Wednesday, December 01, 2010

It Gets Better

Several weeks ago, the Trevor Project unleashed the "It Gets Better" campaign after a rash of suicides among teenagers. Though this was specifically directed at young people struggling with sexual identity issues, the problem of bullying is not specific to sexual minorities. Bullying is a behaviour rooted deep in one's personal insecurities and the feelings of power one gains by scapegoating "convenient victims" (usually those who are different from everyone else). Bullying is a huge problem in the school environment, but unfortunately, it is not limited to that "superficial society." When bullying takes on a political form, it becomes fascism. Nazi Germany is the perfect example of what happens when bullying is allowed to grow into a political force, thus why it needs to be identified and rooted out as early as possible.

I have my own experiences with bullies. Throughout life, I have been the perfect target of bullies: I was the new kid in class, I was a skinny kid, and I was of mixed racial heritage (a half-Asian / half-Caucasian hybrid in the post-Vietnam era, when Americans felt shame and humiliated over its first military defeat in a costly Asian land war). Another factor against me: I have a brother who is mentally handicapped and everyone thought he and I were twins.

My first experience with bullies occurred in the sixth grade at Birchcrest Elementary School in Bellevue, Nebraska. In the class was a guy named Todd Pazos, who was the strongest boy in the class. He had one goon under his sway, a boy named Eric who was quiet and followed Todd around like a puppy and did whatever Todd asked of him. Todd tried to intimidate me during recess and sometimes stole my lunch. He wanted me to become one of his followers, pestering me to let him pierce my ear with a safety pin as a symbol of my devotion to him. Even at that young age, I recognized something strange in the way Eric followed this bully around and did his bidding. To me, that wasn't a genuine friendship. That was a cult. I had a difficult time gaining friends in the classroom, though. Everyone seemed to take the bully's side whenever he pressured me to do whatever he wanted.

In retrospect, this experience taught me a great thing about human nature and about myself. I was the only one willing to stand up to bullies, no matter how terrifying and lonely it was. Later on in the year, when the bully was absent one day, I was shocked to hear classmates criticize and make fun of the bully. Oh, sure...get brave when he's not around to hear it (his goon was absent as well)! The revelation reminded me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy learns that the Wicked Witch of the West's guards were actually happy that she melted the evil woman. It is cowardice to wait for someone else to act, while you pretend to go along with the bully. Take it from me: I stood up to the class bully when no one else dared, and I am here to write about it decades later!

Of course, it was not easy. It was actually quite stressful. In retrospect, the reason why I was placed in a remedial math and reading class was probably my subconscious desire to get out of the classroom. During the assessment tests, I would just fill in bubbles on the sheet without reading the question. Because I had failed the tests, I had to go to a math and reading lab to get special one on one training. This got me out of the classroom, though it probably contributed to the perception in others that I was "retarded." The teacher who ran the lab was named Carol Carroll, which I thought was fascinating at the time. I enjoyed that time away from the classroom, even though I thought the math and reading lessons were way too easy.

My biggest fear of junior high school and senior high school was that bullies ran rampant and I would be constantly victimized. While there have been a few bully-types who picked fights with me, for the most part, I actually enjoyed junior and senior high school much more than elementary school. I guess I loved having different teachers and switching classrooms.

Pictured above is a classmate I knew in the 11th and 12th grades, Robbie Keys. The picture was taken at the class reunion in 2000. We had a great laugh over our high school selves and it was great to see that he became a well-adjusted adult. In high school, he was actually hated by my group of friends. In fact, it seemed like he only had one friend, Chad Clark, the typical jock (the star quarterback of the high school's varsity football team). In a reversal of the bully role, the people who were picked on by Chad and Robbie actually believed that the bully duo were gay and in love with one another.

In the 11th grade, I was in a bad position, because I was once again "the new kid" in class. In fact, because we had moved to Georgia late and did not know where we would end up living until my dad settled on a suburb of Atlanta to buy a house, my brother and I started school about two weeks after school had started. Robbie was in my Composition and Literature class with his buddy Chad and they made my life hell. Most everyone else had known each other over several grades, so I was "fresh meat" to be picked on as I learned the new environment I was in. Being the new kid was not necessarily a bad thing. I actually loved it and my personality has been shaped by a life of moving once every two or three years. To this day, I feel a need to change after the three year mark in a location or a job. I'm actually tired of moving, though, as the last move from Atlanta to Portland has been the most difficult financially and psychologically.

