in our pasts. But, it's not too late for parents to instill a strong sense of justice and fairness in their kids to stand up to bullies. I've seen it happen. The sentiment will trickle down and we'll live more peacefully.

Laura Vasilion said...

Thanks for your lovely words, Sabrina. I completely agree.

Anarchist Mother said...

Nice work as usual, Laura. Your post brings back a lot of emotions for me. I was a bully, your classic "mean girl." As I grew up I began to feel terrible about my past actions. Realizing I could never take back the hurt I caused, I endeavored not to be a bullying adult and have tried hard to be fair to all. I hold out hope the bullies in your Spanish class came to the same realization that I did -- insecurity is stupid, and taking it out on others is pointless: you still feel bad.

Laura Vasilion said...

I'm really grateful to you, Anarchist Mother, for hearing the other side of the bullying story. Thanks so much for sharing!

cmarsh said...

I too loved the comments from Anarchist Mother and commend her for being brave enough to share her side of the story. The entire topic reminds me of one of my favorite movies, The Breakfast Club, which coincidentally was filmed at my former high school) and also of a show I've watched a few times on MTV called, "If You Really Knew Me." It's pretty cool and profiles different high schools around the country. They split kids off from all the different sects into groups to share why they are "a geek, a freak, a jock" or whatever. It's really moving to hear them talk about their innermost thoughts, fears and struggles. Watch it sometime if you haven't already.

Laura Vasilion said...

I agree, Carla. It was a brave thing for A. Mother to share what she did. The movie you suggested, "If You Really Knew Me" sounds really interesting. I will give it a look! Thanks again for your comments and
thoughts. Much appreciated.

Laura Vasilion said...

Theresa Riziki September 23 at 4:42am Report
Hi Laura, I just read your blog about bullying. It is sad when one goes through it and there is no one to stand up for them. I was lucky to have 2 older brothers and 2 younger sisters who went to the same primary shool I did and we tried to stand up for each other when other kids taunted or threatened one of us. It was not the case when a teacher was the bully and my siblings had to watch me humiliated in front of the whole school and they could do nothing about it. Can you imagine that?

Laura Vasilion said...

Laura Vasilion September 23 at 7:16am
Hi Theresa,

Thanks for your comments. I cannot believe what you and your siblings had to endure. When the bully is an adult and
the victim is a child the act is reprehensible.

Laura Vasilion said...

Theresa Riziki September 23 at 5:12pm Report
No Laura, you never forget anything like that. That same day 3 teachers called me separately seeking the truth because what I had been accused of was completely out of my character. They all said they believed me. BUT why didn't they stand up for me when it mattered most? They also made every effort o make me feel better about myself in the days that followed. I was glad at the ned of the year when I left that school for boarding school. I never forgave that teacher till the day she died. You are a good Mom you stood up for your child. My Mom played "noncommital" and had it not been for my siblings, the three teachers and a lot of my friends, I'd have been ready to jump into the river we crossed to school everyday.

Laura Vasilion said...

From Jan Hofmeister via e-mail

So good. So very moving! Did you know the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
was witness to a gang rape when he was a teen. He never interceded and regretted it till his death. In fact, Lisbeth is fashioned and named after the girl in his youth that he did
not help. Also, the original title of the book was Women Haters.

Laura Vasilion said...

From Beth Gollan via e-mail

Lovely writing, Laura, and a gripping story that is all too familiar to many former large-suburban-high-school "inmates".

Laura Vasilion said...

From Paul Sullivan via e-mail

Damn! You're a fine writer. I wasn't going to bother opening your blog--everybody's got one these days. But then I did, got hooked by the bully story, and read all of your posts. Excellent.

Laura Vasilion said...

Paul, sorry you had trouble posting a comment. Glad to get your e-mail. Many, many thanks for your kind comments!

Laura Vasilion said...

From Jason Sitzes, via e-mail

Thanks for sharing your blog with me. I don't read many blogs at all, but when you pointed it out I had to take a look. Excellent writing, and the idea for 9/11 frankly is brilliant.

Thanks for sharing, Laura. The stories are emotional and layered, which makes for a compelling read.