A Bully’s Story: An Open Letter to the Middle Schoolers that Called my Autistic Son a ‘Faggot’
Dear Middle Schoolers who have bullied Cassius throughout the past school year;
I have three purposes in writing to you: the first is to tell you about a story about my own experiences in middle school; the second is to tell you something about you, your life, and life in general; and the third is to introduce you to the most loyal friend you will never have.
Part 1: The Ghost of Bullies’s Past
Middle school is tough. Most adults look back and remember middle school as a miserable purgatory: stuck awkwardly somewhere between the calm oasis of elementary school and the perceived paradise of being a “big kid” high schooler. No one would argue that middle school is a turbulent place, filled with a silent, unforgiving hierarchy determined only by luck, and some invisible Middle-School-behind-the-curtain-Popularity-Wizard that pre-determines your placement, and popularity, sometime during the first few weeks of 6th grade.
When I look back at my time in middle school, my mind flashes back to the end-of-year talent show, where I decided to challenge my place (at the bottom) of the popularity hierarchy by doing a comedy skit in front of the whole school. There were two problems with my plan that I would later regret. The first was my content. The content I selected was a two-party skit from a book I had read.
The second was not realizing that a two party skit was just not quite as funny with only one person. At all.
Wearing only my “Tweety bird” pajamas and one of my grandmothers’ wigs, I gazed out into that silent sea of faces, and froze. Time stood still, as the uncomfortable silence turned seconds into minutes. Then, all of a sudden, thankfully, the comedy routine I had so diligently memorized popped back into my head, and in a failed attempt to stick with my routine, I opened my mouth and got halfway through my first joke, when my eyes were drawn to a classmate in the very front row.
Jonathon Smith. He was a shorter kid with red hair, covered from head to toe with freckles, and he spent most of the school year using his wit and popularity as a lethal combination of weapons to beat me down and crush my spirits. What’s crazy is I vaguely remember actually liking him on the first day of school, but the past ten months of insults and cruel jokes had made that fondness a distant shadow of a memory. Once we locked eyes, he mouthed the words, “YOU SUCK!” to me.
Now, I was done, frozen by fear and humiliation. He was right. I did suck and now the whole school knew it. I walked off the stage, dropping the microphone, making the speakers painfully thud. 700 people jumped at the noise that I didn’t even hear, because inside my own head, my thoughts were screaming too loud. I remember throwing the wig in the trash as I walked out. Then, I started running, tears streaming down my face, to the bathroom, where I locked myself inside the stall. I stood on top of the toilet so no one could find me, and stayed there until the sun had set.
Last year, I was suprised when I got a Facebook friend request from a red headed man named Jon Smith. It couldn’t be the same guy — he looked different than the tiny red-headed punk that haunted my childhood dreams. His picture was blurry, but even so, I could see that he was balding and obese: he certainly couldn’t be the kid I once knew! I slammed my laptop shut — pushing the memory out of my mind. It couldn’t be the same guy. I mean, how many Jon Smiths are out there? Millions!
My curiosity got the best of me, so later that day I sent him a message. I wish I could tell you that Jonathon’s life had been riddled with unhappiness and bad choices — but to be honest, I don’t know that for sure. I do know that he’s been divorced twice, works a lot, and told me he had just received his “one year sobriety” coin from Narcotics Anonymous, (a major accomplishment). He returned to the small town we grew up in after he finished his college degree. That’s all the information I have ever gathered. After a few exchanged messages, I asked him if he remembered me. I was both surprised and horrified to learn that he didn’t remember me at all. When I asked why he friend requested me, his response was that Facebook suggested it — and, ironically, he thought I looked cute.
The girl that he called “Smelly Chellie” was now “cute” enough to flirt with, years later.
In the weeks that followed I thought about him often. How could he not remember me at all? I specifically reflected on the times he wouldn’t let me sit down on the bus: he made me stand in the isle, bouncing the weight of my backpack off the balls of my feet through the curvy, mountainous bus route. When I got brave and sat down to spite him, or fell into a seat accidentally, I received a barrage of punches, kicks, leftover sandwiches — or even spit-wads — thrown at me from the kids on the bus, desperate to try to work their way into popularity’s good graces. The bus driver, an overweight old man, would get mad at me when food was thrown on the bus, and he would make me clean it up while all the kids laughed at me. How was it possible that someone that cruel could forget that?
