by Thomas Brown
(Revised Winter 2001 and Fall 2002)
Like much of the country I reacted with shock and disgust at the shooting in Colorado…as I had after the school shootings that came before it. How can children become so full of hatred that they would parade through a school and without one ounce of feeling, take lives as if they were crushing ants on a sidewalk? This country has experienced this school terror more than once and with each act comes the same wave of media coverage complete with new background music and dramatic titles, the emergence of young and old heroes who tried to stop the carnage, endless experts who offer televised advice to the masses and community meetings where people sit around, scratch their chins and ask over and over again ....”why?”
The answers are slow in coming. We can scrutinize media
violence, music, video games and
“They were the scum of the school... no one liked them.”Why should we give a damn that these youngsters responsible for so much unrest and terror, these orchestrators of a national wave of fear and paranoia...at one time probably themselves feared going to school...most likely absolutely dreaded going to school! For those that have never been the constant victim of torment and bullying or have children who have been outcast, bullied, emotionally persecuted and damaged beyond repair, it is not easy to understand or listen to the feelings of those that have...especially those whose rage has recently exploded in a hellish shower of blood and mayhem.
Do I feel sorry for those two boys who turned a peaceful spring day into a national nightmare? No. Do I feel anything other than disgust and nausea at their actions? No... but as soon as I heard that these boys were outcasts targeting certain factions of the school, like so many times after these tragic shootings, I began to understand.
A few seconds of terror...of blinding pain...and then it’s all over. The fat kid is crippled for life and not really worth bugging anymore, certainly no longer a target.
I struggle with a bite of pancake. How can something so good...prepared with so much motherly love and care...taste like wet sawdust.
I look at the clock. There is no more time...the bus is practically here. There won’t be any revealing of the facts today. Mom will have at least one more day of innocence. I grab my books say goodbye and head out the door.
I wonder how Eddie would react if I suddenly burrowed my 190-pound frame right into his head and through the bus window.
It’s not Eddie’s fault though. I deserve this. I’m fat...ugly...crappy at sports and I don’t do a damn thing but sit there and ‘take it.’
Maybe I’ll invite Eddie to spend Friday night and we’ll have so much fun together that he’ll be my friend and never bother me again.
I forgive easily. I’m not out for revenge. I try to convince myself of that as we get closer to the school and the ear flick and slap count is at 23.
Today is wrestling. Oh goodie...a chance to prove my manhood. I always treasure the magical moments of a sweaty peer all over me while everyone looks on and cheers.
Maybe if I actually win one of these matches...they’ll have more respect for me. Maybe.
I lose everything I play in gym class. I’m the first to fall down during laps, I’m the first to strike out during softball and I’m the first one to get ‘hit’ with the dodge-ball. Now there’s a fun game... lining up like bowling pins while larger peers throw a ball like a titan missile at your head and groin. Of course it’s only an accident if they hit you in those ‘forbidden zones’ during the game. Our p.e. teacher had a tough time distinguishing the teams, so he would make a ‘shirts’ (lucky jerks) and a ‘skins’ team, like I always somehow ended up being. Now I could dodge the ball and endless remarks about breasts and bras at the same time! The ‘unlucky’ ones…the ‘skins,’ well…we all looked like giant pepperoni pizzas…. our bare chests backs and legs skin covered with huge red blotches.
One time I actually thought I had solved the dodge ball nightmare. I would simply pretend that I got hit! Let the rest of them stand out there and wait to get hit...I won’t! That little plan went along marvelously until one day when I walked over to my place on the bench and flopped right down...on a bed of carpet nails. I guess I looked pretty funny standing there holding back tears and vomit... pulling those little black nails out of my bottom. Not one classmate warned me…and no one took up for me after it happened. I think they were all just too relieved that it wasn’t ‘THEM.’
“Whaddya going to do about it fat boy?”I can remember those hateful words as if it was happening right now. I sometimes wonder what would have happened back then…if a baseball bat had been in reach.
Where was our p.e. teacher at this time? He had stepped out for a few minutes. When the Cat’s away...
