Guest Blogger, Hilary Hattenbach: One L or 2?

I want to thank each person who has written and shared their “bullying” story. (And please keep them coming.) It’s been an interesting endeavor because everyone’s story is different and yet, of course, there are common themes.  I think feeling like an outsider and seeing others as being more included are both just part of the human condition. Even now, I think of my bullies and marvel, did they ever feel like outsiders too? At some point, they must have.

9 year old meMy friend Hilary, a cookbook author and blogger too, shared a childhood story and sent it with the qualification, “it’s wasn’t exactly bullying per se.” And well, I can kind of seeing how it might not be bullying PER SE, but it does seem to be needlessly cruel. And not to give away the ending, but a little mysterious too.

I asked Hilary if she had a picture of herself from around that time and of course, that is the picture that accompanies this story. Just a sweet little girl, trying to figure it out, trying to make new friends in a new situation.

One L or 2?

When I was nine-years-old, Ma married a nuclear physicist. Shortly after that, we abandoned our beloved, long-in-tooth West Hollywood rental for a boxy, personality-free apartment in Beverly Hills. I’d been attending Rosewood Elementary, a public school where I loved all the teachers, had a diverse mix of friends, and often stayed after school as a teacher’s helper. Up until that point, I was a relatively happy-go-lucky kid. We were broke, my parents were divorced, and my dad was barely in the picture. But I was a big “bright-sider,” often telling jokes, drawing, and trying to cheer up Ma who struggled to raise two kids without child support. Despite how difficult things were, they never seemed that bad. That is, until we moved to Beverly Hills. 


Right around this same time, my ten-year-old brother, Chris, realized that his lengthy campaign to get our parents back together had gone down the crapper. “I’m moving in with Dad!” he announced. 


“Fine. Go live with your father. You two deserve each other!” Ma said.


And thus began our wildly divergent Prince and The Pauper-type journeys. I was enrolled in Beverly Vista, a foreboding, brick structure of a school where every kid got dropped off in a shiny, foreign car. Chris went to live at Pop’s studio bachelor pad in West Hollywood and stayed at Rosewood. I got stuck with a bunch of spoiled, rich, nine-year-old a-holes while Chris palled around with juvenile delinquents and only went to school when he felt like it. At the time, it seemed like he got the better end of the deal. In retrospect, not so much. 


On my first day at Beverly Vista, I met another girl in my homeroom named Hilary. It was a bit like meeting a unicorn. Back then, the name was pretty rare, akin to “Apple,” “North,” or “Latte” now. And this Hilary was fancy. She rolled up to me in a white rabbit fur coat, brown hair cascading down to her shoulders like a mini Charlie’s Angel. A couple of her friends stood behind her for backup. “One L or Two?” she asked.


“One,” I said, hoping that she had two because everyone knew that two L’s was the pedestrian spelling of the name, Hilary. My mom told me that. Even if I was wearing plaid hand-me-down knickers with Snoopy knee socks, the superior spelling of my name surely trumped her flawlessness. 


“Me too.” She flipped her hair and flashed a knowing smile at her friends. 


Since it ended up being a draw in the L battle, I thought we had bonded. Two Hilarys with one L in the same class! What were the odds? We’d be the best of the pals.

Maybe she’d let me borrow her fur jacket and show me how to get the frizzes out of my hair. I imagined the hilarious hijinks that would ensue any time the teacher called on “Hilary”


“Which one??” we’d say in unison and break down in hysterical laughter. But alas, that initial confrontation was the last time I ever exchanged words with Fancy Hilary. She continued her reign as the only true “Hilary,” ignoring my very existence as did most of the other kids at the school. And when I think back, ignoring someone is probably one of the cruelest types of bullying that exists because it renders one completely invisible. 


For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone. At Rosewood, my quirky, artistic persona fit right in with my classmates. Most of us were being raised by a single parent and money was scarce. At Beverly Vista, a school that reeked of privilege, I felt like I’d crash-landed my broke-ass spaceship on a hostile planet. 


Then one day, in my giant and immaculate homeroom with large windows spraying LA sunshine on the backs of our heads, the teacher led the class in a calligraphy lesson. Yes, part of the fourth grade curriculum was to learn the very useful fine art of Japanese lettering. I noticed a quiet Japanese girl in front of me essentially crushing the assignment. She flicked her wrist with ease, creating beautiful black brush strokes on the parchment. I craned my neck to look at her paper and commented on how amazing it was. Her name was Yuko. 

