It was 8th grade. I had recently read a school book. The author referred to a pile of sticks as a “fagot.” Being a 13-year-old boy, this resulted in giggles from myself and several other classmates. I knew I would have to use this new-found knowledge as a form of entertainment.
My chance came as I waited in line for twenty-five cent chocolate milk. I directed a comment to a classmate. I said, “a fagot is a bunch of sticks, but you are just a fag.” In a flash, a teacher grabbed and dragged me by the collar into the hall. Blood rushed cold through my body. In an instant, I knew what I said was wrong.
I didn’t mean to hurt the boy’s feeling. I was making a play on words. I didn’t know that “fag” was a derogatory word for gay. For that matter, I didn’t know what gay meant. Few of us did, at that time. The word “fag” and even gay were lazy words to insult someone. But, it had nothing to do with sexual orientation.
I was ignorant and uneducated in all things sexual. It was a pre-internet age. In a year Elton John would marry a woman. He would remain married to her until my senior year of High School. There was not yet a George Michael in a Beverly Hills restroom incident. Ellen DeGeneres was six years away from her TV debut. Playing Margo Van Meter a sassy “man-hungry” secretary. It would be 13 more years – literally, another lifetime for me – before Ellen would break ground and come out on National Television.
I am not proud of my comment. I AM thankful for the teacher that dragged me into the hall. I am grateful he brought me back into apologize. He stopped me from repeating my mistakes and causing more pain.
The boy I was talking to, would, today be called socially awkward. When and where I grew up, being different would get you labeled with the f-word. It was the simplest way to mark someone as different and to affirm your false sense of perceived superiority.
As I remember it, more specifically how I want to remember it . . . I was speaking to the boy because most kids ignored him. Was I also trying to get a laugh out of kids around me by showing off a new vocabulary word? Ashamedly, yes. stupidity, not hate, drove the words from my uninformed mouth.
The boy and I attended school together for years. If someone were picking on him, I was often one of the first to stand up for him. A sure way to get called the f-word; sticking up for another boy. We were acquaintances, but not close friends.
At that time, the f-word was the modern-day version of women calling each other bitch, among friends. Watch an 80’s movie, and kids will be calling each other gay and fag. Today, it’s bitch. That is an observation, not an excuse for my behavior. Both are vulgar.
What I learned that day, has stuck with me for over 30 years. Ignorance is not an excuse. Our words matter. How we include or ignore others can make a difference. Which brings me to the reason I bare my soul today.
If I were a student today, my comments would have me branded as homophobic and possibly expelled. I wasn’t homophobic. I was naive. The teacher would likely be suspended, fired or sued. To me, he was a hero. He took notice of a subtle exchange. Others may have overlooked it. But, his actions changed the lives of two or more people.
Recently, Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas has received a lot of press. Some have politicized her comments. Referring to her as Trump’s worse nightmare, an immigrant punk rock female. I am simple enough to believe the hearts of republicans and democrats are both crying for the 17 lives taken. While I don’t agree with all her words, I can understand her passion.
Here is an excerpt from Gonzalez’s speech.
. . . “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities again and again. We did, time and time again. Since he was in middle school, it was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear that he was the shooter. Those talking about how we should not have ostracized him, you didn’t know this kid. OK, we did.”
“OK, we did.” That phrase, along with, “it was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear that he was the shooter,” has kept me up at night. She and others “knew this kid.” They felt he was capable of such horrors. They reported him. But the system broke down. He was “ostracized” and expelled. Pushed further away. But, not given help or treatment.
Instead, he evolved into a killer. A kid so shut-off by the world the only option he saw was to kill. His actions cannot be justified. Nor can the victims be blamed. Innocent people died. But, could it have been prevented? Was anyone capable of helping?
Mentally ill or driven to madness? Either way, his actions cannot be undone. We cannot change what happened. But, shouldn’t we ask ourselves “who do we know that might need our help?” Most of us are not trained counselors. But, we see things and can raise awareness. Closing our eyes to issues. Fighting fire with fire. It doesn’t work.
Blame is not the answer. Yes, we deserve more responsible government. But, are we willing to wait for a particular president or the NRA to solve this? I am not. It will happen again. It is a matter of when and where. As individuals, we have to choose our role.
I know that my words in middle school could have been a trigger. Words as powerful as the trigger on any gun. I am thankful that they were not. I am outing my poor behavior to encourage others to rise above ignorance. To put down the stones. To not underestimate the difference that a kind or unkind gesture can have on an individual.
There is no magic solution to this issue. Our teachers deserve time to get to know students more in-depth. Time to show compassion. Time to inspire! Our best line of defense is a positive and supportive offense on a community by community level.
I want to thank that middle school teacher for pulling me aside. I am sure, amongst the piles of bullshit teachers deal with, he would not even remember the incident today. Perhaps, the boy I teased wouldn’t either. But, I have never forgotten that gift of awareness. How easy it can be to hurt someone or raise them up.
I have continued to be sarcastic, profane and even caustic at times. But, I am so grateful my words that day did not cause more damage. I never again used derogatory slurs towards friends or strangers.
There is no such thing as a mass shooting. Whether it is one person, or 17, each is individually grieved. They are individual lives lost in a single moment. As individuals, we all can make the Choice to Make a Difference.
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