Most schools don’t make kids take showers after p.e. class anymore. They just sweat their heads off and go to their next class smelling like Brut and sweat. Unfortunately when I was going to school, what would have been respect for our privacy and frankly a gift from God, simply didn’t happen. We took showers. For about five minutes we stood there stark naked in front of our peers. For the guys that thought they had ‘God’s gift to a body’ it was pure pleasure to parade around and make everyone else not as ‘blessed’ feel like idiots. So I would be standing there... minding my own business...trying to take my shower...only to have it interrupted by someone who thought it would be clever to urinate on me... or there was the time that one of my peers, with an audience looking on, took his two fingernails, one underneath and one on top of a nipple, squeezing it until it almost popped off.
I can still remember the look on some of my classmate’s faces. Only a few of them were laughing. Very few of them seemed to actually accept this...but they didn’t say or do anything in my defense. Some actually looked at me with pity and I’m sure there were some watching with bated excitement wondering just when I was going to blow...just when I would suddenly demonstrate that I had had enough...and maybe just maybe...with their excitement growing...this would finally be the day that Tom Brown would beat the crap out of one of them.
Or maybe they were just so happy...so relieved....that it wasn’t them with a now deformed and rather unique nipple.
Maybe it’s time for a second attempt at the stairs.
Later, lying there cradled in my soft quilt I suddenly smile a little. Tomorrow is not a p.e. day. It won’t be as bad. Fine...it’ll be bad...but just not as bad. A little more at peace, I begin to have fantasies. Maybe there would be a huge school fire...maybe my tormentors would all be on a bus together and it will go off a cliff.
I don’t want them to get killed...I just want them to leave me alone.
For just a few seconds my mind wonders into a mostly uncharted territory of my brain. I think of me arriving at school in a World War 2 tank. I could just see the expressions on the kid’s faces now as I stand gallantly on that tank with my machine gun aiming squarely at my tormentors. I stop. The journey to the dark side of my brain is over. I smile broadly in the darkness of my bedroom.
I wake to the sound of thunder, followed by a bright flash of lightning. My alarm clock reads four-thirty. In one hour and a half I’ll be getting up for school.
Those who wished to do that would simply report directly to the p.e. Instructor, sign out and go over to the other building for the rest of the period. We would not have to change in the locker room...we would not have to take showers...nothing...just go over to the building, affectionately known as ‘the dungeon’ and just lift weights.
I couldn’t believe it. This could not be possibly happening...there is a God! Not that I ever had in any doubts...it’s just one doesn’t often see prayers answered so completely.
There were four of us that went. I knew these guys but they weren’t really my friends. Every one of us had been bullied at one time or another...standing in halls. or on the athletic field...or in the locker room...or during p.e. class itself...we would silently watch the ‘other’ be pushed around or hit or ‘whatever,’ somewhat glad, for the time being anyway, we were being left alone.
The first two weeks of the dungeon was heaven. No way else to describe it. We would just sit down on the cool concrete floor and talk and tell jokes. For the first time in a long time I started to feel better about going to school. Oh... of course I still had to contend with maniac Eddie on the bus and an occasional shove from a high schooler in a hurry to get to his class, but compared to what I had experienced before, this was simply bliss...and it would all end as abruptly as it started.
At first it wasn’t too bad. For the first half-hour he left us alone and went into a smaller room and smoked dope and drank. We were told to mind our damn business and I for one certainly complied. But he tired of his vices quickly (or ran out of ingredients) and taking one victim at a time, began to terrorize us...there is just no other way to adequately describe it. Instructing us in no uncertain terms never to tell, for the next three weeks...nine class periods...R------...in between cigarettes, pot and booze would systematically kick, punch and slap us...sometimes turning off the lights and making a little game out of it. Lying in bed at night I began to fantasize that R------ would somehow smoke a joint laced with p.c.p. and then have the inclination to stand out on the highway in front of a semi-truck.
One day as I walked toward the dungeon I noticed three other high-school students come running from the alley to join R------ as we entered the dungeon. These three had been expelled months ago. None of us knew they were R------’s friends. I could literally taste vomit in my mouth as we walked down those long halls. My legs felt like they were made of Jell-O. I wanted to suddenly run but I knew that would be fatal.