During my senior year, Robbie was in my government class and I always made sure that I sat on the opposite side of the classroom as him. The teacher, who was my favourite teacher, asked me why I let someone dictate where I sat in the classroom. He had a point, but I did not mind where I sat, even if I was letting the bully have the power by making sure that I waited until he sat down before I took a seat. At some point during that year, Robbie approached me to apologize for the way he treated me in the 11th grade. I was stunned. After his apology, we became cool with one another, to the dismay of my friend Kira, who hated him. When I explained my decision, she didn't seem to understand. For me, I just want the bullying behaviour to stop but I've never been able to hold a grudge. I'm all about how people treat one another. I will like you if you treat me with respect, or I will despise you if you treat me (or I witness you treating others) like shit. For me, it showed a strength of character for someone to actually apologize on his own initiative. It showed growth and maturity. That experience in itself was quite powerful.

Though I don't keep in touch with Robbie (after a few years of sending Christmas cards following the 2000 class reunion, I never heard back from him so I stopped), I think he is pretty awesome to realize that he didn't need to be a bully. His former friend Chad, though, turned out to be an abusive guy who beat his girlfriend or wife. The reason why he did not attend the class reunion was because of some domestic conflict, according to the rumour mill.

When I joined the Navy, I naturally worried about bullies and hazing, but I got lucky. I heard horror stories of some sailors who were picked on and had to deal with hazing. I think several things worked in my favour. In Basic Training, some guys tried to pick fights with me (because I was one of the smallest guys in the company) but they came to regret it because I know how to fight back and I became outspoken after my senior year in high school (thanks to the inspiration of having an awesome teacher who encouraged my nonconformity, individualism, and outspoken opinions). Another factor in my favour was that my "high score" on the AFQT test guaranteed an "A" school assignment and my choice of Yeoman as a rating speciality meant that I would be assigned with other admin types. I got lucky in my first command by being assigned to an office full of chief petty officers and officers. In my Navy experience, I saw first hand how much intelligence makes a difference in how people are treated. When I had to be assigned to Deck Berthing during an underway period, I was terrified by the "Deck Apes" who were well known to haze newbies and Deck Berthing is considered to be "the ghetto" on every ship in the Navy. Deck Department is where the fresh from Basic Training sailors get assigned, because they did not have a rating specialty and thus did not experience "A" School. Many of them scored too low on the AFQT to get a guaranteed rating speciality.

So, for those students who are bullied in high school, I would tell them that life does get better outside of the superficial atmosphere of school. Its hard for them to understand that because they have been in school since they were five years old and that's all they know. Plus, they are there all day long. Even worse, with online social media outlets, the bullying does not stop once they step off the school bus and walk to their homes. Bullying and Cyber-bullying is now a 24 / 7 phenomenon. What got me through school was a close group of friends and my focus on what I was most passionate about (writing and drawing cartoons). Once you're out of the school environment, you're in the larger world where it is easy to find your circle of friends and the other groups will fade from your focus. For example, in my current life, my social network is made up of people who are college educated, have traveled extensively overseas, and are interested in politics and world events.

I learned how spoiled I am by being in this social niche when I moved to east Portland, an essential redneck wasteland. All around me, I see the types of people one finds on Jerry Springer's show: morbidly obese, uneducated, missing teeth, cigarette smokers, alcoholics, having a bunch of children at a young age, no real culture or class. Moving to such a neighbourhood is a culture shock more severe than the ones I experienced when I moved to Europe as a teenager and as a young adult. I had little contact with these types of people when I lived downtown, as inner Portland is made up of young "creative types", urban hipsters, and affluent liberals. The further out neighbourhoods are made up of the marginalized people, whom are often thought of as "poor white trash" by the "elite" of society. Not that I'm an elitist. I just value the difference an education makes in a person. And by education, I don't mean necessarily college, as I know quite a few church members who did not go to college but they are smart, socially aware, and have class. It saddens me to see people who are ignorant and proud of their ignorance. The quality of their lives is truly low and it is in this kind of environment where one can still be victimized by bullies. In my view, it represents the low end of the evolutionary spectrum.

The best thing about being outside of the school environment is that the world is large and if you don't want to be around certain types of people, you don't have to for the most part (though my last job showed the limits of that freedom, as I had to work with "low class people" who were miserable and did everything to make everyone else miserable like them). Though I live in a neighbourhood surrounded by "low class, uneducated people", I generally don't have to deal with them much (aside from the mutual bus ride). The house is a sanctuary on a quiet alleyway. I still maintain my social life with the creative class in the inner neighbourhoods of Portland. As soon as I land a permanent job, I will look to moving back to the inner city area in the spring or summer.

Remember: IT GETS BETTER! For everyone, not just those who are part of the sexual minority.

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