My name is Harlan Yaffe, I was a bullied kid.
I scribe this today as a freshly fifty, semi-sane, very confident man who has known for more than two decades that “it gets better,” because it has. To that bullied kid back in 70’s, even the notion of one iota of improvement would have held as a miracle.
My reality at the time was having the act of being a klutz who dropped my books and papers across the halls twice a week to cover for the fact they were either pushed out of my hands or I was tripped as I turned the corner down to an Oscar caliber performance. Inside my locker, behind my books, I kept a brown paper bag with some handiwipes and a 32 oz. bottle of acetone: the was the fastest way to remove “fag” written in permanent magic marker when it appeared on my locker. I looked that up in a book in the library and since I wasn’t old enough to drive yet, I took my bike to Lane’s Drug Store to get it. And that was a simpler, gentler sort of bullying by comparison to the averous hatred in the acts kids are perpetrating on each other today.
Arguably one of the biggest advantages of being a member of “Gen W,” that odd natal period in time overlapping the tail end of the baby boom and “pre-Gen X,” was being the last generation to grow up with stay at home Moms as standard issue. Add to that doting dads, and we were blessed to have had a team dedicated to provide a nurturing, safe home for us where family came first and plural careers, second. My parents were some of the best of the lot; engaged, involved and interested, yet even they never knew I was bullied; I was too ashamed to tell them…to let them down. I was also afraid to tell the teachers…they would tell the principal and the principal would tell my parents what I was afraid they would find out to begin with. It was a diminishing existence I was desperate to keep under wraps.
Long before I could even begin to comprehend that being gay is much less what I do in my bed and much more about whom I love, it was already made crystal clear to me by classmates with the same lack of maturity and life experience, that “this” is one of the “baddest” things a person (meaning this person, meaning me) can be – and it was always open season on these heretics, (on me, the only heretic, as it felt like at the time).
Arguably one of the biggest disadvantages of being a member of the current “Digital Generation” is that social media means they do not have the after-school, weekend and summer safety zone of home; that has been breached with posts, uploads, tweets and texts aimed at the bullied person in an unstopped force they can be bombarded with 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. And…the entire world is going to read along, in real time.
My daily anguish began as soon as I stepped foot on the bus each morning. I could not wait until I returned each day from school to more than a home, but a sanctuary where I would not be ridiculed and ostracized. Home was the one & only place I had where I was certain I would be welcomed and loved.
As an adult, I now understand the fear that fueled that shame was that if “they,” if “MY” family… knew, gulp, what I was teased about…that some of the kids at school called “their” son a…that they think “I” am a, “throw-in-the-most-hateful-gay-slur-you-can-think-of-here…” If word of “that” EVER got back to the ones I loved most of all, I might not be: scratch that; I was sure I definitely would not be, loved any more. I would no longer be welcomed in the only safe place I knew.
Even the thought of being shunned by those whose love literally gave you life is more than ANY child should ever have to contemplate. The resulting hopeless despair is exactly why gay teens are committing suicide in escalating numbers. This fear doesn’t come from a vacuum; for the most unfortunate, that becomes their reality. Rest in peace 13 year old Asher Brown, and Jack Reese, Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Jamey Rodemeyer, Kenneth Weishuhn, Billy Lucas and so many others.
The echoes of the rawness of that panic make the bile churn in my stomach this very moment as I, a grown man with an AARP card for G-d’s sake, struggle with the long buried enormity of the pain of that petrified, hurt boy and not see him in third person, but to own that chapter of my past so I can now move on: I am no longer a victim, I AM a survivor.
While this started with gay teens, unless we get in front of this to diffuse the intolerance fueling the hate behind it, a teen you love could be next for being fat, or poor, or disabled, or busty, or zitty, or Muslim or… It’s already too late for Amanda Todd, a heterosexual 15 year girl who took her own life, not in a long ago century in a land far, far away, but October 11, 2012 in Vancouver, Canada. She left behind a heartbreaking video chronicling years of bullying in school and online for her family; she never had the chance to leave them grandchildren.
This is a cautionary tale, not a whoa-as-me one. I am here not for pity, but to elevate your awareness. Ten year olds calling another ten year old “a stupid fag” really isn’t kids being kids when left unchecked. It can become “die you mother fucking faggot” written on the Facebook page of a 14 year old boy or LGBT teen who starts thinking that that might just be easier than living with the aftermath. Hate is learned behavior that did not start in the classroom.
Schools and educators are taking a stand against bullying, but the real ground zero for this battle begins at home with parents taking responsibility to know what their kids are seeing, hearing, saying, texting, tweeting and posting online and off; by teaching them not just how to stick up for themselves if they are picked on, but not to pick on others for not being exactly like them. They deserve more than a legacy where a blind eye allowed hate to flourish.
These kids will grow up into the candidates the children of the Digital Generation will someday be voting for and making the laws their grandchildren will live by; “bullying is not ok” needs to be one of them.
My name is Harlan Yaffe and for me, it got so much better. Whether or not your son or daughter will be able to say the same is up to you.