“His name is William Bennett,” said Mom. Dad and I sat at the kitchen island eating cereal while she made my lunch.
“I wish I could see the assembly today. He’s supposed to be excellent,” she continued.
“What is she talking about?” Dad asked, looking at me.
“You don’t read any of the school emails, do you Dad?” I grinned.
“Nope. That’s your mom’s department. I just do what I’m told.” He winked at me.
“For the last time, Sam, he's an educational comedian. He’s normally done with his presentations this time of year, but Principal Nickerson really wanted to have him come speak to the students. About bullying.”
“She arranged this for Jonah?”
“Well, Jonah, and as you know, there are other kids being bullied too. I guess he does this whole routine for the students with skits and role playing. I’ve heard it’s very funny. And effective.”
“What’s his background?” Dad asked.
“Ah…teacher, coach, veteran. As a kid he was in special-Ed, he had a learning disability and had to repeat a couple grades. He was bullied for it. It’s on his website.” She explained.
“Isn’t the beginning of the school year a little more preemptive then the spring? New classes, new lockers, and teachers. Prevent the negative behavior before it starts?” he commented.
My mom stared at him. “Wow. You’re really…on this.”
“Absolutely,” my dad said, winking again at me.
“How could he not be, Mom? It’s all we talk about around here.” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Okay, I know, I’m sorry.”
I decided not to add anything on the subject. “I gotta bounce.” I got up and grabbed my lunch. My mom hugged me while Dad reached across the island to give me a fist bump.
I didn't see Simone in homeroom, but then remembered she was coming to school after first period. She had a dentist appointment.
After my first class, I made my way to the auditorium. It was filled with students from grades nine and ten, plus the staff. I saw Mr. Chipchaw standing in the back with the other teachers. As I scanned the auditorium, I noticed that most students were glued to their cell phones. Principal Nickerson made some brief remarks and then William Bennett walked out onto the stage.
He was an imposing figure, he looked like a pro wrestler. He was jacked, bald, and had a lot of tattoos. The students were all staring at him now, forgetting about their phones. He started to speak quietly and slowly, telling his personal story.
“I was bullied,” he began, “because I couldn’t read. I had managed to fake it all the way up to eighth grade. And then one teacher found out. I had to repeat the eighth grade. Twice. And even then, I still couldn’t read that well. Imagine being almost this big and in the eighth grade. But I couldn’t even play on any sports teams because my grades were so bad. The other kids treated me like a freak. Girls were terrified of me. They called me meat head, big foot, dumb shit, and retard. I dreaded going to school and so I skipped a lot. Kids threw rocks at me at recess and they spit on me. I ate lunch alone, every single day. I didn’t have one friend. No one stood up for me. No one. The only time anyone ever looked at me, or spoke to me, was to say something mean.”
I swallowed hard. This was unbelievable. I looked around and I saw some of the girls wiping away tears. I heard a boy in the row in front of me whisper to his friend, “I thought this guy was a comedian, this is really depressing.” His friend whispered back, “Shhh! I want to hear this.”
William Bennett continued. “So today, I’m going to talk to you about bullying. About racism. Homophobia. Exclusion. Shaming. Gossiping. In other words…you people.” And he smiled. Everyone laughed.
“I've been homeless, I’ve been in prison, I’ve been shot at. But nothing scares me more than a mean girl clique.” More laughter. Then he went on to imitate the kinds of things that mean girls say to each other. The kids all laughed hysterically. They were captivated. He was…good!
He continued, “There are four forms of bullying. Number one is physical. Number two is verbal. Number three is exclusion. And number four is online.” He defined all four and then went on to give examples of each. And explained the difference between teasing and bullying. He talked about by-standers. He talked about the shaming that happens around clothes and not having money. He talked about being nerdy or anyone perceived as different. About prejudice and race. Being gay and transgender. The danger of cliques. I looked around and saw kids nodding their heads. And answering out loud when he asked questions to the audience. And then he recruited volunteers to come up to the stage for a skit. He was brilliant!