For the next twenty minutes we sat on the floor not saying a word. The fear was flowing through us like electricity. You could literally feel it in the room. J-- looked like he was going to burst out in tears any second. R---- was literally shaking. A--- looked down at the floor. I just sat there numb listening to the voices in the other room. Judging by the occasional laughter, they were having a swell time.
Maybe they’ll stay in there the whole time.
Of course they did eventually come into the weight room
and they made the best of the remaining fifteen minutes of class.
After the first day of this new ‘wrinkle’ to the dungeon experience I would lay in bed and wonder in terror if one of the other guys will tell...and I’m sure they were just about now thinking the same thing. This was worse than anything I had ever experienced before. I couldn’t cry...I couldn’t scream...I could do nothing but exist...and I didn’t know how much longer I could even go on doing that. Suddenly my deformed nipple seemed rather insignificant.
Unknown to us the dungeon trips had already ended. For the rest of the year all the p.e. class were going bowling... and I never saw R------ again. Seventh grade would actually end on a fairly positive note. Unfortunately there was still five more years of school to come, and although nothing like the dungeon ordeal, the torment still continued.
Audio Visual Club
Vocational School 1972
I was good at art, especially hand-lettering. The vocational school had a printing program. Somehow I thought this was actually a chance to further improve my abilities to 'print.' When, of course, what it really was was commercial printing. I should have known that but I didn't. It sounded like fun to me. Our instructor was a tall thin guy named Mr. Bobo. No...I'm not making that name up. That indeed was his real name. He was a friendly, goofy kind of guy...who didn't have a clue as to what was going on all around him...
which was seniors regularly assaulting juniors...hitting us with industrial broom handles...smoking pot in the darkroom...urinating in developing fluid...etc.
The nightmare had returned.
A lot of us juniors did. Whenever Mr. Bobo had to leave the room...it was literally 'open season' on the juniors...except one. P--- had figured out a long time ago the wisdom of 'if you can't beat em...join em.' And he did... joining right in with the torture. My feelings for this fellow junior went beyond contempt.
I was desperate to get out of this place. Thoughts of suicide were a daily and nightly thing now. And then came Roma. Roma was a short little round-headed moon-faced Guidance Counselor. I went to her to ask for a transfer to another class within the vocational school. I didn't tell her 'why,' just 'that' I wanted into another class. Somehow during the conversation the fact that I could do hand-lettering came into play, and before I knew what was happening, she assigned me to her outer-office almost every day to create posters for the vocational school...and so I did.
For the next three months, all those cool colorful psychedelic posters announcing bake-sales, dances, and upcoming sports events...were mine. And lots of kids knew it. Some kids complimented my work....admired my work. The school was happy...Roma was happy...and I was happy...most of the time. I still spent some time in the printing class, enough to endure a few more punches here and there. P--- was the main class terror now, carrying out most of the assaults, to the delight of the older students.
One afternoon in early March, Roma asked me to come to her office. I put down the magic marker I was using and followed the little lady into her equally tiny office. For the next hour or so she grilled me about the printing class and Mr. Bobo. "Was he a good teacher,?" "Did the kids respect him," "Is there drugs being used in the darkroom," She threw names at me....the 'exact' names at me... and while I wondered how she got this information...I nodded my head in confirmation. She was happy. She got exactly what she wanted out of me. She assured me that no one would find out that I told...and I was stupid enough to believe her.
Over a period of a week various seniors were called in and questioned about various 'goings on' in Mr. Bobo's class. Of course everything was denied and Roma's career as the new Nancy Drew abruptly ended. The school accepted the denial's, probably thrilled that their beloved state-funded institution would not be coming under attack in the press after all.
Somehow the seniors found out or 'figured out' who Roma's informant was, and on one snowy day... on the way to my bus without a care in the world... I was stopped by the worst of the seniors... and was told through bloodshot eyes that I was "f------ dead." You know what...I believed him. That night...after my little sisters were in bed...I told my parents everything. Not the whole bullying history...just what was happening 'this' year. I didn't have to go to school the next day while my parents figured out what to do. The second day they drove me to school and we had a long discussion with the school administrators. My family wanted me out of the school simple as that. They weren't there to make trouble and I certainly didn't want to compound things by suggesting that the seniors get into trouble. I didn't give them any names either, which did not make them happy. Basically I was told this. If I 'tough out' the remaining few months of the year I could return to my old school in the fall and start my senior year, graduating with my original class in 1973. Otherwise all the time I had spent in that 'living hell' would be for nothing and I would have to start eleventh grade all over again and graduate in 1974 with a brand new class.
That night I did a lot of thinking, but not about this difficult decision. That was an easy one to make. I was not going to go back to that school. Instead I thought about my parents and how they handled the situation. They didn't yell at me or demand that I stop being a big baby and take care of myself. They simply allowed me to make my own decision. I'm sure there were things they were thinking and wanted to say...but they didn't. And I knew they were terribly hurt and disappointed the next morning when I told them what my decision was going to be, but they went ahead and allowed me to make it... God love em. I tell kids now that not telling my parents about the bullying from day one was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.
The best decision I ever made in my life was starting eleventh grade over.
On the first day I discovered that there was no gym....no locker room...no running laps until I puked...no dodge-ball...no wrestling....no showers. That alone was fantastic. Eventually the 'wall' between the real me and what people see would come crumbling down. I would become one of the most popular kids in school; a creative class-clown that loved to make people laugh. I was the morning and afternoon announcement reader...and unpredictable..adding my own little music background...fictional commercials and news stories. I worked on the school newspaper, (movie critic) I got invited to parties...I had lots of friends...I was the varsity basketball announcer...the band announcer... I even took a girl to the High School prom.
But I never forgot.
My anti-bullying program was completed in this New Jersey middle school. The car was waiting out front to take me to the airport. It had been another great experience meeting new people and making new friends and teaching people about bullying and the harm it causes. As always I felt good as I prepared to leave the large room, the applause from the seventh graders that had sat and listened to me for two hours, still ringing joyously in my ears.
But this day would not end like the rest. I was asked to speak to a seventh grader who was waiting for me in the library...a troubled student who rarely talked to anyone..but had asked to talk with me. I didn’t know what to expect as I was led into the library and to a table where a seventh grader set nervously waiting. His name was Ryan. He was very small for his age; a little towhead with deep blue eyes. He waited for the school guidance counselor to leave before speaking. Then he looked at me with what I can best describe as a combination of anguish and deep fear. With tears running down his face and his voice cracking from time to time, the youngster told me about some boys in his class who were always tormenting him, especially in the locker room before and after gym. Fighting sobs he told me about being constantly teased...having his underwear pulled down in the locker room...being stuffed into a locker...having his books and papers thrown into the shower...being slapped...pinched...punched.
He tried to tell his teacher but she told him to quit tattling and learn to take up for himself.He tried to tell his parents but they told him to just ignore these boys or go tell someone at the school. And then this angry frustrated little seventh grader told me “I’ve had it...I ain’t putting up with this anymore. I’m bringing a gun to school and I’m killing them all...nobody thinks I’ll do this..but I will!” I comforted him the best way I could and I offered him my phone number if he ever just wants or needs to talk to someone. We ended up talking about the various people in his life whom he could take to, whom he felt would listen to him. I could tell that it helped...but it was not enough. He hugged me tightly as I stood up to leave, crying into my chest. Fighting my own tears I said goodbye to this little stranger.
As I exited the building I stopped by the office and told the Principal what this boy had just told me. The man responsible for every child and adult in that building responded by rolling his eyes.
Later, as I sat on that airplane I could not help but
think about the boy. What was he doing now? Had I helped him? I was haunted
by him. He continues to haunt me to this day, for he was me if as a child
I would have ever had the opportunity or created the opportunity to
...and as hard as it is for anyone to comprehend or understand...he is the reason I know that the young men who have taken so many lives in a series of terrible school shootings...could have been reached...could have been helped...at a time when they were simply outcast, bullied and teased children, victims themselves, rather than the cold-blooded killers who are now part of darkest history.
The Broken Toy Project is now beginning its tenth year. Three films have been created and I have traveled to schools all over this country and Canada. I have spoken with thousands of children and adults about this problem. I have watched children cry as they experience the intensity and emotion of my films. I have seen tough middle school students wipe tears from their eyes as I tell a story about a severely burned fifth grader who was made fun of until he begged his parents to move away from their community. I have witnessed bully victims suddenly confronting their antagonists during my program. I have had countless students come up to me and thank me for coming to their school. You may think that I eat up all this attention and just get all 'warm' inside when I see things change as a result of my work. I don't.
While I contend that my approach to deal with the bullying problem...'the epidemic'...is unique and sometimes effective...I don't give credit to any one element in my program or the program itself. The fact is that most kids in any given school really do 'care.' Give them some tools and the extent of that 'caring' will come to the surface. I simply provide the tools. The credit goes to the kids who opened their hearts and minds during my program...to the educators who allowed me and my message into their buildings...and to the parents who came out in the evenings to learn more. I'm sad...and frankly angry...that there aren't more people out there doing this kind of work...that there aren't more schools allowing this kind of program...or any program about bullying into their buildings. "We don' have enough time for long emotional programs." "We're concerned that such a controversial and intense program will have a negative effect on our children." We have mandatory testing...we have to concentrate on academics." "We don't have a bully problem."
I've heard it all. I've seen it all. From the group of teachers in the Mexican restaurant who laughed when one of their peers told that if any child comes to her about being hurt or someone else being hurt "they or that other person better be bleeding," to the Principal who told me that bully-victims deserve exactly what they get...to the parent who stood up and yelled "I'd rather my kid be a bully then a damn sissy," I've heard and seen it all...and then some.
The bullying problem is not just an issue between a victim and bully. It is adults who condone bullying...bullies themselves. It is the entertainment industry which often makes light of the problem...sometimes even 'glorifying' the act of harming those who are perceived weak and insignificant. It is the school board that allows a ball team to still play a championship game...hours after they strip and beat a fellow student. It is dozens of students who come forward after a peer has shot himself to tell about the young man's torment at school...of being witnesses to the kid 'on the day of his suicide' thrown into a locker by popular athletes and told to yell "I'm a fag" over and over again...and for their courage in coming forward...being told that they are trouble-makers and are spreading unfounded rumors. It is the mom from hundreds of miles away who calls me at ten-thirty at night, crying hysterically that her ten year old just told her that he's going to blow his brains out... if the kids don't stop bullying him at school. It's having a teacher sneer at me or repeatedly looks at her watch while I present my message in a special after school meeting. It's that little spectacled fourth grader who comes up to me during the break...who tells me...while his eyes well up with tears..."that I sure hope the boys who sucker-punched me yesterday in the bathroom...are listening to you today." It's the mom who told me that her obese teenage son used his inheritance to have his breasts surgically removed after experiencing years of torment in the locker room. It's the overweight bullied girl in Darby England who overdosed on sleeping pills...on the exact same day that a bullied student in the United States took a gun to school and killed several classmates.
We're not talking about bullying much these days, not after September 11th anyway. We've got bigger fish to fry. More important things to worry about...like terrorism and bombings...airplane sabotage...and Anthrax. But someplace... right now... as you read this....there's a bullied kid....hundreds of bullied kids actually...maybe even thousands... all filled with an almost incomprehensible amount of rage and hatred...
...both for themselves...and for their fellow man
Over the summer we learned that Andy Williams…the small built youngster who shot classmates in his California school…had received fifty years to life for his crime. He was picked on. President Bush called him a coward shortly after the shooting. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was startled when we saw the image of what was basically a ‘little boy’ in the back of that cruiser. A little boy ‘killer.’
I was startled. I was also deeply saddened.
Fall 2002 ‘Hope’
Erika Harold, the brand new Miss. America…will make bullying her platform. She was picked on…she knows how it feels.
We both do. ...And hundreds of thousands like us.
The press is already jumping all over this…and it didn’t take a school shooting to do it.
Excuse me while I run outside and shout “thank you!” as loud as I can to the heavens.
Thomas Brown - October 1st, 2002
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