It became apparent throughout our conversation that this lonely man was trying to charm me. Little did he know that he was telling ‘Smelly Chellie’ that she looked really hot. Was I single?
It was pathetic, but even more so: it was comforting.
Part 2. The Ghost of Bullies Present
In middle school (and childhood in general), time is a slow count-down to your next birthday. The years painfully creep by, one math lecture at a time, one teacher at a time, one friend at a time. Your eyes are turned toward the horizon that is your future, waiting anxiously for daybreak. The present is boring — but the future is boundless. Your dreams take you to places only you can imagine, and being all grown up is the golden ticket to getting there: if you can just get there, anything is possible. You’ll be free! Your 18th birthday is the finish line following a long, boring race. So you wait, anxiously counting down the miles and minutes to your next birthday. Time feels slow and painfully arduous. Will you ever be grown up? It will be so nice to be free! That finish line is so far away!
Some days it feels like you will never grow up, and this is frustrating for you. Unable to cope with your own insecurities, you desperately try to hang onto your spot in this invisible, silent social hierarchy, so every day you sell out just a little more. Last week, you laughed at a classmate who dropped their books in the hall. Yesterday, you forwarded an Instagram picture someone took of a classmate. Under the picture was written something mean, but still kind of funny.
“I didn’t make the photo,” you protest, “I just shared it. I thought it was funny!”
And today: today you called my son a “faggot.” (Click here to find out why this is so bad).
But we’re just teasing, you tell yourself. I don’t mean it, we all get teased and made fun of. Better him than me. It’s part of growing up.
You might have picked up that my son is different than you. I wouldn’t disagree with you. He is not different because, like you think, he is gay [although we would love him either way], but rather he is different because he is a freaking genius. Unlike you, he knows that he is not a ‘faggot,’ like you’ve said. Guess why he knows that? Because he knows he is not a bundle of twigs (that is what a “faggot,” really is). Don’t bother clarifying: he also knows the urban definition. He knows you aren’t practicing to be a good friend, or a good person, and that you are destined for a life of loneliness as you learn these lessons the hard and painful way. Some of us have to take a path through a dark and scary forest before we learn to make choices that make our journey an easier, more enjoyable trip.
He does have autism, and because of this, his brain works a little differently than yours. Occasionally, he may say or do things that seem strange to you. But who says you are the expert on what is acceptable behavior? There are nearly 7 billion other people on this planet, and to my knowledge, nobody has determined you to be the expert on what is normal (feel free to correct me if I’m incorrect on your sixth-grade credentials on human growth & development or sociology*). As long as he is not breaking any school rules, or harming himself or others, what harm could his behavior really do?
“But he’s weird,” you say. “If I hang out with him, I’ll be made fun of.”
Guess what, kiddo? You are going to get made fun of anyway: because what goes around comes around. It might not be today or tomorrow, but eventually, someone, somewhere, is going to make you feel crummy — and then have the audacity to forget you. This will leave you with sad and hurt memories for years. Here’s a newsflash: life is tough and sometimes people just suck. What defines us is how we act — not how other people perceive us. What we do — not what other people think of us — is what defines who we are, what kind of journey we take, and what legacy we leave behind.
And kiddo, you let yourself down yesterday.
Part III: Ghost of Bullies’s Future
Little do you know, that finish line you dream about when you crawl into your bed at night, isn’t the finish line at all, but rather the beginning of a whole new race. This race is the real journey, the real test of your character and strength. Your trail will take you through an incredible journey: up beautiful hills and down agonizing valleys, through good days you won’t want to ever end; and bad days filled with such deep heartache you won’t want to breathe; you will have tears of sorrow, and tears from laughing so hard your belly hurts. You will survive thunderstorms that will teach you to dance in the rain, and sunsets that will make you want to freeze time. This is the journey of human existence: and it ends with your death.
Right now, you are training for that race.
It may be hard to understand, but time never stops: it ticks and tocks on whether you are awake or asleep, happy or sad, outgoing or quiet, alive or dead. Your race will begin before you realize it, how ready will you be? The direction that your journey takes is determined by you, and you alone. Will it take you to happy places, or will it take you to jail? At the end of your journey, when people speak at your funeral, what will they have to say about you, about this journey, that you are training for?
