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.