By Robert Gillis Originally published in the Foxboro Reporter, 1/2005, rewritten and updated for 4/2010 publication, and also published in the Boston City Paper, 4/2010.
The sound is so loud that his brain can’t comprehend what is happening. The window is exploding, shattering, coming toward him. Glass—glass everywhere. There’s no metaphor to describe it; it’s just horribly, painfully, incomprehensibly loud. The moment is so traumatic that his brain can’t process it. It doesn’t make sense. All he knows is absolute terror.
A few minutes before, he’d went to his bedroom, dug out that old battered copy of freshmen Algebra, and sat at the little table in front of the window to begin his homework. Either by divine intervention or dumb luck, he decided his bed was more comfortable and went there to start the math problems. Then the room exploded.
He’s still screaming as his parents race into his room. He’s in a duck-and-cover position and all he can do is scream. Nothing makes sense.
Finally, he yells, “Somebody broke my window!”
There’s shiny glass everywhere, big pieces, little bits, covering the floor. Then he discovers the two fist-sized rocks that had come to rest under his bed after shattering the double windowpanes. It’s only then that it occurs to him that he was sitting in front of the window seconds before it came in toward him. The rocks could have easily hit him, blinded him, the glass could have cut him, disfigured him. He just might have been killed.
The police are called but they are useless. “Did you steal someone’s girlfriend?” one of them asks, with a smirk on his face. A report isn’t even filed. There’s not much we can do, they tell him.
Nine months later, someone smashes the same upper window with apples. It’s not as dramatic this time, no glass comes into the room but it reinforces the point: YOU ARE NOT SAFE HERE.
The boy—all of 14 — never feels safe in that room again.
He thinks back, to those school days long before the window exploded. He was the smartest kid in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade and wasn’t a fighter—and that made him a target.
He wasn’t really that different; he was a nice kid, affable, and had friends. But there were the bullies. The clique. They picked on others, too, but he was a favorite target. Probably because he never fought back, he just took it or ran away. Took the long way home. Every day. For years. He lived under a constant threat of abuse from a clique of classmates, and was jumped and beaten a few times, and threatened with violence more times than he could count.
One time, a dozen of them followed him down the street, taunting him. He only realized when he got home that his jacket was covered with their spit.
He remembers the constant dread, the snarky comments: “Faggot. Teacher’s Pet. You’re dead after school.” And so many more, unprintable.
For over FOUR YEARS, he hated going to grammar school, dreaded seeing them. The bullies.
Decades go by. The boy does well in a great high school and college, gains self-confidence and reasonable happiness, makes good friends, gets married to a woman he loves, and holds a series of great jobs in which he excels. He loves his life and his community. His life is typical of most people, with its ups and downs, the good and not so good.
But sometimes he still remembers the horrible sound of the breaking glass. Sometimes, he still flinches at sudden, unexpected noise. Because people don’t understand — sometimes, just sometimes, when there’s a sudden, unexpected bang, a crash, a noise, he’s back there, in that bedroom, glass flying everywhere as his world explodes around him.
The boy whose window was broken is the man who now writes these words. He is me. I first published this piece in 2005, but the problem of bullying is back on the front page and it deserves a rewrite and republishing.
- April 2009, Springfield: Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a victim of bullying, hangs himself. He was 11.
- January 2010: South Hadley: Phoebe Prince, a victim of constant bullying and cyber-bullying, hangs herself. She was 15.
- This is not a new problem: Remember a teen-ager named Shaun Oulette, a quiet kid who from all reports never bothered anyone, who is murdered by a classmate who wanted to feel what is was like to kill someone.
- Remember Matthew Shepard, beaten, humiliated and murdered because he was gay. Remember the massacre at Columbine High School that left 13 dead.
- Remember a 15-year-old girl is in a critical condition, and five other pupils injured, following a shooting at Heritage High School, near the town of Conyers, east of Atlanta in Georgia.
- Remember Santana High School and the 15-year-old who shot two others dead.
- And remember the countless other stories over the last decades of violence in schools, and by school age children.
The violence in the schools doesn’t start with the shootings and the stabbing; a lot of it often starts with intimidation, cruelty and bullying. It starts with what I went through, and then comes the feeling like an outsider. Being the target. Wanting to make it stop. Make them leave you alone. Bullying is pervasive in most schools and the statistics are terrifying. Sopris West reports the following:
- Six out of ten American teens witness bullying and harassment at least once per day
- Half of all violence against teenagers occurs in school buildings, on school property, or near the school
- Thirty-six percent, or more than one in three high school students, say they don’t feel safe at school
- Four out of ten teens report that the negative behaviors of other students in their schools “definitely” or “somewhat” interfere with their school performance
Good God, can that possibly be right? That, “One-half of all violence against teenagers occurs in school buildings, on school property or on the street in the vicinity of the school?” That is deplorable. There are many that would argue that kids must learn to fight back, that dealing with schoolyard bullies is some rite of passage. That’s garbage. In the adult world, you don’t resort to violence when you don’t like someone or don’t get your way. The adults who do are called criminals. The adults who do so go to jail.
There is no excuse for organized, constant cruelty. In countless schools, the story is the same: Consistent patterns of intimidation, threats, and discrimination. Kids who literally live in fear. Kids terrified to go to school. Kids like, me.
It’s in nearly every school. In every state. And it’s getting much worse, much more violent. These days, kids are being killed, or doing the killing. Or committing suicide. It is time – long past time – for the cycle of violence to end. And to be blunt, school anti-bullying programs have been, in my opinion, weak Band-Aids at best, and five of six years after their inception kids are still KILLING THEMSELVES and being KILLED because of bullying.
It is time for a LAW – a legal mandate with teeth to stop this atrocity, and penalize schools and school personnel who don’t report the bullying and don’t stop it, or escalate it to someone who can. Teachers, tell your students that respect for others is REQUIRED of them. That bullying and intimidation will not be tolerated, ever. The teachers and parents must be involved. If that doesn’t bring resolution, then it’s time to involve the police.
There must be zero tolerance for bullying and intimidation. Parents, encourage your kids to tell you, a teacher, or another adult when they’re having a problem with other students. Catch the problem early, before the situation escalates. Deal with it swiftly and decisively. Children simply do not possess the skills or ability to deal with the situation effectively. Your first responsibility is to your children is to protect them, even if they ask you not to get involved.
Kids, if you are being bullied or know someone who is, tell as many people as you can. One of them will believe you. You are not being a fink or a snitch. And who gives a damn if you are? The bastards who are THREATENING YOU? Your so-called friends?
SPEAK UP. You might be saving a life. Maybe your own.
There’s been enough violence. There’s been enough trauma. There has been far too much death. Support and enforce anti-bulling laws and programs.
Over thirty years after that horrible period in my life, I can still feel anger for what I went through –but sadly, compared to what I read in the papers these days, I’m clearly one of the lucky ones. I’m still alive. Phoebe, Carl, Matthew, Sean and countless other children are dead. Let’s stop the cycle now.
Or the next time, it might be your child, dead by his or her own hand, or killed by a bully, with you lamenting, “If only we’d done something.”
Bullying is no rite of passage. Ask me. I know.