Getting Beyond Zero Tolerance

Sometimes our friends drive us crazy. They can be real pains in the ass. They’re not always reliable. They are loud, opinionated, and needy. They have crazy ideas that come at you from far out in left field… Sometimes they just leave us rolling our eyes and shaking our heads and wondering why we bother to get out of bed on days when sleep seems to be just the most wonderful thing ever invented by… whoever invented it. Wasn’t it Neil Gaiman?  Yeah, sometimes our friends drive us crazy.

And sometimes…

Sometimes a friend does something that makes you want to fall down on the ground and thank God (or just the benevolent universe) that he’s part of your life. That happened to me, a few nights ago. One of my friends did something that banished any impatience I’d ever felt, wiped away any doubts I might have had as to whether it was worth getting out of bed and joining the world. Made me so … pardon me… f___ing PROUD that this man has elected to number me among his friends that the fact of his friendship brought tears to my eyes. And I don’t mean I misted up, I mean I had to go wash my face and dry it before I showed myself in public again, so no one would say, “Hey, is something wrong?” Because nothing was wrong. Things were very, very right.

My friend’s act wasn’t one of great courage, really, or particularly strong effort. All he did was send me a Facebook invite to like a page where he’d shared a video.

The page was named simply enough, “Support For Grayson.” It had over 70,000 likes, and it existed because a nine-year-old boy named Grayson who lives in Asheville, NC, near my family’s home town, carried a My Little Pony lunchbox to school. And at school he was ridiculed. According to his statements to local news, he was also shoved, knocked down and told that he should die. It’s sad that my initial reaction to this news is, “I’m not surprised.” It’s sadder still that the school principal’s response was to tell Grayson’s parents that he should stop bringing his lunchbox to school because it was creating a disruption.

Please don’t mistake my lack of surprise for a lack of outrage. Of course I think it’s revolting that this little boy was treated this way because he loved something and chose to share that love with others. It’s not just that he loved something branded “girly,” it’s that he loved anything and showed it. In school, you don’t do that. In school, you’re not supposed to have an identity. You’re not supposed to stand out. Yeah, you might get away with loving the right musician or the right football team. Or you might not. Half the class may hate your team. The musician’s popularity will last five minutes, and then you’ll have to stop loving him. And there will be no announcement that his fame is now become infamy. You’ll just be expected to know. To access the hive mind and pick up that useful information. If you don’t, if you can’t, well that, my friends, is the difference between the cool kids and the rest of us. The cool kids just know.

The rest of us suffer the slings and arrows of ridicule. The message is, don’t love anything. Don’t stand up in favor of anything. Keep your head down. Try to look, sound and act like everyone else.

Fortunately, Grayson’s family and the Internet community didn’t accept this piece of twisted conventional wisdom. They stood up and said, “No. That’s wrong. Hey, Principal, you let that little boy carry his My Little Pony lunchbox.” Makes you believe that, just maybe, there’s a large measure of good in people out there on them Internets.

To show support for Grayson, my friend shared a wonderful video of Wil Wheaton telling a little girl at a con how to respond to bullies and anyone who calls you a nerd or a geek, that they’re to be pitied. They make fun of you because they don’t have something in their lives that they love, or because they’re afraid to stand up and be individuals and show what they love. It was a powerful and wonderful statement from a guy who’s been both a fan and a celebrity beloved by fans.

But while I’m overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for Grayson, I’m a little concerned by what will be the takeaway from his story for teachers, parents and policymakers. I’m worried because so much of the takeaway I’m hearing seems to be, “We’ve got to have tough anti-bullying policies!” Which means schools systems will write documents and principals will start using the words “zero tolerance” a lot. They’re already doing that, and were before Grayson bought his lunchbox.

But “zero tolerance” and anti-bullying policies aren’t enough. They’re well-intended, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it… If you lay a stick on the table, sooner or later someone’s going to pick it up and whack you with it. Policies are usually sticks, and they usually wind up whacking the people they were intended to help. I personally know that the one of the first kids suspended in my son’s school under an anti-bullying initiative was not the big, tough, mean kid who always stole the ball on the playground, but the smart, bookish kid who belonged to the student advisory committee on behavior and always stood up for littler kids who got picked on. Because once you codify something, you suck the spirit out of it, and you have to act based on a list of criteria. Because your actions have to be defensible. Because, even when you’re a teacher or a principal, you still basically need to keep your head down so the “cool kids” won’t lash out at you, this time with employee disciplinary actions and liability suits.