I didn’t participate but I watched with admiration, like a guest of honor, as William Bennett brought everyone into my cruel little world and made them walk in my shoes. His humor really helped to break the ice and make everything relatable. During one skit he had a handful of boys all wear wigs and put on lipstick. He had them sit around a table pretending to eat lunch. Then he got Mr. Slater, our gym teacher, to dress up like a woman and carry a lunch tray of food. As Mr. Slater tried to sit at the table, one boy stood and stopped him.
The boy read lines off a large white card. In a high pitched voice he said, “Excuse me, what do you think you’re doing? Who said you could sit with us?”
“Yeah,” another boy chimed in, also in a high pitched voice. “Your lunch smells like cat food. Get away from us.”
Another boy added, “You actually smell like cat food.”
And another boy said, “And you’re fat. Why are you even eating? You need to go on a serious diet.”
The final comments from another boy were, “And you’re ugly. And what are those clothes you’re wearing? You’re an embarrassment.”
Mr. Slater stood there with his lunch tray, his bottom lip quivering. He looked down, his shoulders slumped. He read from his card on his tray and said in a high voice, “Please? Just let me sit with you for today? I promise I won’t talk. I’ll even get rid of my lunch.”
“No way!” said the ring leader of the mean-girl lunch table.
“Yeah, get lost!” The others chimed in.
Then Mr. Slater turned and began to walk away and the skit ended. It was hilarious for many reasons but it was also terribly real. And none of it was lost on the actors or the audience.
William Bennett then asked the actors to stay on stage while he read national statistics on how many middle and high school girls skip lunch and hide in the library or the art room, every day at school. He told us how many girls just skip school and end up failing classes. How many starve themselves and develop an eating disorder. How many cut themselves. And even attempt suicide. All because of this insane cruelty. And those statistics were just the girls. Everyone was quiet.
Then he spoke again. “Let this sink in. Acknowledge that this is actually happening in your school. Understand that your words and actions have a very real and serious effect on others. Maybe you’re oblivious to this scenario in your lunch room. Maybe you’re a by-stander. Maybe you’re a participant. Maybe you’re the head bully. Or maybe you’re the victim. But know this. You all play a part in this skit. Because this is your school and you’re part of this community. No one is immune to this. You all know that this is wrong and you all have a responsibility to speak up and do something.”
I looked around and again, I saw some kids wiping away tears. Others nodded, their eyes fixed on William Bennett. Some looked down, ashamed of their own role.
“Okay,” William Bennett began again, smiling. “We’re going to run through this skit again. Actors, please use the card underneath with some fresh lines. And this time, I want a volunteer from the audience to intervene, and show us all a different outcome. Let’s have a better ending.”
Amazingly enough, about thirty kids in the audience stood up and waved their hands. William Bennett picked a freshman boy named Louis Wang. He was in chorus with me. He was tall and thin and a little nerdy but very funny. Everyone liked him. He moved to our school district after the winter break. I had to admit, I was jealous of Louis because he knew no one but just miraculously fit right it with the robotics kids. He was instantly popular.
Louis confidently walked up to William Bennett near the stage. Mr. Bennett pulled a curly blond wig out of a bag and a really ugly yellow dress and handed them to Louis. Everyone laughed as Louis put the wig and dress on and turned to the audience and gave us all the thumbs up.
On his cue, Louis charged up the side steps to the stage and practically sprinted over to Mr. Slater. He shouted, “Forget about these nasty bitches! They’re just jealous of your hot bod!”
The audience roared with laughter. Even Mr. Slater laughed.
Louis continued. “You can sit with me at my table. Come on, honey.” And he led Mr. Slater by the arm in the other direction.
