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.
• Name withheld by request, graduated AHS in the 1960s: "I was born and raised in Ashland to a pretty poor family. I was a little on the heavy side, but had many friends. I was elected to be one of five cheerleaders and had the experience of my life feeling so special. I tried out for cheerleader again the next year but didn't make the cut. I recall crying in a heap on the girls bathroom floor when another girl who tried out and failed walked in the bathroom. She told me to shut up and stop crying; that I only made cheerleader the prior year because of a family tragedy and everyone felt sorry for me. I have rarely felt such a 'sting,' and although I hated myself throughout the rest of high school for the 'pitiful fat girl who made cheerleader just because everyone felt sorry for her,' I, of course, have long ago realized that the girl who made the comment to me was feeling the pain of not making cheerleader herself. And in the nearly 50 years since the unkind comment, I've never told anyone who made that comment to me."
• Mike Case, class of 1969: "There weren't many bullies at AHS, but of the ones that were there, they were all the same. They smoked cigarettes, drank, did pot and fought at every opportunity. It made them feel superior if they could hurt someone else. I stood up to the wanna-bes and was able to make them back down, but two real bullies were dangerous and had to be dealt with through the police. They did a lot of damage to vehicles parked on the street, such as throwing pieces of scrap metal through windshields and piercing tires with weapons made in the forging and welding shop."
• Name withheld by request, graduated AHS in the 1960s: "I had a male cousin who acted somewhat feminine and was teased and bullied. I always came to his defense, since the taunting was nearly constant throughout his high school years. Later, as Ashland became more open-minded, he did come out of the closet and still wasn't accepted. He ended up moving to San Francisco. How sad back then, but so happy doors have opened since."
• Gordon Brown, class of 1974: "When I was a sophomore, the most popular initiation involved kids having to roll pencils with their noses, resulting in a scab. I recall others having to wear adult diapers on the outside of their pants. I personally didn't have to do either."
• Jamila Elliot: "I was a student at Ashland High School from 1998-2001 and was both a victim and witness to hazing, which was shockingly widespread. Shockingly obscene, slanderous words about me were spray-painted on three different sites on campus. I would hate to see any student go through the daily hell I was subjected to and watched so many others be subjected to."
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:
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.
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).