This sort of crap has to stop.
For the past week, I have been immersed in discussions and debates about how to improve public education. So immersed, in fact, that I didn’t take the time to watch and read the stories surrounding the recent deaths of five teens that were subjected to anti-gay bullying.
Today, I finally saw the heart wrenching video posted by Ellen DeGeneres and read the stories about the deaths of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi and four others who took their own lives over the past month. With each story I read, my jaw dropped further and my heart bled a little more.
Why is this happening? Are our heads buried so deeply in our own navels that we can’t look around and see the damage that bullying causes? When are we going to wake up and accept the fact that tolerance is something we need to instill in our children? Or that our so-called morals should not be a mask for intolerance toward others?
For some reason, adolescence and the onset of puberty only seem to heighten the cruelty gene. Trash talk becomes a form of bonding for kids who want to be edgy and cool but aren’t mature enough to have an actual conversation about the confusion they live through every day. And the environment is ripe for bullies who find power in the vulnerability of others, whether its sexuality, ethnicity, disability, or religion.
As a kid, I was bullied and harassed over my appearance, my nerdiness, my inability to connect to my peers. Why?
Because I was — God forbid — “different.” I loved theater and movies as much as football — just like my dad did. I did not go cruising, to the roller rink, or get to make out with girls in cars on the Texas City levee. I did not get invited to parties; to this day, even though people think I’m an extrovert, in a crowd I still look for the one-on-one conversation. People perceived me as arrogant, but being a smart ass was a mask for my fears. I could not beat you with my fists, but I could with my words.
Looking back, the smartest thing my parents ever said to me was, “We don’t want you to grow up with our prejudices.” They recognized that they grew up in another era and a different time, and they were smart enough to encourage me, with their guidance, to develop my own set of values and sense of judgment. Even though we disagreed on politics, they taught me that respecting others’ views is just as important as having my own.
Several years ago, I spoke on a panel in Columbia, South Carolina, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. (The first of five cases that were combined into the Brown ruling occurred in Summerton, a small town about two hours away.) During the Q&A session, a woman asked me why I thought bigotry still exists in our schools.
My answer was simple: “First graders aren’t bigots. They’re parrots.”
Somehow, I managed to not succumb to the pressures and taunting I still remember, and today, I’m the proud parent of four very “different” children. But I didn’t grow up in a world where bullies lurked behind video cameras and computer screens, hiding behind a new and very dangerous layer of invincibility.
I begrudgingly became part of “The Social Network” when my children started showing an interest in it. Now, I love Facebook and the opportunities it provides to connect to far-flung friends and acquaintances, but a primary reason I’m on it is to monitor their pages and accounts vigilantly.
My kids are in four schools in three states, but fortunately, I think they’re in the places that suit their personalities. We are trying to raise them as individuals, without the prejudices we have.
That’s why, tonight, I let Kate go to a church lock-in wearing a borrowed Halloween costume. She called it her “Lady Gaga Taco.” Yes, I cringed and wondered about the social repercussions she would face, but then I realized it was her expressing her personality. I admire her bravery.
Before we left, she showed me a piece of art she is working on as part of her community service project. On a canvas marked with x’s and o’s, she had written: “Live with Love in Your Heart. And Mend a Broken One.”
My heart breaks for the families of the boys who committed suicide, feeling there was no other way out of the lives they led. The anger I feel toward their perpetrators is at a boil.
This bigotry and hatred has got to stop — now. We must start mending broken hearts.
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