I remember his name was Leslie and he had blond, almost white hair.
As a military kid, I had been to four schools by fifth grade. Right before I had started another new school for fifth grade, I had my hair cut into the Dorothy Hamel short pixie. It was all the rage and I thought I looked very cute. At least that’s what my mom told me.
On the second day of school, Leslie came up to me in front of everyone and boldly stated, “No one knows if you are a boy or a girl. What are you?”
Devastated and wounded, I walked away. For the next two weeks, Leslie called me “It” because, according to him, he still didn’t believe I was a girl even though I told him. It was two weeks of hell.
Eventually Leslie moved on and found another target. I met new friends and all the teasing stopped. Life went back to normal, but I was changed forever. There is a reason to this day I have long hair, and I’m sure it goes back to that moment and those feelings.
I don’t remember a lot of names from elementary school because my friendships were always changing because we moved. But for some reason I remember Leslie with great distinction. I remember his face, that he was short, and that white hair. I ask myself all the time why is it I remember him when I can’t remember so many others. Because his words caused a pain inside of me that made me doubt myself and dislike who I was. He was a verbal arsonist and his words damaged me.
Recently, my town of Folsom was rocked by the death of one of our own. Twelve-year-old Ronin Shimizu tragically took his own life after years of emotional pain and harassment by others for being different. I suffered two weeks of hell and remember the sting to this day; Ronin endured years of it and could no longer take it.
Most of us as adults can recall moments in our younger years that were painful because of others. People can be cruel. We may have not been bullied as Ronin was, but we came across people who tried to knock us down. Maybe they laughed at you, your clothes or your appearance. Think about that pain and imagine having to endure that day in and day out.
The sadness that surrounds the situation with Ronin is unmeasurable. We, as a community, failed him. No teenager or young person should ever lose all hope and think death is the only answer to his or her pain. We now have an obligation to Ronin to use this tragic loss of a beautiful life as a teaching moment and a wake-up call for parents to become aware of how your children are being treated and how are they treating others.
As parents, it all begins with us.
Talking openly to your children is a great start. But it goes way beyond this. Take an honest moment to reflect what you are modeling to your children about other people. When you see an overweight person, do you whisper snide and mean comments to your children? Do you laugh when your kids are describe someone at school who is odd or seems different? Are you teaching your children to be the judge and jury of others, or to be accepting, kind and compassionate? Do you point out other kinds of flaws to make your own child feel better? Are you following their social media sites to make sure they aren’t cyberbullying or being hassled through electronics?
Share with your children how you expect them to treat others. And then live it. Teach them to be empathetic to others. Teach them to defend people who are being harassed or seem vulnerable. Encourage them to speak up when someone is being teased. Remind them that “Just kidding” is weak and a lame excuse for being mean. Tell them that they can go to a trusted adult if they witness bullying or are the target of bullying.
If you feel your child is being bullied, look inward first. Identify what buttons this is pushing for you. Reflect on what part of you is struggling with this. Watch overreacting. Focus on listening and supporting.
If it is happening at school, talk to the school. Try to come up with solutions to end the harassment instead of just blaming and calling out behaviors. Don’t see the administrators as your enemies, see them as your allies. Write down your child’s account of the incident(s) of bullying. Record as much detail as possible, since memory tends to be short and details can get easily and understandably distorted by emotion.
Remind your children that this terrible moment is a blip in their life, and one day this will no longer be happening. Offer strength and support that you will help them get through this. Encourage them to find a safe place to land – even if it means going outside your school or your community. Find somewhere that they feel they fit in and are accepted. Seek out a counselor or licensed professional to help your children talk about their feelings and make sure their confidence or self-esteem hasn’t been eroded. Watch for signs of depression such as cutting, isolation or lack of interest in anything. Tell them that no matter how hard today is, tomorrow will be better.
In his final moments, Ronin has gone from being the victim to being the teacher. He has opened our eyes to the pain that can be created by the words and treatment of others. He has made us realize that while some people can push through the pain of being bullied, some cannot. Some people are wired to only take so much. He has left us with the opportunity to teach our children how to treat others and to accept them for being different. He has reminded us that each life is precious and all children deserve a chance to become who they are and be celebrated for all that makes us different.
Write to Kelly Richardson at Teen Talk, The Sacramento Bee, P.O. Box 15880, Sacramento, CA 95852, or email krichardson@ sacbee.com.