hola wonderful comrades.
thank you for continuing to be amazing, godAAAMN it’s been beautiful to watch this shit blow up.
spurred on by the many stories here, i wanted to share something a little risky.
it’s a story called “bully” from anthony (yes, my friend-with-cancer anthony)’s book.
since this conversation about bullying started, i’ve been thinking about this particular piece.
a lot of you loved the video i posted of him reading “swamp” when i announced my tour cancellation. and i know a handful of you have since read his book and loved it. i know because you’ve been telling me (and you’ve been telling anthony, via his facebook). i’m very grateful.
this one is risky because…well, you’ll read. i don’t really agree with it, on some levels. but it’ll no doubt provoke some conversation.
anthony and i are different. i was born in 1976. he was born in 1948. different upbringing. different points of view.
he is my mentor, and yet, when he sent me this story, it rattled me. i consider myself a full-on pacifist. i don’t hit back.
but – honestly – i don’t get hit very often. never, in fact. i’ve never had people actually beat me up (he has), didn’t grow up abused (he did) and i’ve never, honestly, been in a real fist-fight in my adult life. if i had, maybe i’d feel differently. i’d like to think i wouldn’t, but i don’t ever want to know.
i remember when he first emailed me this story. he’d just written it…it was right after the death of phoebe prince, the teenage daughter of irish immigrants who’d taken her own life after being bullied mercilessly at school. this was right down the street from us, relatively, in massachusetts. i remember talking to him on the phone…he related the whole news story to me, i must have been on tour somewhere far away. i remember crying. we related to that girl. we’d both been bullied, we knew what it was like to be the weird kid.
this is phoebe prince.
“Having recently moved to the U.S. from Ireland, Prince was taunted and bullied for several months by at least two groups of students at South Hadley High School, reportedly because of disputes with other girls over her brief relationships with their boyfriends, a senior high school football player and another male student. Her aunt allegedly warned school officials in August 2009, prior to Prince’s enrollment at the school, to watch after Prince, as she was “susceptible” to bullying. Moore told the school that Prince was both bullied and a participant in bullying others in Ireland.
On January 14, 2010, after a day of harassment and taunting, followed by a final incident in which a student threw a can at her from a passing car as she walked home from school, Prince committed suicide by hanging herself in the stairwell leading to the second floor of the family apartment. Her body was discovered by her 12-year-old sister. After her death, many crude comments about her were posted on her Facebook memorial page, most of which were removed. Her parents chose to have Prince buried in Ireland.”
putting this story out there also risky because…well, because he’s my (say it loud!!) FRIEND WITH CANCER. everyone always reads and responds differently to people – and their work – when they’re in morbid territory.
i’d like you to form your own opinion regardless of the fact that (say it loud!!) HE HAS CANCER. have i mentioned HE HAS CANCER? hooray for cancer. ok, now that that’s out of the way. trust me: anthony will give no shit if you agree or disagree with his feelings.
all he’ll probably care about is that you’re….feeling anything at all.
which is exactly why i love him so much.
so, without further ado….
I was appalled and saddened by the events in South Hadley, Massachusetts in 2010. Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince had been so tormented by a group of girls that she eventually hanged herself in the school clothes she’d been wearing on the last day in hell, unable to bear that cross any longer. She chose no life at all over the one she was living. Her body was found hanging at home, in a stairwell, by her twelve-year-old sister. Phoebe’s family had been to the school a number of times to complain, to no avail. On the final day, the group of girls followed Phoebe, verbally abusing and threatening her in the school hallways as they had been for months, as well as in the library, classrooms, lunchroom and bathrooms, and finally, once again, on the street, on the way home, calling her “Irish Slut” and “Irish Whore” while pelting her with open soda cans from a passing car. The scene is ferociously cruel. Her family, in this country for less than a year, went through the appropriate channels at the school, and for their efforts they got a box with their child inside. Many vicious comments were posted on the Facebook memorial page her family set up following her death and it had to be taken down.
They decided to bury her in Ireland, wanting, I imagine, to surround her in soil which still had some heart left in it. There have always been people who threaten and bully others, and if you think about it, you realize they will always be with us. And, if you look closely, you see that sometimes, we are they. Phoebe Prince did not have the benefit of my father. Neither did her tormentors. I got pushed around, and terribly frightened by a giant in the sixth grade. I was ten years old, a year younger than the other kids in my class at the Lincoln School. The giant was called Stossel. (I don’t know if that was his last name, or if he was called that because it sounded big, like “Colossal.”) He was thirteen and was reported to be six feet tall and 200 pounds. He had a stack of blond hair atop his mammoth head and a vast chest. To me, he was a walking Alp. Stossel himself was probably a good kid who had been warped by hormones gone wrong, then emotionally twisted from the burden of being viewed as a freak by both children and adults. He was likely full of rage, and so took it out on the most vulnerable of his peers. I was the smallest in the class as well as the youngest, and to see us side by side must have created a fairy tale picture of giant and dwarf. This Colossus, this thirteen-year-old mountain (who was also considered to be a mental midget for being thirteen in the sixth grade), beat me like a drum one Friday afternoon, and dragged me through the woods, to the Old Reservoir, where I thought for sure he’d kill me and leave my body floating for the police and my parents to find on Saturday morning. I survived the ordeal, but waited fretfully till Sunday night, after Disney, before telling my parents what had happened to bring me home so dirty and skittish on Friday afternoon. I only brought it up then because I was scared to go back to school the next day. Had the mauling I endured occurred today, it would have eventually involved a committee, therapists, and conferences between concerned parents, teachers, lawyers and law enforcement officials. It would have included medications and diagnoses for the involved parties, as well as neighborhood conversation spanning the remainder of the school year.
