Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bullying - Might Never Makes It Right

The recent media coverage of the suicide of an 11 year old Pickering Ontario boy with muscular dystrophy after being bullied has left me feeling very disturbed.  It has evoked a profound empathy in me and has left me to wonder just what kind of people this world is producing that such a thing could befall an otherwise normal, happy child.  Rick Mercer is absolutely right about speaking out.  But this doesn't just apply to gays.  It applies to everyone.

Last November, while on one of his prescribed daily walks, Mitchell Wilson was jumped by a 12-year-old boy he knew from his elementary school. The older child, who was after the iPhone Mitchell borrowed from his father to listen to music while he walked, smashed Mitchell’s face into the pavement so hard he broke some of the boy’s teeth.

The alleged mugger was arrested the day after the attack, charged with assault and removed from Westcreek Public School.  However, this did not solve the bullying issue. The older boy’s friends remained. They blamed Mitchell for getting their friend in trouble and followed him home from school teasing him about his disability.
When Mitchell was subpoenaed to appear in court to testify against his attacker, he took his own life.

NO CHILD SHOULD EVER HAVE TO DEAL WITH SUCH FEAR.

I find this story disturbing on a personal level as bullying is one of the issues I have been wrestling to address in my work on the script for Butternut.  I started writing the play several years ago, and have been sorely unable to express the way this issue in an appropriate dramatic treatment.  It bothers me that much.  Usually I have no trouble expressing that which disturbs me creatively; quite the opposite.

I can only speak from my own experience, as I too suffered bullying at different times in my own life.  Unlike Mitchell though, I learned to, and was well able to fight back.  Most of the time.

When I started a new school in grade one, after moving from Sudbury to a small town in Southern Ontario I realized for the first time that I was different from the other kids.  I was small, had a funny French accent, although I'm Caucasian my skin is olive coloured and much darker than kids of mainly British and European stock that populated the area.  As if this wasn't enough, I wore big thick glasses, had to use special enormous large print books, had to sit at the front of the class to read the board, use a telescope...and on it goes.

In my first week of school I encountered a boy named Randy.  I was 6 he was 9 or 10.  He began to tease and harass me on the playground.  I told on him of course.  So, the teacher enlisted the help of "The Two Steve’s" who were charged with being my "body guards".  To their credit, they were great kids who took this appointment to heart, and from grade one through grade 8 they kept the evil Randy at bay.  Yes, Randy was in grade school a very long time!  The Steve’s taught me how to fight like a boy.  Yay Steve’s! 

But at the time, I felt humiliated and inferior.  The sort of feeling that really sticks to you forever.

In grade three we had a new student, Josephine I think her name was.  She was from Paris France.  I was pretty much the only kid in the school who could speak French well, so my teacher assigned me the task of being a good-will ambassador.  Yay me! 

I was very excited.  I never got to talk to anyone in French, and I really loved my French.  Josephine was in grade six, and didn't appreciate having this little four-eyed kid trying to be her friend.  I had special permission to go to the big kids’ side of the playground, but the Steve’s couldn't come.  Who would have thought this new kid - a nice girl from France who didn't know anyone yet - would have been such a little creep.

She had befriended some of the meaner older girls and I will never forget that cold winter day on the playground when she, with their help, expressed her displeasure, and how much she hated the sound of a little Canadian kid speaking northern Ontario French to her.  I really don't remember much about what happened, other than being really scared.  I've tried to recreate the scene for the play, but can't find it in my head.  I must have blocked it out or something.  Let's just say I spent that lunch hour in mid-January 1973 buried in the deep Ontario snow, and have since had some pretty hard core confidence issues with my French and social advances.  I also had to explain to my parents how my glasses got broken.

She did get in a lot of trouble for what her deeds, but it was too late for me. The damage was done. 

Of course adults can be just as cruel as kids --even those who should no better. 

We had a supply teacher in grade 7 who was a complete git.  I had to use a telescope to read the black board.  I was very self-conscious about the thing.  I hated it.  Back in the day access tech wasn't as advanced, or as invisible as it is now.  It was big, ugly and stigmatizing.  

So, I pull out the scope to use and Mr. Spanno, grabs it away from me, stuffs it in his drawer, and berates me in front of the class for playing with toys.  To their credit, my entire grade seven class came to my defense telling him why I used it.  They were awesome!  Yay them!

But that was in a different time when you basically went to school with the same kids your entire life, so they really know you.  I don't think it's quite that way today.  Especially in urban schools.

Of course, Mr. S. didn't believe anyone and gave us all a detention for being disruptive. My parents had to get the principal involved.  As a result though, Mr. Spanno lost the respect and control of the class for the rest of his stay with us. This had a sort of positive outcome, but it was still scarring to have an adult --a teacher no less-- treat you in such a manner.