Yuko, a perfectionist who never had a rumple on her pressed cotton pants, became my first friend at Beverly Vista and quickly introduced me to her bestie, Kanae (pronounced Can I – emphasis on “can”.) Kanae was heavier-set and more of a gabber like me. In a sea of white faces, Yuko and Kanae, were the oddballs, the outcasts. We quickly bonded over our similar plights and became inseparable. The three of us all freaking loved Sanrio. We traded stickers and admired each other’s collections. We went sticker shopping, ate lunch together, and gossiped about other kids at school. Having a couple of friends made life in Beverly Hills finally bearable. But then something changed.


I came to school one morning and Yuko wouldn’t talk to me. Later, when I saw Kanae on the playground, she marched ahead as if she couldn’t see me. In class, I tapped Yuko on the shoulder. I called her name. But she just sat staring forward, her perfect posture rigid in her wooden chair. I stared at her short ponytail, waiting for it to turn but it never budged. It was like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As if somehow I’d never been born and life as I knew it had completely vanished. At recess, I approached them, I asked them what happened, and I was sorry if I had done something wrong. But like Jimmy Stewart desperately shouting at the people who can’t hear him or see him, the two friends acted like I wasn’t there. They just talked to each other until I walked away. I tried for days to get them to forgive me for something I didn’t even know I had done but they never came around. And so after a few days, I gave up. 

At home I sat in the closet in my room and cried. For hours I sobbed and tried to replay everything I had done and said to Yuko and Kanae to make them suddenly hate me. Ma called me for dinner and when I didn’t answer, she sent the physicist to look for me. He opened the closet door, saw me sitting there in the dark and shouted, “She’s in the closet.” Not knowing what to do, he awkwardly shuffled off, leaving me there to sulk. 


I remember this time as my first foray into total inconsolable sadness. It seemed that Yuko and Kanae had broken my heart though it was probably intensified by the veritable trifecta of Ma getting remarried, my brother moving away, and starting at a new school where everyone hated me. I never made another friend at that school. When the year mercifully ended, we moved to a new house in the valley and my brother came back to live with us. I made friends easily at the new school and normalcy returned. 


Unfortunately, my stepdad got transferred a year later and I had to once again start at a new school. It was something I did over and over again as kid and I can only say that after Beverly Vista, I honed my ability to recognize “my people.” I never had another Yuko and Kanae experience. I did have some thuggish guys push me in the school cafeteria but it was nothing compared to the psychological warfare waged on me by a couple of nine-year-olds. Their unflappable ability to completely freeze me out still haunts me to this day. It’s something I’d never wish on anyone.

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Guest Blogger, Linda Bailey Walsh: There are Many Ways to Save a Life

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This is a picture of my friend Linda when she was in grade school. Cute kid, huh? I asked her to write a guest blog, to expound on something she said on Facebook last week about the Caitlyn Jenner controversy. She wrote this blog and as you will read, she shares some childhood experiences, things that you don’t like to think about your friends having to experience. And yet, Linda survived. Survived and thrived. She is the beautiful adult in the other picture, but it’s the kid pic that I can’t stop thinking about. She tugs at my heart strings. I think we might all have a lot more empathy for folks we disagreed with if we found a picture of them at 6 and looked at that for a few minutes. Just an idea. Anyway, here is Linda’s guest blog, I hope it will touch your heart the way to touched mine.

There are Many Ways to Save a Life

I had the amusing realization this week that if you haven’t spoken with me in a while or if we only know each other from social media most likely you would assume I am gay. The reason why is because I often post about LGBT issues as well as women’s issues. I am unapologetic about this. I am passionate about them. I try not to take the bait and post about straight up politics but when it comes to equality and civil rights. I can’t keep quiet. After all, not speaking up is usually the number one reason that prejudice and discrimination are able to thrive.

For the record, I am not gay so, I’ll never truly know what it feels like to be gay or transgender but, I do know what it’s like to feel an “otherness”. I was a weird kid. Passionate about the arts and performing pretty much from birth. I read Edgar Allen Poe for fun in 3rd grade and stayed in one of 3 characters all day everyday when I was 4 (Barbie, Miss Flowers & Gypsy. I would tell you who I was that day and only answer to that name. ) Later there would be liquid eyeliner drawn in vines around my eyes to compliment my Mohawk. I was lucky enough to be born into an awesome family but still I know that often they didn’t know what to make of me. We are children of longshoreman who play sports and cheer. We do not practice Iambic Pentameter for fun.

I experienced my share of being bullied or just plain ostracized which for me, was worse. Before the punk rock phase I looked like an average kid but what was inside of me always shone through and kids can sniff out someone who’s different like canaries in a coalmine.

Luckily as I got older I found my tribe. The Artists, the Activists, the Fun and the Fierce. There is nothing in the world like realizing you are not alone.

In time the things that made me different became the things I grew to love most about myself. As corny as it may sound I know now that those are the things that make me special.
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I also remember everyone that ever stood up for me when I was down. Christine Angelucci protected me in Elementary school when I had to constantly find a new route home to avoid getting beaten up. Holly Arnold standing up to a cheerleading coach who was bullying me, my future brother in law Sean Smith having a talk with a boy who told me just how ugly he thought I was in front of an entire class. My parents, my sisters, the list goes on and on.

And as an adult I have been fortunate to be surrounded by amazingly loving and inspiring people. This includes the family I was born into and the one that I made out in the world. People (often LGBT) who made me dinner while I nursed a heart that felt irreparably shattered. Those who inspired me to be better in my work and my life. People have saved me on many days and in many ways just by being there, loving me and saying “I understand. I’ve been there. You are not alone.”

So this last week we met Caitlyn Jenner. I’m proud that most of the response I bore witness to was very positive. Of course it wasn’t all positive. I can understand confusion and even fear so long as it is balanced with kindness. After all this is an extraordinarily new situation for most people. What truly puzzled me is the people who felt somehow attacked, that to support Caitlyn in her journey somehow was an insult to others. Most specifically I am speaking of the word Hero. Many revered Caitlyn for sharing her story and immediately there was backlash, a wave of photos of Soldiers, Firefighters & Police with statements proclaiming them the real heroes. I would not for one second assert that they are not heroes. Of course, of course, of course they are heroes. I truly can’t imagine the bravery in their hearts and I am sincerely grateful for it. My question is this: Why can’t two good things exist simultaneously? There are different ways to be heroic. Why does something have to be bad for something else to be good? One does not diminish the other. There are many ways to save a life. There is no limited admission to the “Good”.

I know that Jenner is a very wealthy, privileged person. Trust me, if I am defending anyone who has anything to do with the Kardashian’s I must feel very strongly! However like Ellen DeGeneres who struggled for almost a decade after coming out, she is still putting herself and her livelihood at great personal risk but, these are the people that need to come forward. I can promise you that for every Jenner there are multitudes that do not have the resources or the support that she does. For those people, often living in fear and isolation it can literally mean life or death to know that someone else exists that is like them and better yet, is thriving.

People say Caitlyn’s story is personal. It is but she has chosen to share it and I truly believe in my soul that there is someone out there who will find hope, possibly lifesaving hope in that story and I find that to be heroic.

Again for me, all it took to make this life worth living was finding my people and the ones who stood up for me and stood with me saying…”I understand. I have been there. You are not alone.” True heroes to me.

Indeed, there are many ways to save a life.

Guest Blogger, David Dillon

The Music Man Finale

Families can be a tricky thing.  Ideally, from the time you are little, they should be your first and strongest support system.  Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t.

I’ve written often about my time performing in the play Party, it was truly one of the most magical times of my life.  I did the play in Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco, and suffice to say, every city bore its own adventures.   One of the plays many gifts was getting to know funny, talented people, many of whom are still in my life, among them Party‘s playwright, David Dillon.   While we lost touch for a few years, through the magic of Facebook, we are reconnected.  And I am glad, because he always has a perceptive, droll take on just about every topic,  He told me he had a bullying story, this one is about family, and I feel quite honored that he has shared it here.  Thank you, David.

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Way before I was born, my father’s parents purchased some property along the lake on Chicago’s south side. There were two lots … one with a single family home and right next door, a beautiful three story apartment building with one large apartment on each floor and a smaller basement apartment. My father had been one of seven children, so the idea was that the grandparents would live in the house and then inexpensively rent the apartments out to those of their kids and their families who wanted to live nearby.

