West said she was bullied “relentlessly” as a young teen for “not acting her skin color.” The torment included being punched, kicked and stabbed with umbrellas by a group of bullies. Eventually, the abuse escalated into a fight and she was suspended from school. During her suspension, she came up with her own anti-bullying program. Later, she was part of a successful lobby that helped pass a law in Connecticut that requires school faculty members to be trained in managing and identifying bullying.
I’m glad that bullying is finally at the forefront of conversations on how to protect our kids. Not so long ago, when I was coming up, it was sort of accepted and dismissed as “oh, kids will be kids.” Unfortunately, I’ve seen that attitude produce disastrous results.
During my freshman year of high school, our very small class of about 30 got a few new students. One of them was “Michael” and the other was “Alicia.” Michael was awkward, the type of kid who always asked one more question that kept us in our seats when the teacher was going to let us out early to enjoy the weather. Alicia was a ‘round the way girl, one of the first I knew that wore a weave and big earrings with her mother’s approval. Michael adored her… but I’m getting ahead of the story.
We had a free period, which meant most guys would congregated in the gym to play basketball, and the girls congregated in the gym to watch them while pretending not to. One morning, Michael asked to join a pick-up game. An intentional foul left him on the floor, on his back. Another kid, walked over under the guise of helping him up, then slammed the ball next to his head. Michael’s whole body jumped. The kid laughed. I turned away and pretended not to see. Michael finally got up on his own and kept playing like nothing happened. I wondered how used to this he was, and blaming the victim, angrily wondered why he didn’t just change himself to fit in. Sorry, I was 12.
By the end of September, we all had Homecoming fever. Michael persistently asked Alicia to be his date. He asked and asked, she declined and declined. And then he asked again one day in the hallway when everyone was changing classes, and Alicia snapped.
“I would NEVER go to Homecoming with you!!!” she yelled. She listed everything that was wrong with him. It was like you could see him shrinking like the Grinch’s heart.
I ran up on Alicia, jumped in front of Michael and barked in her face. By the time our school chaplain came charging through the halls, we were yelling expletives at one another at the top of our lungs — resulting in an automatic detention.
Not the next weekend, but the weekend after — the week before Homecoming — I got a call at home from the chaplain on a Saturday afternoon. I’m sure she put her message more eloquently than I remember, but she said “Michael’s dead.”
I never got a verified story, but the popular version was that he pulled his father’s sawed-off shotgun from the garage, walked out to a field near his home and turned it on himself. To my knowledge, there wasn’t a note with an explanation. I always assumed it was because he was bullied and I don’t blame anyone in particular.
We had a memorial service at school. Alicia wore all black and a veil. The chaplain read a note from Michael’s parents saying that he loved his new school so much and it was the happiest he’d ever been. I sat in the pew wondering what hell he’d come from to call this experience happy.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk