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Friday, October 15, 2010
Why not make it better RIGHT NOW?
Like everyone else, I'm appalled by the recent slew of suicides among tormented gay teens in the United States. I've been a fan of Dan Savage's frank, honest and all around amazing column Savage Love since it arrived here in town via The Portland Mercury back in 2000. I admire the efforts of him and his partner to start the "It Gets Better" YouTube campaign, which has, in just a few weeks, received massive amounts of attention and hundreds of videos from successful gays who endured plenty of harassment during their high school years.
But there's one thing that bugs me about this whole thing: why should these teens wait? Why should they endure YEARS of bullying from their peers and the indifference of lazy or cruel families, teachers and/or school administrators? Look back over the course of American history. What led to effective social change for everyone from the founding fathers to members of the Civil Rights Movement? Action. The Boston Tea Party, the Women's Suffrage Movement, Martin Luther King's march on Washington. Expecting these poor teenagers to merely ENDURE these horrors is unreasonable.
I'm not the sort of guy brave enough to film himself discussing his own high school experiences like the courageous souls on YouTube, such as Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns who's video is receiving huge amounts of attention today on CNN (they aired the entire thing a bit ago). Still, here goes....
I'm not gay but that didn't stop plenty of bullies I dealt with at Robert Gray Middle School and Wilson High School here in Portland from labeling me "faggot." I was the scrawniest kid in my class and I graduated from Wilson weighing a grand total of 127 pounds, which is pretty frickin' lanky for someone 6 feet tall. PE class was a living hell for me. I managed to make it through 3 years of it at Robert Gray due to efforts of a teacher who knew what I was going through and, despite being an overgrown jock, had sympathy on me. I'll never forget his words when, with me in tears after getting pegged in the head by a volleyball in the 7th grade. He pulled me aside and broke out a speech I'm sure he had used on plenty of pre-teens like me over the years.
"Yeah, this game is hard, kid, but it'll be worth it. You'll get better at this volleyball thing and you'll be glad you stuck with it. One day, be it five years or ten down the road, somebody cute's gonna come into your life and they're gonna ask you to play volleyball. If you don't get back out there right now you're gonna have to tell them that you don't know how. And they're gonna think you're a schmuck."
It was enough to get me back in the game but, for what it's worth, no one has EVER asked me to play volleyball, cute or otherwise.
Freshman PE at Wilson was a different story. My new "coach" didn't have a shred of a soul left after years of screaming at teenagers on the gridiron. He seemed to delight in the torment the jocks in class caused me. During a two week course on wrestling, among the worst two weeks of my life, he ignored my pleas when another student, among the most rotten bullies at Wilson, put me in a "full pretzel." This punk held me in it so long I endured weeks of back pain afterward. "Hey, guys," he blathered to his friends. "Motherfucker's in some pain right now." They all thought this was hilarious.
Something beyond my spine snapped that day. I spent the rest of year finding subtle ways to get back at the coach. I'd sneak out of the locker room after attendance was taken or conveniently forget my sneakers at home during basketball week, sitting out games because all I had with me with was a pair of Birkenstocks. One morning, I decided to slowly jog during a race around the Wilson track. This pissed the coach off so badly that he screamed at me in front of all the other students and demanded that I spend the rest of the class sitting on the bleachers. When I approached him afterward to discuss this he yelled, "GET OUT OF MY FACE! I DON'T EVEN WANT TO LOOK AT YOU RIGHT NOW!" I trotted off to Algebra, savoring this small victory. My PE grade for that semester? A C+...the best C+ I have ever received.
During those years I was repeatedly punched in the halls, endured plenty of name-calling ranging from "nerd" to "fag" and was routinely spit on by one troubled brat in a math class. When I complained to the teacher she literally stared at me with weary, exhausted eyes. Without a word, she went back to reading a romance novel. If I can think of any single anecdote that sums up everything sick, sad and wrong with the US Educational system, it's this.
But, as Dan Savage advises a decade later, I put up with it. Then, during junior year, I decided to fight back, not with fists but with words.
I ran for Student Body President. I lost to a jock despite assurances from plenty of people that I had actually won the race. I'm still convinced that the Vice Principle conveniently "overlooked" my votes in order to allow a more suitable candidate into office. I ran again for Senior Class President, won this time around and, like the mischievous little shit that I was quickly becoming, I did everything in my power to subvert various school events. I insulted jocks in the middle of a rally attended by the Blazers' Damon Stoudamire, did a ear-shattering rendition of the school fight song at a school-wide assembly. In my most misguided and vengeful moment, I told my class during our graduation (in front of a crowd of 1,000 people in the Wilson Stadium, including former mayor Vera Katz) that they were all destined to lead doomed and unfulfilled lives in the suburbs. "This is good as it's ever going to get, guys. Hope you enjoyed the ride!"
Needless to say, members of my cabinet tried to have me impeached repeatedly.
But this wasn't enough. I landed on the staff on the student newspaper, The Statesman and because of a super cool teacher who looked the other way, published various articles mocking everything in sight. When he came to his senses and blocked the publication of one of my more ridiculous editorials, I decided to publish an underground newspaper using Quark on the classroom's Macintoshs. I put out 20 copies and was quickly called into the principle's office. When he told me I might be expelled for my actions, I mentioned all the torment I had endured over the years. When he said he would "sleep on it and consider what to do with me," I suggested that I'd be calling the media after school.
And that's what I did. I left a message for a staff reporter at The Oregonian and spoke to an editor at Willamette Week. He patiently listened to my story and, I'll never forget this, told me "call me back when you get expelled. THEN you'll have a story worth going to press with!"
When one kid, a die-hard Christian, threatened to kill me for some of the comments I published, I told him I'd return to him as a ghost, possess him, get him addicted to crack, get him infected with AIDS and so on. This not only shut him up but I saw the sort of fear in his eyes that he had conjured-up in so many of his victims.
In the end, I received a one day suspension and handed the paper off to another long-tormented misfit pal, who made it bigger and better...before getting kicked out of school temporarily himself. The paper eventually landed in the hands of our friend Cory who carried the torch after we graduated. He went even further with the project and was expelled, despite an outcry from the local press. Meanwhile, a well-connected son of a wealthy lawyer, received a slap on the hand for a prank that destroyed the floor of the cafeteria. That pampered prince? Yeah, he's trying to become a politician right now. I'd love to tell you his name but, honestly, he was always nice to me. I'm glad to see that he's running for public office rather than follow his father into the world of corporate law.
So, to wrap this up, fight back, kids. Get on the internet. Bully the bullies. Publish papers on Xerox paper and distribute them in lockers and bathrooms before school. Create Twitter accounts, make fake Facebook profiles for your tormentors. Take all the awful bile these jerks toss on you and give it right back them. If you're really feeling bold, grab all the other drama kids, nerds, tweekers, band geeks, dorks, choir pussies and losers and stage a sit-in the principle's office if your school's administration is too indifferent to stick up for you. Call the media. They love this sort of thing.
Don't wait. Make it better. Right fucking now.
Or bide your time, kick back, and enjoy a heapin' helpin' of Schadenfreude in a few years when the lives of some of those bullies don't work out so well. The last time I checked, the kid who spit on me has been in and out of jail over the past decade.
IT GETS WORSE
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