My mother, father, sister and I lived on the third floor. The apartments were huge by today’s standards and right behind our building was Rainbow Beach. Our yard butted right up to the park and just a few steps beyond was one of the most popular beaches in Chicago. I used to love to sit on our enclosed back porch and listen to the sounds of summer as I watched the sailboats dotting the lake in the distance. Maybe it is the Piscean in me, but I have always been soothed by the sounds of water and the crashing of the Lake Michigan waves were about the most wonderful sounds I have ever heard. It was a paradise for kids and I remember being blissfully happy there in my youngest years.

In the first floor apartment lived a favorite aunt and uncle and a wonderful flock of cousins. My uncle was an art dealer and there was a cultured and civilized manner about both him and my aunt that always attracted me. My parents never needed to find an outside babysitter either; we had a built in roster of sitters all throughout the building. Home was a safe, care free and cheerful place.

My happiness turned to deep sadness, though, when that arm of our family announced that they would be moving to Tacoma, Washington. I couldn’t imagine life without them.

Now, by this time, I had already showed signs of not being interested in typical “boy” stuff. I had no use whatsoever for sports or the roughhousing that was common among my peers.

I had discovered musicals when I was five (what you might call a Dead Giveaway) and was obsessed with “The Music Man.” My bedroom was decorated with photos of Shirley Jones placed in the frames that my sister’s Barbie clothes came in. We somewhere have a small piece of film of me at Christmastime wearing a “Music Man” outfit my maternal Grandmother made for me and singing my little heart out. I was way more interested in escaping to my fantasy world listening to my musical LPs than I was in anything a Normal Boy would do. The world of musicals was always a magic place for me. It still is. And it saved me from what would have otherwise been a completely dark stretch of years.
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As it turned out, my favorite first floor family was replaced by my least favorite of my father’s brother’s families and paradise soon turned into hell.

This group of cousins had no interest in anything but sports and they took note of my lack of interest early on and with a vengeance. I became the target of ruthless bullying and believe me, the pain of being bullied is made all the worse when it comes from family. They called me a sissy, taunted me and treated me so horribly that the home that used to be my safe place soon became the place I was scared to be. I stayed indoors whenever I could instead of being out in the yard or around the front porch for fear of encountering them. I hated being there and I hated these interlopers for ruining the place I so used to love.

I also began to hate who I was. I wanted desperately to be the kind of boy everyone expected me to be. Not because I craved “boy” things like sports, but because my life would just have been easier. I was made to feel like something was dreadfully wrong with me and I became engulfed by the loneliest kind of sadness.

An interesting thing – this family apparently felt that gender roles only applied to boys. I say that because one of the young girls in that family was a Textbook Tomboy. She behaved more like a boy than I did and she and one of her brothers were the two who were the most mean to me. But I never saw anyone tease her or prod her into putting on a dress and playing with dolls. No one told Textbook Tomboy to put down the baseball bat. Astonishingly, it never occurred to anyone that she was actually the gender skewed “girl” version of me. I wish I had been articulate enough then to have pointed out both the irony and the hypocrisy, but I just suffered in silence.

It may come as no surprise that I still have an extreme aversion to sports. They always represented my oppressors. Even now, fifty years later, I struggle to get past that.

Skip ahead almost forty years. Out of the blue one day, I got an email from the second oldest son of the family I so wished had never come to South Shore Drive. He was actually the best of the bunch, so I welcomed getting back in touch with him. In one of his first emails to me, however, he revealed that Textbook Tomboy had come out as a lesbian in adulthood. (Quelle surprise!) But, he was very quick to add that with the help of therapy and God, she was able to be cured, to rid herself of that existence and become straight.

Unfuckingbelievable.

What he had to say hit the very core of why I despised those cousins and could easily have triggered what my Facebook friends now call a “David rant.” But instead, I let it go. There was simply no point. This family would never “get it” and I would only be beating my head against a wall.

If that had been an end to it, I’d have let it all alone and moved on with the knowledge that some people will just never change and that was just a fact of life.

You can imagine how surprised I was to next get an email from the Textbook Tomboy Former Lesbian Bully Cousin who had been so cruel to me when we were kids. She wanted to apologize for how she treated me growing up and said that she often throughout her life thought about those days and her behavior towards me with regret. She hoped I would forgive her.