Mr. Slater looked back and stuck his tongue out at the table of mean girls. And then everyone clapped and cheered as the actors all stood and took their bows. There were a couple more skits like this, and after the final one, Mr. Bennett ended with closing remarks that I thought really rocked.
“My young friends, easy times do not forge character. Tough times do. Let’s see what you’re made of. What’s happening under the hood? The next time you see someone being bullied, are you going to look away? Are you going to join in? Or will you defend the victim and report it? And for those among us who are being bullied – I know what it's like to swim in that ocean of fear. It’s very difficult. Even unbearable. But you’re not alone. You have a school full of staff, and it’s their job to make sure you’re safe. Don’t go this alone.
And for the bullies out there, and the followers of those bullies, it's important that you understand that there is a reason you’re engaging in this behavior. Someone or something in your life has made you feel less than you are. Or caused you pain and perhaps even trauma, that has led you to act out. Please reach out to your staff here at school. They're here to help you as well.
Remember friends, your school is supposed to be your sanctuary. And an equalizer. Not every student sitting here today will go home and have a computer or access to the internet. Not every student gets exercise outside of this school. Or gets to play travel ball or do surf camp or summer theatre. Not every student here has someone to help them with their homework. In fact, not everyone in this auditorium gets a decent meal outside of school. Believe me, I know plenty of students who live in a homeless shelter, or sleep in a car, or on a friend's sofa. Not everyone has economic stability and a support system outside of these walls.
But you all belong here. Everybody matters. And if there’s one place right now in your life, where all things should be equal, and where you all should feel safe and supported, it’s your school. You spend more of your waking hours here than at home. This place is more than just Algebra and AP tests – it’s a safe haven. And it’s where you’re figuring out the person you will become. What you’re passionate about. And how you will someday manage on the bigger stage of life after you leave here.
Promise me that you will take time tonight to reflect on this presentation today. Give it some serious thought. And then ask yourself, how are you going to spend your days here? When you walk through that main entrance tomorrow morning and sit in homeroom, what is the intention that you're going to set for yourself? Of course you have responsibilities like your school work, clubs, and sports. But equally important, maybe more important, is to ask yourself, who do you want to be on this day? Start with tomorrow. Show up, and don't be at war with yourself, be free of the self shaming. You will have more energy to achieve your goals for that day. Accept that you're enough, find something to be grateful for, someone to forgive, and someone to lift up. And move through your day with a new focus. Not just on following through with your school commitments, but also achieving some area of personal growth.
Train to ask yourself each morning, will I strive today to be selfish and mean? Or inclusive and caring? Will I only allow myself to feel weak and afraid today? Or am I going to fight for myself and not give up? Will I, and this is a big one, will I actually dare to lead today? By modeling good character. And remember, not every leader is outspoken. Many of us are shy and that's okay. Tell yourself, I can still lead quietly, by my example.
My friends, there is a purpose for you in this life. Don't wait too long to figure it out, get on it. And in a world where you truly can be anything and pursue anything, you must also be kind. Please be kind. It will serve you well. It will put you on a path where everything you strive for in your life will be that much better.
Please take advantage of the resources and the support here at your school. The staff and various programs are here to help you. Build on today, by deciding that your commitment to set a positive example at this school, will be the beginning of who you will become later in life. Thank you and God bless you all."
And then William Bennett stood there, in his hugeness, like an Avenger, smiling out at all of us. He hadn’t candy coated anything, he had been shockingly direct. And funny. But he had kept it real. I wanted desperately to believe in him and his God and his truth, because he had suffered like me and had come out on the other side, stronger and better for it. As we all stood and clapped, it felt like he had a special power and had used it to blanket our school with a layer of understanding and goodness, and even love.
As we all filed out of the auditorium, I overheard so many students saying how much they liked the speaker. How funny and inspiring he was and how he made them see certain situations in a different way. As I neared the auditorium door, Mr. Chipchaw stood at the entrance with another teacher. He nodded at me. And then someone grabbed me and spun me around. It was Simone.
