On long-ago bullying

I don't know if you saw this piece in the Washington Post on what Mitt Romney was like as a high school student, but I can't get it out of my head.

To summarize: He once forcibly cut the hair of a classmate because he thought the style was "wrong." The classmate, it so happens, was gay.

I was reluctant to say anything about it at first, because this is not a political blog and I don't want to alienate anyone who might see this discussion as being politically motivated.

Then Mr. Romney gave one of those "If I hurt anyone, I'm sorry" apologies, and I decided I wanted to say something. Many others, his supporter and those from the other side of the political aisle, have made the point that the things you did in high school don't connect to your adult life or remain relevant decades later.

I disagree with that. We can grow and change, of course, but the things you do in high school certainly can affect other people's lives decades later. It's one of the themes of my novel, and it's something I've spent a lot of time thinking about over the years. 

My junior year of high school, I was eating lunch with an old friend (who had very similar hair to the kind that so offended Mitt Romney). At a nearby table, some members of a cool-boy clique who called themselves "The Big Six," were eating lunch and talking loudly about my friend's sexual orientation.

"Don't," my friend said, when he saw me stand up. 

But I didn't listen, which, in retrospect, doesn't make me any better than everyone else who'd failed to listen to that boy. I marched over to the table and told the ring leader to knock it off. I threw a glass of water on his face and told him that he might be powerful, but that nobody really liked him. It wasn't a nice thing to say. It was pretty terrible of me, actually. Worse, though, I told him that my friend wasn't gay. My friend wasn't out yet. But it shouldn't have mattered whether he was or wasn't. Nobody deserves to be called names and ridiculed, and I am still haunted by the prospect that I might have made things worse by trying to make them better.

At the time, I could not have been more politically conservative. I grew up in a conservative, religious home, so I understand and respect the point of view even if I no longer carry that identity inside my head. For me, though, this is not about politics, it's about power.

To this day, though, it's how I look at powerful people who are unkind to the less powerful. I loathe them.

Five years after graduation--and six years after the incident, I was teaching at my old high school. The jerk came back for a reunion and I overheard him talking with one of his friends about tossing students' backpacks into the ravine behind the Chapel. You know, the bags with their schoolwork, books, and other belongings--pretty much everything to a high school student. So much for his growing up a bit during college.

It would have been around that time that my friend, who'd begun abusing drugs, was diagnosed with HIV. He is healthy and incredibly successful today, but I do wonder sometimes what might have happened if people had been kinder to him. If he'd suffered less in high school, maybe he wouldn't have had so much pain to numb with narcotics and self-destructive behavior. In any case, he takes responsibility for his actions and their effect on his life. He's a remarkable person that way.

I have no idea what's become of the jerk, and honestly, I don't have a great deal of appetite to go to class reunions and such, as much as I like running into old classmates individually.

When you are a bystander to the suffering of others, you suffer as well. It's amazing to me that the victims and witnesses are the ones who carry the pain, while the perpetrators continue to walk the world feeling entitled to do what they can get away with, offering conditional apologies and pleading failed memories. There is no prison for people who've broken another person's spirit. There is one, though, for the victim--and that child has to break out of it all on his own.

High school students aren't children. Try calling a high school student a child and see the look it gets you. Sometimes, they do things they wouldn't do if given the same choice a few years later. That's probably almost universally true about kids that age. But if they don't take action to atone for the serious harm they've caused other people, then they remain culpable. 

In the world of my book, this would keep a person out of heaven. I sometimes wish real life were as fair as fiction.