There were some other minor incidents in high school.  Oh yeah, puberty was lots of fun!  Along with all the other things, I changed schools and had big boobs to boot.   But by then I'd  developed a thick skin and become quite a good fighter, so, ahem, I was sometimes the one in the principal's office because I didn't take crap from anyone anymore.

Others, like Mitchell Wilson, aren't as resilient.

I also had taken refuge for years in nerdy pursuits; reading, drawing, writing, plays, science stuff.  I was by then a full-fledged geek.  Hurray!  It was soooo much fun.

In grade 9 the infamous Randy reappeared in my Informatics class.  It was a different school, and I hadn't seen him for a couple of years.  His family had moved or something.  He was several years behind now.  Indeed.  Being the class geek, I got asked to tutor him.  I absolutely refused.  Don't think he ever finished high school.

I have developed a profound hatred of bullies.

One day my daughter ran home from the park near our house to tell me that some big boys were picking on my oldest son who was five or six at the time.  I had just returned from a fundraising event and was dressed in the full regalia of a Klingon Warrior.  I hadn't had time to become human again.  My son has the same eye condition as me.  It is true; there is nothing meaner than an enraged mom.  

I flew over to the park and caught them in the act.  They were teasing him and throwing sand in his face.  These boys were about 12 years old; twice his age.  I knew the two boys, and I knew their parents.  One of the kids' dads was an outspoken Christian type who lived across the street from us.  My first instinct was to kick their asses.  But I exercised great restraint.  I was around 30 years old.  There are laws. . .

Instead, I charged at them as a Klingon.  They were freaked and started to run.  I'm pretty awesome when I lose it!  I grabbed them both, resisted the urge to bang their heads together, and dragged them off to the closest parents’ house to present them to the father.  He was a bit freaked himself to see me costumed as I was.  I had quite forgotten about what I was wearing.  

To make a long story short, I had scared to crap out of those boys.  The next day they came to apologize with a pie from their mom.  This is an incident that we can look back on and laugh at, because it was pretty outrageous, and having a crazy mom helped in that instance.  The two brothers remember it and say that all the kids in the neighbourhood were terrified of me.  L'il ole me.

But not everyone's story can have that outcome. 

Even complete strangers can be a party to a type of passive bullying.  One day a few years ago I was in the grocery store.  There was a guy with Down syndrome counting his money out to pay for something; a lot of coins he carried in a bag.  Some inconsiderate person bumped into him and all the change went flying.  This person didn't apologize or stop to help the guy pick them up.  They just continued on their merry way.  As if this wasn't bad enough, some kids started collecting the coins for themselves. There were loonies and twonies among the fallout.  This poor soul was crawling around on the floor of the store crying and trying to collect his hard won cash.  No staff were in sight to help.  

This took place over a matter of seconds of course, and my heart really goes out to someone in such a scene.  I felt the old rage well up in me and chased all the kids away and proceeded to help the guy collect his change.  It was everywhere.  No staff ever did show up to help him.  He was very grateful and tried to give me a couple of loonies for helping him. 

It still really bothers me that in a store full of people, only I did anything to help this man, while others just stared or went about their business.  I can't help but wonder if the same was true for Mitchell, but there was no one like me about to come to his aide.

Most of my experiences took place in a small town.  I see all kinds of nasty injustices here in Toronto though.  Like the above mentioned incident. 

Despite the fact that Toronto is growing more and more mannerless and uncaring, I do, occasionally, see some truly moving acts of kindness.  One slippery day in January a couple of years ago I was on the packed Eglinton bus.  There was this very old and frail lady riding.  She was completely lost.  I believe she may have had Alzheimer’s.  She was lost and scared and very frightened.  I thought of my own grandmother who was still with us at the time.  That could be her (not that she would ever come to Toronto, but, theoretically speaking).  I was about to try to help her, when a very kind woman offered to take her home.  The woman was a stranger of course.  But she offered to get off the bus with her and help her get home.  I don't know how that turned out. The woman looked like an honest person.    One can only hope.

Wanda Fitzgerald as Butternut the Clown at Night of Dread
The underlying theme of the play Butternut is that of being different and having to live in a society where, despite all of our progress, different is still not a good thing to be.  Gay, geek, disabled, female, ethnic, or all of the above; if you don't comply with what the bullies think is normal, you can be a victim.  I don't know that the world will ever change, but at least some, by sharing our experience through our art, may make an effort to contribute to enlightenment and.  Different can be good, and it's damn well time they knew it!   

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