This morning, while I was on the elliptical watching television, I saw an interview with Lee Hirsch, the director of the new documentary “Bully” which is now going into general release as an unrated film so that it might be seen by the widest audience possible. He was asked to describe why the making of this film was so personal and said “They say that 13 million children will be bullied in school each year. I was one of the 13 million.”
That simple statement stopped me dead on the elliptical as it brought back waves of memories, painful and bittersweet, from my own childhood. I, too, was one of the 13 million. But I was one of the lucky ones. I found a way out. I found redemption.
Growing up, I was always one of the smallest, and certainly one of the least athletic kids (something that counted for a lot among boys back then). But throughout most of my elementary school years I had a lot of friends and was relatively happy. That all changed in 8th grade when a small group of boys who could be best described as “thugs” targeted me for being small, Jewish and an academic achiever. I had to walk home from school most days and they would follow me, and push me around. I remember once being hit in the arm so hard that it left a bruise on my shoulder. But being bullied wasn’t something you talked about. In the 70’s it wasn’t something you brought home either, because you just knew that if your parents got the school involved it would just escalate things and make matters worse.
Thankfully, before things got out of control, Alex A. saw what was happening, spoke out and made it stop. Alex and I had already been friends for some time. We were an unusual pair, he a tall, good looking, popular Egyptian kid, and I a short, nerdy/geeky Jewish kid. But we had similar interests and a lot of fun together over the years. One day, as things were spiraling out of control, he saw me being physically pushed around in the hallway and stepped in on my behalf. He told the thugs that if he ever saw or heard them harassing me again, he and a group of others would teach them a lesson they would never forget. He said it with enough physical and verbal presence that they knew he wasn’t kidding! From that moment on, 8th grade was a joy and I felt completely safe, until…
We went off to different high schools, and I found myself back with the thugs and no guardian angel. I quickly learned not to use the bathrooms during the school day because that was where they hung out, making it a dangerous place to enter. (Thankfully, it was an open campus. The owner of the seafood restaurant across the street listened sympathetically to my plight and gave me carte blanche to use his “customer only” bathrooms whenever I needed).
Passing time in the hallways was when I was under the most stress, ever watchful to avoid the shove or push that might be right around the corner. Here too, though, the kindness of another helped soften the pain. Donna S., a 10th grader in my Biology class, and one of the prettiest, most popular girls in school took me under her wing and often walked the halls with me. While in her orbit, no one dared touch me (for that alone, I remember having an incredible crush on her). But sometimes I was in the hall alone and one of those days became my breaking point.
It was right before finals, and one of the “thugs” grabbed my shirt from behind and pulled so hard that it tore right down the middle, buttons flying everywhere. In terror, I turned and threw my books as hard as I could at his face. And then I ran for what seemed like an eternity, fearful to turn around and see if he was racing after me. Torn shirt flying in every direction, I ran into a teacher who took me under his care and got me safely to the Principal’s office.
In short, I didn’t return to that school except to come in for a final exam here or there. Now, obviously, my parents knew what was happening and got involved. With the help of a caring school official who made a few accommodations (and perhaps bent a few rules) I was enrolled at Williamsville East, the new high school across town.
The first day of 10th grade was the day I truly learned the meaning of “redemption”. I walked into an open classroom school where being an academic achiever was respected rather than ridiculed. From the first day, I found myself surrounded by friends and like-minded students. It was here that I met people who dragged me into youth group and got me active in NELFTY and NFTY (the place where the seeds of my path to the rabbinate were sown.) I had a fresh start and I got it in what was for me an embracing and welcoming school community. Even gym was a pleasure for this clutzy kid, because waiting there for me was Mr. Yerge, my favorite teacher from elementary school, who had an “everybody plays” mentality long before it was popular and a strict “no dodgeball” attitude (unusual for a former football player).
Today we have become more aware of the toxic nature of bullying and its sometimes tragic results. The targets of bullies often become self-destructive and suicidal. “Boys will be boys and girls will be girls” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Bullying, as we have seen all to often, can end in deadly results.
I hesitate to think where my life might have gone, what might have become of me if not for Alex and Donna, the teacher in the hall and the restaurant owner across the street, the Principal who took things seriously and the school official who bent rules to get me out and most of all, the parents who gave me the kind of love and care that, despite everything, assured me of my worth and value as a human being. I am ever thankful that whenever I needed it, someone stepped up and came to my aid, because in the end that is all it takes. For bullying to end, all it takes is for good people to not stand idly by, but to stand up for those who are being targeted and to simply say “Stop! Enough! It ends here!” Nothing tastes sweeter than redemption for the oppressed. We owe it to our children that it be denied to no one.
Take your children to see “Bully“, talk about it afterward and help them begin to be the change in their schools, their lives, and the lives of their classmates. It might just bring redemption to a soul who will make a difference in a future now realized.
“When something is wrong, those who have the ability to take action, have the responsibility to take action.” (Nicholas Cage in “National Treasure”)