“Hey! He was really good huh? I tried to find you, so we could sit together. I texted you my row.”
“Oh, I didn’t have my phone on. Sorry. But yeah, he rocked.”
“It’s fine. I also messaged you about the dance.”
“What dance?” I asked.
“The freshman dance. It’s the last one of the year, it’s Friday. Let’s go.”
“Oh...I...I don't really go to those things. They’re kind of lame.”
“Oh come on,” she began. “We’ll make it fun. Please?”
“I don’t know Simone, I’m just not into it.”
“You’re just so shy at school, it would be good for you. And me too. Come on, Jonah.”
I hesitated. And then a girl who regularly eats lunch in Mr. Chipchaw’s art studio chimed in from behind us. “I think you should go.”
Simone smiled at her and nodded, and I looked sheepishly at the girl.
“Alright. I’ll go.” I mumbled.
“Cool!” I’ll see you in gym class, and she ran up ahead of me to the girls’ locker room.
I slowed my pace, wondering if I should follow Dr. Evans’s advice and attend gym class. Maybe the positive vibe from the bullying presentation would carry over into gym. Maybe I wouldn’t be abused today in front of Simone. Even though I was feeling hopeful, I still had my doubts. But I decided to take the risk. I still changed in the janitor’s closet, small steps, I told myself, and then headed into the gym for attendance.
For the last two weeks of school, we were going to be playing pick-up basketball. Five co-ed teams of five players each were carefully selected by Mr. Slater. He put Brian Pullman on my team. Patrick Reilly was on another team and Simone was on a third. Games were to seven and you had to win by two. You kept playing until your team lost. My team took the court first against Patrick Reilly’s team. Simone’s team was sitting the bench. Before we started, Mr. Slater asked Simone and another ninth-grader named Monica to fill up water bottles. The girls promptly gathered the containers and headed to the fountain by the girls’ locker room. Then one of my ex-buddies, Derek, was manning the electronic scoreboard but he was having trouble with the equipment, so Mr. Slater went over to assist. He told Jesse Williams to start the game and ref and asked another girl to keep score.
Patrick’s team got possession on the jump ball and a tall kid named Antoine hit a jumper to score first. I stepped out of bounds to throw the ball back in bounds to my team. I made a bounce pass to Brian Pullman who stood underneath the hoop waiting for the ball. I started to hustle down court when out of nowhere, the basketball drilled me in the head. It hit me so hard, I tripped and went flying into a bench full of kids. I could hear some of the kids saying, “Whoa!” and “What the hell?!” But more shocking than the unexpected hit to my head was Jesse Williams running over to help me up.
“You okay?” he asked.
“You good to go back in?” he asked.
I nodded again.
And then Jesse walked over to Brian and confronted him. “Why are you disrespecting Jonah like that?”
Brian just laughed.
Even more astounding was watching Patrick Reilly walk over to Brian to say, “Dude, he’s on your team. Just chill.”
“You chill Pat!” Brian shot back.
I watched in disbelief. Had the bullying presentation made an impression? Unfortunately, Mr. Slater hadn’t seen a thing. Jesse took the ball and gave it to me to throw in bounds again. This time I passed it to another teammate, a girl named Katie, but Brian cut in front of her and stole the pass. Then he heaved the ball at my head again. This time, Jesse moved in front of it and caught the bullet.
“What’s wrong with you, man!” Jesse shouted.
Mr. Slater was still in the middle of his scoreboard malfunction, but he heard Jesse and turned around. “Everything okay guys?” he asked.
Everyone was silent. Jesse looked like he wanted to say something but hesitated. Then he put the ball on the ground, stepped on it with his foot and said, “We have a situation, Coach.”
Mr. Slater walked towards midcourt.
Jesse cleared his throat, “So, Brian here, twice threw the ball at Jonah’s head. Knocked him into the bench the first time.”