A little known secret is that being an adult is not as awesome as you imagine. Just as you have to work hard to get good grades, in order to make your dreams come true, adults have to work hard. That social hierarchy you experience in middle and high school, that you are so deeply value and cling to, follows you through every phase of your life, but your position on that hierarchy constantly changes. You may believe that once you graduate eighth grade, you’ll leave middle school behind you forever. Guess what? You are wrong.
In a lot of ways, middle school is forever. Some things never change, kiddo, so it’s important to understand what we can control, and how we can make even tough situations easier. The one thing we always have control over is the kind of people we want to be. How did you feel when you bullied Cassius? Were you proud of yourself? Did calling him a “retard” make you feel better about yourself? Or did you feel icky on the inside? There is this huge misconception that being kind is the nice thing to do for other people, but that’s actually not the case.
See, being kind is not about other people: it’s about you. It’s about making you feel better about yourself.
See, my son will be okay. Yes, your words have damaged him, for now, but he will be okay. You’ve given him trauma, and I’m not downplaying that. You’ve given him nightmares, and made him so anxious that some days he does not even want to get dressed for school. You’ve made him second-guess his worth and value. So yes, you’ve damaged him, but you’ve damaged yourself more. Cassius will be okay. I’m not so sure about you. What kind of person uses hateful words to hurt someone who has only tried to be kind and good to you?
Unbeknownst to you, Cassius’s incredible intellect predisposes him to a life of unparallelled success, so likely, you will encounter someone very much like him [if not him exactly] as an adult. Guess what? He will be your boss. How will you treat him when he is signing your paychecks? Will you call him a faggot, then, too?
I wish you had taken the opportunity to get to know my son. If you had looked behind his quirky movements and vocalizations, you would have made a loyal friend and companion to help navigate the hallways throughout the school year, a never-ending supply of Minecraft and Call-of-Duty cheat-codes, and a mathematical genius. This is your loss.
I was completely serious when I said he is freaking genius. There are countless examples of this, but I will give you my favorite. When Cassius was 8, I got very sick and almost died. During this time, Cassius memorized all 47 of my medications, knew what they were for, and what drugs were incompatible with my current regimen. He discussed treatment options with my physicians, advocated to my medical team on my behalf, and whenever a dispute arose, many times he was more knowledgeable on my medical case than the physicians. The doctors enjoyed this interaction, and would allow him to round with them, discussing different treatment options for different cases. During certain hours during each day, he managed my medication schedule, he managed my IV infusion and drips at home, and even managed to prepare and deliver my tube feeds (food that goes into a tube directly into my stomach). When you were eight, could you have done this? He kept me alive. Literally.
Cassius has the kindest intentions of anyone you will ever meet. Fiercely loyal, he will protect those he loves with no limitations; and because his world is governed by rules, he is a dedicated friend that is incapable of ever stabbing you in the back. He is the kind of friend that every middle schooler needs: he would be honest with you no matter what; and you’d find someone that’s witty with a great sense of humor. If given the chance, he will always find something to laugh about — and it’s rarely at the expense of someone else. Together, you could have been lifelong friends, but instead, you decided to choose a sea of popular faces, that will fade into a fog of painful memories over time. Those people you will forget, but a true friend like Cassius is impossible to forget.
Kiddo, we all make mistakes. I know that right now you are hurting, and you yourself have your own struggles. I can see it in the dark circles under your eyes, by the way your voice breaks when you talk about home, and — mostly — by your actions. As we head into the summer, I would ask you to deeply consider how you treat others, and realize that every day you are slowly becoming who you are going to be as an adult. You are practicing for your final race — where will that path lead you? You deserve the chance to be kind — to others, too — but mostly, to yourself.
Do you want to be a happy, healthy person with a lot of friends? To learn ways to do that, click here. There are countless ways to be both cool and kind — they make you feel better about yourself, too. To watch a video on bullying, click here. If you are interested in stopping bullying at your school, consider signing this petition. The Bully Project has a ton of resources for parents, students, and educators.
In the future, it would be wise of you to never let me hear about you bullying him again. As his mother it is my job and responsibility to protect him, and I will do that at all costs. There is no price to high to pay for his protection.
Do yourself a favor and do better next year.
FOR YOUR CLARIFICATION: * denotes the use of sarcasm.