Peace Corps in Your own Backyard

On my way back from a networking meeting, I turned on NPR and caught part of the Diane Rehm show.  Today, Diane was talking about bullying and her guests were (from the website) Kelby Johnson, a gay teenager from Oklahoma whose story is featured in the documentary “Bully.”  Lee Hirsch, Sundance- and Emmy-award winning filmmaker, directed the documentary “Bully.”  Dr. Joseph Wright, pediatrician, senior vice president, Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children’s National Medical Center.  And, Duane Thomas, assistant professor, Applied Psychology and Human Development Division of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, consultant to the documentary “Speak Up!”

A caller dialed in to talk about how her daughter was harrassed into hysteria (and a cafeteria-table jumping outburst) over the AIDs related death of her father, and how ill-equipped, or unwilling the school was to protect the 9th grade child from her personally global torment.  It reminded me of my 6th grade year, and how ill-equipped, or unwilling the school was to protect me from my own tormentors, culminating in my own hysterical outburst in the middle of a classroom.  It tells as a funny story now, but at the time I was beside myself with anguish, frustration, and absolute helplessness at the hands of the girls who had made it their day’s fun to see me cry.

Diane’s guests talked about the bravery of the 9th grade girl for just getting up and going to school, and the bravery it took to make a scene at all.  And, having made a similar end to my own hurt, I agree with them.  But that’s not the bravery I want to talk about.  I want to talk about the bravery of two other people.

I don’t usually call out full names on my blog, but I think Camilla Boatwright and (a girl whose name I think was Lena Inoue, but I may be confusing Lena with another girl from the year prior–Camilla ended up at high school with me, so I had a deeper connection to her) deserve the shout-out.

After my insane outburst (screaming, throwing books across a room, and quoting Merchant of Venice at the top of my 12-year-old lungs), Camilla and Lena did something that no one else had been willing to do.  They stood up for me.

First, they came and found me.

I had gone to hide in a bathroom, and was trying to figure out how I was going to make it out of the school without being completely vaporized for my outburst.  I had decided I wasn’t going to come back.  That was going to be my last day at school, I didn’t care what my parents did to me.  Nothing they could have done was worse, and if you’d met my parents then, you understand what a personal declaration that was for me.  I was ready to tell my mother to stick it.  I wasn’t going back.  I might have ended up as a little grease spot on our kitchen wall, but I wasn’t going to be at Hockaday for another hour.

Fortunately, I never had to find out whether I was right or wrong because Camilla and Lena came and found me, cleaned me up, helped me down the hall and told me to stick with them.  From there out, they gave me a place to sit, walked with me in the halls, and made a tiny buffer between Me and Them.  And I made it.  I finished out the year.

I really don’t know what would have happened if not for the two of them, and even though we did not ever become friends (understandably, I didn’t really think I was worth their friendship at the time, and was ashamed of how much I needed their protection–but had enough sense of self-preservation to accept it!) they saved me from much worse than I’d already suffered.

If you’re reading this and you know someone who is being bullied, don’t wait for the outburst because some kids don’t make it that far along–and even if they do, by the time they get there they are so damaged it might take twenty years to recover.  Be the Camilla.  Be the Lena.

You don’t have to be aggressive.  You don’t have to be a hero.  You just have to be present.  You just walk up alongside and usher.  You just show that there is a dissenting face in the crowd.  You never have to say a word. 

You get your friends together, and you make a buffer in the warzone.  You become the UN.  You become the Peace Corps.  You become the Red Cross.  You make a difference in a life that can be the actual difference between life and death.

Doing nothing is the same as doing something in these situations, so let your something be the right thing. 

That goes for you adults, too.

Be Camilla.

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