That Sunday night, twitching in my pajamas, I told my father how Stossel had manhandled me; my mother was listening from the kitchen where she was making popcorn and hot chocolate. The specifics were that he got me into the woods behind the school and dragged me around by the collar of my jacket towards the Old Res, and when I tried to escape or fight back, he’d punch me in the head with the same hand he was using to drag me. This should give you some idea of how strong he was, and how utterly grim the situation was for me. As my tale unfolded, I could see that my father was getting more and more disturbed, because when he was in such a mood he’d fold his tongue in half and bite it so the thick center of it was protruding between his teeth. As he listened, tongue on display, he nodded his head in sympathetic understanding.
My parents were both upset, and when I finished, my father paused for a second, released his tongue and said, “GET A BAT! J’a hear me? GET A BAT!”
“JOE-OH,” my mother squealed in disbelief from behind the stovetop.
“Never mind,” he snapped at her, then turned back to me and said, “Take a bat to school tomorrow and hide it in the yard, then later you stand near a corner of the building and call him over. When he comes around the corner, swing the bat as hard as you can right for his head. You understand me?” I stood frozen in the face of this prescription.
“JOE-OH,” my mother shrieked, “I could croak that kid myself, but you can’t tell Sonny to do that. What are you crazy?” “Never mind crazy. What? You want to fight his battles for him? You want him to be a mark all his life? He’s gotta do it!” At this point, I was shaken by everything: the experience of Friday afternoon itself still reverberating in my mind, having to tell my parents, the argument it was causing between them; but mostly, I was rocked by the anxiety, fear and thrill of getting revenge on Stossel. Even with my pajamas clinging cold against my damp flesh, I knew, in the very moment of my father’s proclamation, that I would do it. I knew that with my father’s guidance and permission, I was like my hero, Bond, James Bond. I had a license to kill. My father and I went to the garage to choose the weapon. Within minutes my mother was totally on board with the plan. How could I lose? Clearly, I had been raised by wolves and here was one of the great benefits of being in the pack. My father determined that the best tool for the job was one which he referred to as a “fungo” bat. He said it would be easier for me to handle and would do just as much damage. He reviewed the plan with me a number of times before bed, quizzing me on exactly what to do when the deal went down. I was to get to school a few minutes early and hide the bat at the rear corner of the building facing the huge schoolyard. At recess I was to spot Stossel and call him over to me while peering around the corner with the bat behind my back. When he rounded the building I was to have it cocked to unload at his face, which I wondered if I could even reach. My father assured me that landing on his collarbone or neck would be good enough. He made me swing with an upward arc a number of times gauging the relative height of Stossel’s head with the ideal impact point being at the end of the bat. I didn’t sleep much that night. In the morning the plan was activated. After an especially hearty breakfast, which I only dabbled with, and an anxious look from my mother while she touched my cheek, my father drove me to school. On the way there, he squeezed the top of my head a couple of times and said, “Don’t worry.” Once we got there, he looked me in the eye and said, “Get him,” like he was talking to a Doberman. I left the car, books and bat in hand, and my father watched till I disappeared around the building where I’d planned to hide Exhibit A. I was a distracted, mumbling hunchback for the morning classes. Not that this was so unusual for me, but today I had been conversing with more than the typical demons. My insides were churning with anxious fear. I was no longer thrilled with the prospect of revenge, nor was I as convinced that dad’s sanction to carry out the act would be as indemnifying as a 007 license to kill. Faced with the actual mission, I did not feel like James Bond. No lucky number 7. At this point I only felt like the double zero. I felt alone, inept and afraid. Afraid to do it and afraid to tell my father I didn’t. The school day was a nervous blur until lunch, the thought of which made me gag. Then, recess. What had been a welcome break from the miserable drudgery of school had, on this day, become a zombie trek toward the killing fields. Whose head would roll, I did not know. But I knew something was about to change. I walked, with my feet in a syrup of fear, to the corner of the school where the bat was hidden, and when I saw it was still there I felt nauseous. Facing the wall, I took hold of it and stood there out of view of the playground for a few minutes. Then, with the weapon in my right hand, I grabbed the corner of the building with my left and peered around until I located Stossel with his pint-sized entourage revolving around him. Somehow, I rescued courage from the jaws of terror and shouted his name. He heard me and spun his watermelon-sized head in my direction. Seeing me, he stood still, with a look on his face which said, “This midget is shouting at me with an attitude?”
Knowing I was in the battle now, I yelled, “Come ‘ere!”
