An Acts Matter Essay
Last December, on a plane from Denver to Medford, I happened to sit next to one of my best childhood friends. We had grown up in Yreka, Calif., but hadn't seen each other in over a decade. During the flight home, we laughed until tears came to our eyes as we reminisced about our school days. At one point, Emerson said, "Do you remember Charlie in sixth grade?" I looked at Emerson and we both went quiet.
Held back a year in school, Charlie was the biggest kid in our class. His brother was 10 years older, in and out of detention centers, notorious throughout town as a vicious drug dealer. Charlie never knew his father and his mother never wore anything in public but a robe and nightgown. I remember my father shaking his head when he saw Charlie walking downtown one morning. "That boy doesn't have a chance," he said.
What I remember most about Charlie was that he was a bully. Each morning he lined up Emerson, our friend David, and me and then punched us as hard as he could on the shoulder. If we made noise or complained he hit us in the stomach. This happened every morning of every school day of sixth grade, and yet none of us ever told our teacher or our parents, nor did we ever really talk about it with each other.
In the silence of the airplane I knew Emerson and I were returning to the pain and shame we felt during those years — something we still couldn't really talk about, even 30 years later.
Sugar Mejia, director of the Schools Program at Mediation Works, teaches ChoicePoint, a bully awareness and bystander empowerment training. She recently sent me some of the testimonies she's collected from middle school students across Jackson County. These testimonies are written anonymously, collected by facilitators and then read back to the students and teachers to help create awareness of the impact and pervasiveness of bullying. Reading the words of local students, I made contact with the mixture of helplessness, anger and loneliness I experienced as a sixth-grade boy. Here is a sampling from the many testimonies they have collected:
- "I am a constant target. Every day I walk through the halls of this school and get shoved against lockers and hear people whispering 'faggot,' 'dyke,' 'butch' and many other things. After school I often get pushed to the ground and tormented. This school is my own personal hell, and I have to suffer here every day."
- "I was walking the track with my friends and we saw a group of eighth-graders in a group, surrounding a seventh-grader who was face down on the track. They were kicking him. I kept walking and saw him look up and he was crying and had dirt and dust all over his face. My friend and me were too scared to go up to them."
- "When I go home I cry and once I am done crying, I will take a razor to cut. The pain in my arms and legs numb the feeling from all the people in my class who call me a whore, tell me I'm ugly and fat. Each day I only listen and take it. My friends never defend me, they just laugh along."
As we rose to get off the plane, Emerson turned to me and said, "You know Charlie died this year? He was a meth addict. He was running from the police and jumped off a bridge into the Klamath River and drowned. I guess he got what he deserved." I paused and felt real sorrow for Charlie. Strangely it was the same sorrow I felt for him in sixth grade on the last day of school — the last day that Charlie lined us up for punishment. I remember he looked at me sadly and said, "Do you know why I hit you every day, Yaconelli?" I shook my head. "Because you have a good life."
Looking through the testimonies collected by Sugar, I not only heard my own pain and fear as a victim of bullying, I also heard Charlie's voice in a note written by a local middle school student, just this past year.
- "Starting a few days ago, Friday to be exact, I've been pushing and shoving kids around. I have a lot of stuff going on at home. Once yesterday I got so mad that I punched a 10-year-old in the face and broke his nose. I didn't even feel bad then, but now I do. I need help!"
On Thursday, The Hearth: Real Stories by Regular Folks will try to help mitigate the silence around our experiences as bullies, bystanders and targets as six community members share a true story of their experience of bullying. The all-ages event will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Jan. 24 at the Unitarian Fellowship at 87 Fourth St., Ashland. The cost is $5 and all proceeds will go to the ChoicePoint program at Mediation Works.
The stories are told from various perspectives and are full of courage, humor, hurt and sadness. Listening to these stories told by local adults might help all of us remove the shame and silence of bullying as well as create greater insight as to what our young people need from us now.
Mark Yaconelli is the program director for the Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology and the founder and director of The Hearth: Real Stories by Regular Folks. He has written four books, including "Wonder, Fear, and Longing: A Book of Prayers" (Zondervan).