As I mentioned, I’m attending Blogalicious in Washington, D.C. this weekend where I’ll be giving one of the keynote addresses. We’ve worked really hard to cultivate a variety of voices here on the site and I’m happy to feature one more. Thanks to John Marchese for today’s guest posting!
Last month, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer took his own life in a desperate attempt to end the pain he had endured as a victim of constant and unrelenting bullying. Not long ago, Jamey announced that he was gay and bullies responded by intensifying attacks on Jamey that had been going on since grade school. Those who knew Jamey were aware of the taunting, but nobody understood how much he suffered. At least not until it was too late.
Reading about Jamey’s life I could not help but recall how mocking was not only acceptable, but celebrated, when I grew up. In my neighborhood, respect was given to those who had the ability to deliver sharp insults with quick deliveries. We mocked those we knew and liked as much as strangers, never once giving a second thought to how our insults affected those we took down.
Our indifference was reflected in the cruel nicknames we bestowed on one another. Each name was chosen to highlight a physical characteristic that we, in our infinite wisdom, determined to be “abnormal.” Living within three blocks from my childhood home were Head, Chipper, Gopher, Gut, Pigeon and Peanut. Then there was Ba-Deep, the kid with the stuttering problem whose name callously recreated the sound he made when he tried to talk.
Even worse, we ignorantly used gay slurs to call out someone who showed any kind of weakness. We used the terms as alternatives to calling someone “sissy” or “wimp” which, in hindsight, would have been no better. Most of the time, the slurs were used as a way to mock someone who played a sport tentatively: in hockey, it was directed to the guy who refused to go to into the corner to fight for the puck; in football, to the guy who went out of bounds to avoid a hit from a tackler. After a while, the terms became a way of mocking a guy who exhibited any type of weakness, like backing down from a challenge to fight.
So, Jamey’s death and the subsequent spotlight on bullying brought back all of these memories along with remorse, guilt and the hope that any pain I caused was minimal and long-ago healed.
Because we didn’t know anyone who was, in fact, gay the terms had no basis in reality. We were not narrow-minded or anti-gay, just uninformed and insensitive. Unlike the bullies who tormented Jamey, we acted with a total lack of malice. We never meant to hurt anyone. We simply did not understand that the words we used could actually cause pain or humiliation.
But what once was a matter of youthful ignorance and indiscretion is, today, a matter of life and death. Somehow, while we were looking the other way, the stakes were raised. Unlike those who lived in my neighborhood, there is little doubt that the bullies who attacked Jamey knew what they were doing and intended to inflict as much pain and humiliation as they could.
In the month or so since Jamey’s death, most of the dialogue has been about assessing blame—on the bullies who committed the despicable acts, on their parents who negligently let it happen, and on the teachers and administrators at Jamey’s school who unsuccessfully attempted to control the bullies’ behavior through discipline—and then, on what to do next.
Some think we should beat the bullies to a pulp and then prosecute their parents. Others lobby for the passage of laws to better protect the victims of bullying. Forty-seven states currently have anti-bullying laws in effect at the moment. Although there is some debate about whether these laws are just “feel good” rather than “meaningful” legislation, it is unlikely additional laws will do more to help other teens like Jamey.
So what can we do? Parents need to admit that bullying does exist, that it is much worse than when we were young and that it destroys, sometimes, ends lives. We need to understand that bullying is much more prevalent than we thought and that there is a better than average chance that their child is either a victim or perpetrator of bullying.
Children need to be taught tolerance—real tolerance, instead of the lip service, “everyone deserves to be treated with respect,” we hear so frequently. But that task is made more difficult when the news is peppered with incendiary statements from elected officials opposing gay marriage and the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Can we really expect teens to accept homosexuality when adults in power don’t?
We live in a digital world and bullying is pevalent there as well. Once, bullies had to have enough courage to look their victim in the eye. Now, they can post anonymous messages on social media sites. Without that personal accountability, the messages have become darker and more disturbing.
And that is what happened to Jamey Rodemeyer. What started out as verbal bullying in school became anonymous posts on the internet calling for Jamey’s death. At one time, a victim like Jamey would have been able to escape his bullies at the end of the day. Jamey did not have that luxury. Social media sites allowed the bullies to reach beyond the school and into Jamey’s home. There simply was no way for him to get away.
Somehow, we as parents need to find ways to monitor what goes on in this secret teen world. We need to bring them into our world, the world of human interaction, more often. As difficult as it may be, we need to force our teens to talk using their mouths rather than their fingers. When they do, we need to pay attention to how they interact with us and with each other. We need to look for signs of intolerance, narrow-mindedness and prejudice.
And we need to do all this before it is too late. Again.
John Marchese is an attorney, writer, imperfect father and husband of a perfect wife and mother. He is a shareholder at Colucci & Gallaher, P.C. in Buffalo, New York and a frequent contributor to The Disney Driven Life. John may be reached, followed or ignored at jjmarchese.com and on Facebook and Twitter.