I saw him run in my direction like a mountain with oak trees for legs. I only had a few seconds, and disappeared behind the building, but before I was completely ready, he came skidding around it. I swung up at his head in a mighty arc, as instructed, but never quite got my left hand securely on the bat handle. Nonetheless, it was a fierce threat of a swath I cut. Stossel reared back, raised his arms to shield himself and somehow saved his face with his massive forearms, just as I turned to run like a lamb from a lion. I zigged and zagged until I was around the building at the front entrance of the school. There wasn’t a sign of Stossel behind me. My heart was pounding to beat the band. I could feel the blood flowing in my eyes and hear it thudding in my ears. I didn’t know what would happen next, but I knew that I had done it. I had swung the bat at his head. Whatever was going to happen would happen. I also knew my father had my back, and with that I could bear anything. I ran into the school building and hung around the administration office until recess ended. When Stossel saw me in the hall later he said, “You’re dead, asshole.” One of his miniature friends said, “Yeah.” I looked at them mute, worried, and witless, and stayed near teachers all the rest of the day, until my ride came to take me home.
My mother was in the kitchen when I arrived, happy that I was uninjured and undrowned. She was also happy that she hadn’t gotten a call from the school about a murder. She asked me what happened and I told her that I had done it. She was radiant with pride. My mother, bless her, she was one tough dame. I was exhausted and quiet until my father came home and when he heard the story said, “Good. Atta boy.” I was afraid to go to school the next day but my father assured me, “He’s not going to do anything. If he was, he’d a gotten you right away. He knows you could get him eventually with that bat. Watch what I tell you.”
I was totally unpersuaded. My father didn’t know Stossel, he didn’t know how vulnerable I was, how afraid. He didn’t know my little life really. But, as it turned out, he knew the world, and he knew that kid would never touch me again. Stossel was too proud to go to the teachers or tell his parents that some little kid tried to smash his face in, and stupid as he was, he was too smart to mess with a maniac. I only had a couple more months at the Lincoln School before I transferred to St. Sebastian’s Country Day School in Newton for the seventh grade. The entire lesson didn’t take at that time, but I learned something about life and bullies after that day. I learned you have to stand up. Had Phoebe Prince been my sister, my father would have equipped her with a small canister of pepper spray. He would have had her go to school and find a good moment to spray one of the girls in the face who had been tormenting her, kick her once in the stomach, while she lay on the ground screaming about her burning eyes, then leave the scene calmly and quietly. She would be told to keep the weapon at hand in case the girl, or any of her posse, were stupid enough to try something funny again. Had they, she would have been instructed to repeat the scenario with each of her tormentors. Phoebe would have felt empowered. She would have been respected, or at least feared. She would likely have been arrested and expelled and she would be alive. In the bargain, the mean girls would have learned the valuable lesson that it’s neither right, nor safe, to fuck with anybody that way. This story is about old-school methods. By many standards it’s not right, and might be seen as more of the same, solving nothing. It might even be seen as the recommendation of an irresponsible father, perhaps an abuse victim himself in denial about what happened to him. It would be seen as illegal, unconscionable, and a sign of dysfunction. But there are some, and I almost hate to admit that I am one, who think . . . YES! Good old righteous revenge. Though I know full well that compassion, care, non-violence and peace are the better ways, I also know that if Phoebe were my girl, I’d want to make her oppressors learn a life lesson, one that cannot be mitigated by lawyers, media or money. If suffering happened to be a part of that lesson, so be it. I wish I could have been there with her, for her. I wish she could have known that I had her back. But this is the best I can manage for her now. My advice to the bullied: Learn to relax in the face of stupidity, fear, jealousy and anger; there will be ample opportunities for practice. Learn to listen to those whose opinions you deem ridiculous. They really do feel what they say they feel. Do not participate in stupid, aggressive activities. Learn to view the fire and ice being spewed at you as signs of pain. And try to remember what that famous Jewish peasant said of those who were executing him, “Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing,” while his bullies sold his clothes as he hung there dying. Implement these things, and, while you’re at it, learn martial arts, take boxing lessons, carry pepper spray or,
GET A BAT!
the whole collection of stories, “lunatic heroes”, is HERE on amazon. and yes, there are other ways to get it, some of which are listed in my big anthony-blog from a few months back (HERE). the ISBN is 9780988230002 if you want to try and order it to your local independent bookstore.
and for those who’ve been asking and caring….he’s doing really well, as well as he can be doing. me, his wife laura, and our circle of friends have been chauffeuring him to and fro the hospital three times a week. he’s on infusion/treatment #23 on 36 today and dizzy all the time, but the doctors say he’s having the best reaction possible to the chemicals that are washing out the leukemia. on friday he gets a spinal tap to see if the leukemia has spread to his spinal cord and brain.
for everyone who’s been keeping him in your prayers, you’re in mine.
as i left anthony at the hospital on monday afternoon, i yelled “GET A BOOK” at him.
that’s my new answer to threats of violence.
i will hit people, but only with heavy tomes of literature.
porter square bookstore, cambridge, MA.