Mr. Slater looked at everyone for a few seconds. And then Simone and Monica came rushing back into the gym.
Monica spoke first. “Mr. Slater, one of the toilet’s in the girls’ locker room is overflowing, there’s water everywhere.” Simone added, “You should probably deal with this right away.”
Mr. Slater took a pass out of his pocket, signed it, and handed it to Monica. “Monica, you go to facilities and tell Mrs. Lynch, the secretary, that we need a custodian right away. And Simone, please go shut the door to the locker room and stand outside it. Don’t let anyone inside. I’ll be there in a minute.”
The girls hustled out of the gym and then Mr. Slater walked closer to the two team benches.
“Everyone take a seat on the benches. Now!” He never spoke so firmly. And then he turned to Derek, “You too.”
Everybody did as they were told. Brian moved a little slower than the rest of the class and was obviously fuming.
“I want you all to listen carefully. I need your full cooperation. Without over thinking this, and what I mean is, don’t think about protecting a friend and don’t think about protecting someone who may intimidate you. Your only concern is what is right. Okay, other than Derek, Jonah, and Brian, I want you all to answer some questions for me by raising your hands. Putting your hand up means you're saying yes. Alright? So by a show of hands, did you witness a classmate mistreating another classmate? If you did, please raise your hand.”
Without a hint of fear or any hesitation, Jesse Williams raised his hand. And then he looked at all the other kids and slowly, they all raised their hands. Even Patrick Reilly raised his hand. Brian sat with his head down.
“Thank you. By a show of hands, is Jonah Duffy the student who was mistreated?”
All hands went up pretty quick.
“And by a show of hands, did you see who hurt Jonah? Raise your hand if you saw who hurt Jonah?”
Jesse’s hand went up right away. The rest of the hands went up after a slight hesitation. I didn’t understand what Mr. Slater was doing. It felt like we were in first grade again. Normally, Mr. Slater was too laid back but now he was putting on this show and it was beyond humiliating. I wasn’t sure if it was the appropriate way to handle things.
Mr. Slater continued, “Brian, please come and stand next to me.”
Brian moved at a glacial pace, shuffling over to Mr. Slater. He looked down.
“I'm not going to ask you all if Brian is the person who bullied Jonah. I’m going to ask Brian directly. Brian, did you throw the ball at Jonah?”
Brian kept looking down.
“Brian, please don’t put your classmates and Jonah in the position of ratting you out. We all understand that it’s important to speak up when we see another student being bullied. We all know it’s the right thing to do. But it puts everyone else in a tough spot. Keeping silent can be unbearable, but so can telling. I’m asking you to give everyone here a break. Please own up to it. Right now. And apologize.”
Brian said nothing. He looked down.
“Brian, please.” Mr. Slater tried again.
Brian just continued to look down.
“Look, no one here is better than anyone else. We all make mistakes. But it’s important that every student feel safe in school. We care as much about you as we do Jonah. We want to help every student. And you can help turn this around by apologizing to Jonah.”
“I’m trying to do you a favor here so you don’t have to go to the principal and face another detention and possibly miss another baseball game.”
And then Brian looked up at Mr. Slater and said with clenched teeth, “I’ll take the detention.” And he walked out of the gym.
“Brian!” Mr. Slater called after him. “Brian!”
Jesse stood up. “I’ll ref the game, Coach. Go if you need to.”
Mr. Slater looked uncertain for a second. But then said quickly, “Thank you, Jesse. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I wanted to take the damn basketball and whip it at Mr. Slater’s head. I knew he meant well, but it just felt over the top. As humiliating as it was to be beaned by Brian with the basketball, I actually felt bad for Brian. And I started to worry that the bullying assembly just put every teacher on anti-bullying steroids. I felt sick. I wanted the bullying to stop but did it all have to be on display like a public stoning? Thankfully, Simone had not seen any of it. But kids would surely be talking about it. I just wanted to crawl under a rock and die.