What we, parents, teachers, fans, siblings, need to do is not write policies. We need to model the right behaviors. We need to send the message to everyone that it’s okay to be who and what you are. To love what you love. We need to behave the way Grayson’s family and all those people on the Internet behaved. We need to do it every day, and not just when we’re being watched or it’s a cause. Certainly tell your kids how to respond to bullies and how to not allow it to happen to them or their friends. Certainly tell them not to be bullies themselves, and not to ridicule others just for being different. But also… Think about what you say to your kids, and around them. And your family members, too. Every time you make a judgmental remark, especially one that begins with the words, “I hate…”, you’re saying to those around you, “If you fall into the category I’m describing, I won’t accept you. And you’re not free to talk to me about anything that might put you in that category. If you want to be accepted, you’d best keep secrets.”

Be careful of those remarks we all make: “How can you listen to that music? How can you like that show?” All parents do that. I do it. Ask my kids. Sibling and friends do it too. But maybe stop and think and make the question friendlier and more prone to open a discussion: “What is it you like about that music or that show? What am I missing?”

Because the worst thing you can do to someone is create a situation in which they feel like they can’t show who they are, that they can’t talk to anyone about what’s inside their head. That climate not only makes them afraid to be different, it can make them outright hate themselves for being different.

And I guess that’s why the whole Grayson situation, and my friend’s vocal support for it, got me so emotional. Because I’ve been where Grayson is, many times, especially as a kid. And the worst time, the most humiliating incident, I faced alone and in silence. Couldn’t tell a soul about it, at least not the truth of it. I won’t go into details. They’re a bit personal, and not really fit for public consumption. Suffice to say that, in high school, I was publicly humiliated by someone who told lies about me. I couldn’t defend myself, because telling the truth would have involved revealing things about myself that would have brought more ridicule. And I’d learned well the lesson of school: keep your head down. Don’t be different. Take the pain and don’t admit it hurts. Don’t say anything that might make it worse.

If anyone had had the courage and compassion to look through the lie and say, “Even if it’s true, it’s wrong for people to treat you that way,” I might have actually talked to that person, instead of sucking it up and trying to be tough, and, though I didn’t admit it even to myself, being quietly ashamed.

I’m not complaining, really. I don’t feel sorry for myself. Quite the opposite, in fact. I just find it so satisfying to know that Grayson (and other kids, I hope) will get the support I didn’t. And I’m also not blaming anyone for not supporting me. They didn’t know. I didn’t talk about it. Ever.

But recently, I’ve been taking inventory of events in my life and thinking about how they influenced the person I became. The event I’m not really telling you about floated to the top. I realized, for the first time in decades, how much it upset me. And I had a really profound experience. I wrote down what happened. I had never done that, nor had I ever spoken the words out loud. And, as I wrote the words, I was able to stop and look at 14-year-old Steve, bruised and laid low by his peers, and tell him he did nothing wrong. In fact, I was able to tell him that I, his adult self, was proud of him, and that the things that made him different actually made him very special. I hope he hasn’t lost those qualities on his path to turning into a 48-year-old man.

So now I don’t even feel the need to talk to a bunch of people about what happened. Maybe someday, if I thought it would help someone else. But now, I’m happy with where I am. And who I am. Because I can grant myself the acceptance that I thought no one else would. Maybe it took a while. And I’m glad, for Grayson, that maybe it won’t take him as long to realize that he’s not… weird. And I hope, from his story, that we learn, not to write policies, but to just make it a little easier for those around us to be who they are. A little goes a long way. And if we let them be who they are, we’ll teach them to let us be who we are. And maybe it won’t take any of us so long to be happy with who we are and where we are.

And to my friend, I want to say for the record, that if I ever thought you were an out-of-left-field, opinionated, loud, makes-your-eyes-roll pain in the ass, I’m sorry. Whatever made me think that doesn’t matter to me anymore. What matters is the compassion you’ve shown for someone else. That it came at a time when I was having my own personal revelations about the importance of compassion and understanding was a psychic one-two punch to me. It’s made me see that there are good people in the world, and there probably always were, even when I thought no one would listen. It makes things better now, just to know that.

And I hope that makes you happy with who you are.

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