For as long as I can remember, I have been sensitive to the needs of others. My parents were light years ahead in destigmatizing mental health conditions and in embracing diversity and inclusion through social justice. I vividly recall two memories from my middle school years that were formative in my development as an advocate and ally for mental health and diversity and inclusion. In the 1970s, bullying was more out in the open: it was more detectable than the more insidious, invisible cyberbullying of today.
I frequently took a bus to middle school and enjoyed walking home. This was a city bus used for a popular route to the middle school. It did not have the stop arm with the flashing red light and stop sign. I played French horn so I sat near the back bus wheel where I could fit my oversized case without blocking the aisle.
An intellectually disabled student was on the bus as always traveling from his neighborhood to school. An older student at our school who had transferred in over the summer started teasing this student I’ll call Paul. There was nothing innocent about the teasing, but we got to the bus stop near school before it escalated. We thought the new “wanna be Big Man on Campus” would get bored and the teasing would end. After a few days, the teasing turned to bullying, including taking Paul’s backpack, pillaging his lunchbox, and even threatening to steal his shoes and favorite sweater.
A couple of friends and I were upset about the teasing and decided we had to do something to help Paul. So, we confronted the bully thinking there was safety in numbers. That move backfired and the next day the bullying on the bus was worse than ever. Paul got so scared he ran to the front door and jumped out as soon as the bus door opened. Before the driver could caution him, Paul bolted in front of the bus to evade the bully. I still remember the “thunk” when Paul was struck by a car driving past the city bus. Sometimes I still hear that sickening sound and say a prayer for how that day turned out.
When Paul got hit, momentum cleared him to the grassy boulevard dividing the two one-way streets a block away from the middle school. When Paul stopped rolling, he got up and without looking back he took off running. Adrenaline must have kicked-in as we’d never seen Paul run so fast. Only years later when I was watching Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump did I have such clear picture of someone running with purpose outside of a competition.
My friends and I confronted the bully and told him he was “so busted” and “dead meat” and that we’d deal with him later. Then, we ran after Paul to see if he needed medical attention. He beat us to the nurse’s office. He was crying and sobbing. Within seconds we were hugging him and apologizing for not doing more sooner. We made a pact with Paul that if he or any of his classmates needed help, he could tell us at school or call us at home. Even at the time those felt like hollow words and “cheap talk”.
I’m not proud sharing this, but I took care of business off school grounds that afternoon. I’d never felt such rage and I did not care how much trouble I was going to get into for fighting. My parents were believers in Martin Luther King’s teaching on non-violent confrontation. I had escalated to fisticuffs without even trying to educate the bully on why teasing and bullying were not acceptable. As expected, I was grounded despite my lamentations of doing the “right thing”.
I still remember being upset a week later for waiting too long to act. I was upset for not doing enough to help protect another human being. I asked my parents to help teach me how to help others without resorting to the favorite tactics of many 6th grade boys: wrestling and fighting.
Shortly thereafter I was enrolled in my first social justice campaign of tutoring intellectually disabled students in science and teaching some of these students how to play chess. Within a year, one of the students had moved to the top five of our chess team. We were a more competitive team. It was a great learning experience for me in seeing human potential where I had previously overlooked it.
A second learning opportunity suddenly emerged. My mom asked me if I wanted to get some friends together to go bowling on weekends. She said we could start a co-ed league. She said a new bowling alley was looking for volunteers so it would be free. She suggested I recruit a group of 6-8 friends to make a commitment every other week or so for the school year. She said only 3-4 could play any given weekend.
On the first Saturday, our parents dropped us off in front of a large “institution” for developmentally and intellectually disabled youth and adults located less than 1 mile from the neighborhoods where we lived. This facility provided residential support services to assist people living with intellectual disabilities to acquire skills to achieve their best potential. This was before the “mental health system” changed to “mainstreaming” in the community, including schools.
My friends and I thought we were there to catch a bus to the bowling alley. Instead, we were met by the headmaster who took us inside to the bowling alley inside for what turned-out to be my first-ever safety orientation. We learned the commitment we made as a “bowling team” was to set bowling pins for the most ambulatory of the residents so they could bowl. The facility did not have automatic pin-setting machinery. When my mom learned that there was a need for volunteers, she thought this would be a great learning opportunity.
None of my friends complained about the “bait-n-switch”. We all grew from the experience. So did our neighborhoods and school. Each one of us became advocates for acceptance and for diversity. Although several of us either got (or gave) black eyes defending our new friends, the real benefit was breaking down stigma and learning to accept those “different from us”.
Within a couple of weekends of bowling excursions to the facility, we had divided into “equal” teams and were a more integrated team than separate groups. We shared a Halloween Party, had a pizza and movie night, and more. We started realizing some of the students took our buses to school and we had never met them because they took classes in another section of our public school. The representatives from each group were de facto ambassadors in an unofficial program to build connections between different populations. It ended-up building bridges to lasting understanding.
These two early experiences were among the most formative of my childhood. I often reminisce how I learned about diversity and inclusion so many years ago. My parents often cited Martin Luther King and a favorite quote of theirs was “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way”. I’m grateful for these valuable life lessons from my parents. I’m proud my wife and I passed these same lessons to our five adult children.