I can honestly say that I would have had a different response had one of two things been true. If she had accepted who she really was and was living life as a lesbian, I’d have forgiven her. I understand the psychology of closeted and fearful youth. Or, if she had even simply lived her life as a straight woman (if she truly WAS straight) who looked back at a kind of childhood behavior she was ashamed of, I’d have also forgiven her.

But, this “Former Lesbian” stuff didn’t allow me to be generous. By seeking out ways to be “fixed,” she and her family were once again, decades later, affirming that who gay people are (meaning me) is fundamentally wrong and obviously sick. The conversion therapy she believed in and that her family celebrated as her salvation is a lie. It is a lifeline clung to in desperation by self loathing fags and dykes who despise themselves for who they are.

I felt their judgment again and with the same sting as when we were kids and it enraged me. They had made it clear so many years ago that my not being the kind of boy they thought I should be made me an aberration. Now, she had been “saved” from the Evils of Lesbianism and her family thanked God for delivering her from such a wretched existence.

That did it. I was no longer going to let her or her family off the hook for what they did to me.

So, I wrote her back.

I told her how scarred I still was from her treatment of me. I told her how she took a place I loved and turned it into a place where I lived frightened rather than happy. I told her how she made me hate myself for not being the person she thought I should be and how she robbed me of a beloved part of my childhood. Finally, I told her to look to her God for forgiveness, for she wouldn’t get any from me.

Damn, it felt good.

Now, a number of people in my life have told me that I hold on to things for too long, that I need to learn how to forgive. They tell me this not for the sake of those who have wronged me, but for my sake. They tell me it sets you free. They might have a point. My father committed suicide when I was thirteen and I still have not completely forgiven him and that has colored every moment of my life since. And no betrayal by a friend or lover ever goes forgotten.

So, a couple of years ago, for better or worse I took the High Road. I sent the Former Lesbian a message on Facebook and told her I forgive her. But, no, I didn’t do it for her. I did it because I refuse to let what she did to me so long ago still have a hold on me. As long as I clung to the state of being unforgiving, I was acknowledging her power over me and my life. I had to let it go.

What I know is that I have something she will never have – the knowledge that I am living life truthfully and proudly as the person I am. The miserable little boy who didn’t know who he was and was made to feel “wrong” is an open and out gay man who unapologetically and joyfully embraces his identity. And, the Textbook Tomboy Former Lesbian Bully Cousin is as lost a creature as has ever walked the earth, though she will never see, admit or come to terms with that. She would, in fact, deny that to her dying breath. And so, she will never know the peace of loving and accepting herself in total honestly.

So, I win.

Meeee

Guest Blogger, Vanessa Brook: Felt Like the Missing Link

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A couple of days ago, after my friend Paul graciously allowed me to share his “open letter to the 1990 graduating class of Ashland Middle School”, it occurred to me that there are a lot of bullying stories out there.  I reasoned, if I have friends who would be willing to share them, others might find connection or resonance or maybe even healing in reading them.  I cast my net and one of the first to respond was my long time friend Vanessa.  An actress and writer, she is one of the many riches that came to me in my time at Barney Greengrass.  You can really bond with a co-worker over being told repeatedly by the well heeled elderly that the matzo ball soup isn’t hot enough and “these aren’t REAL potato latkes!”  Work conditions like that often yield itself to a lifetime of mandatory happy hours.  I appreciate Vanessa sharing her story with honesty, vulnerability, humor and strength.  She is a special woman,  a perceptive writer and loyal friend.  Thank you Vanessa for sharing your story!

Felt Like the Missing Link

Grade school wasn’t my finest hour. I was the absolute bottom of the chain unpopular. Lower than the kid with snot constantly running out of his noise. Lower than Olivia, the heavyset girl with acne prone skin, coke bottle glasses and a lisp. Lower still than my close friend, Andrea who had such a deep voice the rest of the kids took to calling her “Sir”. Which was better then my name, “dog”. Maybe that’s why I grew up to love dogs so much. Who knows?

The mastermind who came up with this name who was also the master ringleader of the popular kids was Jimmy Scoottle. He was a jokester. He was a class clown, who was considered handsome, although I didn’t think so. He was so obnoxious and his comedy too broad for my taste. Everyone else, including the teachers, found him charming. Even if they didn’t, they pretended to because his parents were uber rich, and his dad was a local celebrity psychiatrist with his own TV call in show.

Jimmy had the kind of parents that would come in and demand better grades for him. He was untouchable. In the hallways he would bark when I passed and howl in class when I entered. Most of the time I just ignored him, but that became impossible by fifth grade.

So I was a hefty girl, and a financially challenged girl (my parents rented a small apartment in a nice neighborhood for the schools) and always wore my sisters hand me downs. All the other kids shopped at Bloomingdales in fancy Chestnut Hill (to give you an idea). Also, my parents where in the middle of a divorce. which was bad enough, but instead of the man moving out and the mother caring for the children, my mom moved out. It was a complete shock to my dad, because he was clueless at doing household things. So some days I wore pink clothing that was once white, but got mixed up in the laundry. Honestly, I might have made fun of me too on the outside looking in.

But Jimmy was a special kind of mean. He was my Iliad. Even then I could turn a blind eye to being bullied, but that just seemed to make Jimmy even more vicious.

In fifth grade I not only had all these problems, but I was beginning to develop. My breasts were bursting. With my older sisters at college, and only my dad at home, bra shopping wasn’t in the cards. I wore extra baggy clothes to hide the girls. I skipped gym class. I never ran down the hallway even if I was late for class. But whatever I did, it wasn’t enough. One day in the cafeteria. I was sitting (most likely alone) when he came up behind me and felt up my back. Loudly he yelled to everyone (every grade was eating lunch, and all the teachers were there) “No, She’s not wearing a bra, but she needs too” Seriously, it was the worst day of my grade school life. That moment seemed to last a lifetime. The girls in my grade were giggling. The kids in the lower grades were asking teachers what bras were. The boys let out cackling laughter and for the first time I think I let them see me cry. My horribly tenuous childhood was now gone and this jackass was the one to out me. Honestly I don’t remember what I did. I think I got up and skipped the rest of the day and went home and made a bazillion peanut butter and fluff sandwiches.

Later, things changed. I went to drama school and found a place to belong. Most of the other snobby kids at school had parents that were divorcing so they became a little more compassionate. Most importantly, I developed into a pretty teenager. Who was artsy and cool. I don’t know if Jimmy went to my high school. There were over 2,000 students and he was lost among the crowd. I guess.

Years later I ran into him on the subway when I was on break from college. At first he didn’t recognize me, but once he did his eyes went wide. He tried to talk to me, but stuttered and couldn’t get the words out. It was an awkward moment to say the least.

I wish I could hate him, but I don’t. All those people who treated me badly in grade school tried to be my friend in high school. I turned my back on all of them. Not to be cruel or seek revenge, but if you weren’t my friend then- you’re not my friend now. That was my thinking at least.

The few friends I made in high school were my tribe. Today, 20 years later, I’m still close with them. Being the bullies target made me realize who cared and who didn’t. That’s a lesson worth far more then anything else I’ve learned in life.

Every Punch, Kick and Shove

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My friend Paul wrote an open letter to his middle school classmates on Facebook yesterday. I’ve included it here because, frankly, it’s heartracing to read. It’s a missive about bullying. I’ll let him tell his own story, but suffice to say, I’ve thought plenty about it over the last 24 hours. As a show of support, I posted on his FB wall the video of Julia Sugarbaker telling off her sister Suzanne’s pageant bully, because his letter is just that fierce. Clearly, I’m not the only one touched by what he wrote because the last time I looked there were 44 comments from his friends telling him how awesome he is. And the thing about middle school for most of us outcasts, is, we can’t imagine an adulthood where even 10 people would go out of their way to tell us how great and special and unique we are. But, if we survive it, it does get better. Paul and his fabulous life are proof of it. Enjoy, and I hope you get as worked up as I did.

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE 1990 GRADUATING CLASS OF ASHLAND MIDDLE SCHOOL
In this day and age, the term “being bullied” is (sadly) as common as a Coachella reference and a Kardashian quote. Everyone at some point has had the experience of being the brunt of a bully.
It’s always been that way it seems if your different. It’s especially true if you’re a gay kid growing up in a shitsville hick town. And that’s the way it was for my twin brother and me.
The blessing is we survived it together, and being twins made the pain of three long years of physical and emotional torturing bearable. Had we not had each other to experience it all, at the same time, I don’t know if either of us would be here in this world right now. When I hear that another young gay kid commits suicide, I lose my breath. I ache. I too know that feeling of dread, of hopelessness; it’s like you’re being gaslighted by your entire class (we were)for reasons we couldn’t understand. It’s exhausting, and it’s downright scary, especially when you’re being picked on, teased and tormented for just being who you are.
Those kids who were too effeminate, too nice to speak up and too scared to fight back..well, that was my brother and me.
What made matters worse was trying to go to teachers, school counselors and principles, even our parents- nobody could say the obvious. And in 1989,in the small town of Ashland in Southern Oregon where hillbilly ignorance runs under the guise of New Thought Enlightenment back then (and probably now), nobody would.
The reason I bring this up is because earlier this week, I had a friend request from one of those bullies. A girl (yeah, my brother and I were so “faggy” that even the girls would pick on us.)
However, I don’t look like I used to (neither do they). Let’s just say I’m not that “fat faggot” they used to taunt.
I was surprised at first. It’s been 25 years. But with three solid years of daily ridicule and punishment, you don’t forget the names of your bullies. None of them. I even remember in my Junior High yearbook I wrote down the names they called us, or what they did to my brother and me by every name in that book.
Surprise turned to wonder for a few days..then wonder turned to anger and rage. “Why the fuck would this lady-douchebag have the nerve to friend request me?”
Then rage turned to laughter, and that’s where I’m at (any time you can use the word “lady-douchebag” has to elicit at least a smile).
I’m not going to call anyone out personally; I don’t need to. I can tell you that almost every kid in my graduating class of Ashland Middle School were little bitch-ass bullies to my brother and me (except for a handful of students who showed kindness and tolerance, and to this day I know them by name.) You never apologized when you should have, and now, it doesn’t even matter.
Whether that entire class owns up to their behavior doesn’t mean a damn thing to me now, for every word they broke me down with, every punch, kick and shove they did to us only made us to love harder, to fight harder for the things and people we believe in. I’m still that “faggy” kid you used to torture, but I’m not fat, and I’m not afraid.
To the entire graduating Class of 1990 from Ashland Middle School,don’t send me a friend request. We’re not friends, and we’ve never been. And yes, you all, each and every one of you, were gay-bashing little bastards.
In short,to quote the great Heather Mooney in “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion: “Why don’t you tell everyone I said to go fuck themselves for making my teen years a living hell?”
Love,
Paul Ybarra

About Fathers and Sons

167445_10151027019872755_1950056074_nI posted a blog yesterday that had a big response. I received several comments as well as several private messages about bullying and even about my specific subject, a person I’ll call Karl Johnson. Initially, I used his real name and I’ve since tried to go through and change the name to Karl.

I have one more memory of Karl that I’ll share and then, I promise, no more. Maybe it will make you like him a little more or have some compassion. Maybe you’ll just think I’m even brattier for sharing more ugliness about my little town.

Karl was an athlete, a good athlete. His father was also an athlete, and a coach. His father was at every game of Karl’s, City Rec through high school, either as a coach or cheering from the sidelines. Well, maybe cheering wasn’t the exact word. Karl’s dad was that dad who always yelled at his son from the bleachers that he was being an idiot when he screwed up. His constant verbal abuse was expected at every game, habitual. His wife, Karl’s mother, always sat meekly by his side. Was she embarrassed for her husband? Did he yell at her like that too? Was he even meaner behind closed doors? I wondered. Do I remember the exact names and phrases bellowed at those games? No, but I bet Karl does. I bet it’s affected him his entire life.

In our adult, 21st century vernacular, we understand how the bullied become the bullies. It can be and often is a natural progression. In it’s way, me trying to tell an unsavory story about Karl from 35 years ago could fall into that category.

I remember my junior high self sitting in the bleachers at basketball games reacting to Mr. Johnson’s predictable outbursts with a mix of pity and thrill. At least somewhere on earth, Karl Johnson was getting the treatment he deserved, what he doled out to others.

Did he deserve, at 11 or 13 or 16 to be called an idiot or a screw up or worse by his own father in front of hundreds of people? I don’t think so. Did Mr. Johmson’s outbursts make Karl a better player? A better student? Maybe.

Karl Johnson had much better grades than I did. He went to a much better college than I did. (No offense, OCC, I do love you, though.) I don’t doubt for a minute that Mr. Johnson loved his son and was proud of his son’s accomplishments.

My own Dad’s approach to fathering was different. Because it was a small town, I always felt a pressure to play sports. I was almost always the worst player on every team. One evening, after the last game of the the Little League season, I remember riding with my Dad to his work, the gas station he owned. It was closed, but he had to pick something up. And I remember sitting in the front seat, eating a Hershey bar and we were talking about the season that had ended. My Dad told me he was proud of me. And trust me, like I said, I was horrible. And then he turned to me and said, “I think next year will be your year.”

In most ways, that did not turn out to be true. When I signed up the next year, I was as bad as the summer before, but still, my Dad (and Mom, too) sat in the bleachers and cheered for me anyway, never missing a game, never failing to take me for a root beer sno-cone afterward. At 12, I thought I was lucky to have the parents I had. At 45, I know.

Anyway, that’s it. How self-absorbed to start talking about my bully and end up talking about me! I will keep my promise, though, nothing more about Karl Johnson. I do have compassion for him. Just like for the rest of us, his life wasn’t always easy.

Class of ’84 Reunion

The-Breakfast-ClubI grew up in a small town. I guess that’s been established at this point. On Facebook this weekend, the class of ’84 held a thirty year class reunion. I have many friends in that class, also my cousin is in that class. They were all seniors when I was a sophomore and I remember looking up to many of them.

A few years ago, at their 10 year reunion a class member drunkenly confronted another class member about being a jerk in junior high and high school. If I recall, the victim threatened physical violence on his tormentor. It was a story with traction, I heard about it several times from several sources in the years that followed.

It was a story that stuck with me because that confronted tormentor was one of my tormentors too. In fact, of all the verbal abuse I received growing up, I must say that Karl Johnson’s (pseudonym) words stung the most and had the most enduring effects. And before I go further, if you are thinking I should have let this go by now, let me agree wholeheartedly. I should have let this go by now.

What was Karl Johnson’s crime? Every day of 7th grade, he would call out loudly names like Fag and Gay Ray as I stood in the lunch line. He and his friends would sit at a table near the lunch line and make fun of various targets as they passed. Karl would call out the name and his cohorts would erupt into laughter. This lasted my entire 7th grade year, every day. It was something I fretted over every night as I lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, and every morning when I dreaded going to school.

So when someone else confronted Karl Johnson at his ten year reunion, all I really thought was, wow, good for him. I heard that Karl Johnson attempted an apology. In the years since high school, he’d become quite religious and considered himself a very good person.

I know that as far as bullying stories go, it’s a fairly average one. And I am okay. Since, I’ve started this blog, strangers have pointed out emotional and pathological issues that they think I have and I think you might be right. I am flawed and I am scarred. I try to move forward and love myself and make the world a better place, but, well, there is always a but.

When I saw the pictures of smiling Karl Johnson and his wife at the reunion, my heart started pumping and all I could think about was 12-year-old me and the fear I had every day. My cousin who had been friends with Karl Johnson and always sat at his lunch table, apologized several years ago about sitting there and never discouraging his friend. At a dive bar in Kansas City over pints of Boulevard hefeweizen, he told me he realized that must have been hard for me. I had to hold back tears because, I remind you, I was in a dive bar in Kansas City, but also, I didn’t want him to see how affected I was by his apology. I wanted to be manly.

Of course, I’m not really manly most of the time. I am sensitive, I do cry. My voice is nasally. I was and still am an easy target for people who want to call me names or point out my perceived flaws.

Maybe this is a story you relate to. I think some are better than others at leaving past hurts in the past.
Forgiveness is not really one of my strengths.

I do keep looking at this picture of Karl Johnson and his wife. I look at her, and while I may be wrong, she doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who would love that her husband was the bully of his junior high, flagrantly homophobic. (Although to be fair, wasn’t everyone flagrantly homophobic in 1980 Kansas?) Maybe he is a kinder person now, maybe she is the reason he is a kinder person now. I don’t know. I’ll probably never know.

I do feel little lighter. My heart has returned to a normal patter. In truth that reaction might have been partly attributed to this morning’s first cup of coffee.

It was all so long ago anyway. Let it go.