The Two Life Lessons I Learned From My High School Bullies
In high school I was bullied. Since then, I have learned two powerful and important life lessons:
1. Never let a bully stop you from following your dreams.
2. Have compassion for bullies — They are probably struggling with something too.
I didn’t learn those lessons in high school, but rather 10 years later, at a Gay Pride parade where I ran into two boys who not only bullied me, but delivered a locker room attack so vicious, that I can still feel it in my bones on really cold days.
When I was in elementary school I was an overweight, awkward kid. Luckily, the summer before Grade 9 I hit my teenage growth spurt that stretched my frame. I also started working for my father’s janitorial company and mopping the floors of those gigantic big box stores left me with a stronger upper body than most other boys at my school had. My physique had totally changed and that year my mind did too.
The Summer and Winter Olympics of 1988 inspired me to become more involved in sports. Watching Elizabeth Manley win silver for Canada in Figure Skating and seeing Greg Louganis not quit and win gold even after hitting his head on the diving board. I was so inspired.
That fall when I started ninth grade, I tried out for almost every sport and found immediate success. To my surprise I was really good at basketball, a game I had never played before. The coach was so impressed with my skills he got me involved with the wrestling team where I went undefeated that year. At the baseball tryouts in the spring, I hit 4 home-runs and had the strongest arm out of anyone including the older boys. I was all set to be the first freshman to actually start on the team and then, I wasn’t.
Back then I didn’t really understand the word “fag” but I knew “being one”, whatever that meant, was something that was not cool. This lesson came courtesy of one of my heroes; actor Michael J Fox. He was in a popular TV show Teen Wolf and there was a one particular scene that has always stuck with me. In the movie his character Scott is trying to tell his best friend Stiles that he is a werewolf.
Scott Howard: Styles, I got something to tell you. It’s kind of hard, but…
Stiles: Look, are you gonna tell me you’re a fag because if you’re gonna tell me you’re a fag, I don’t think I can handle it.
Scott Howard: I’m not a fag. I’m… a werewolf.
I didn’t really understand what gay or a fag was, but I did know that I was different and just like Scott from Teen Wolf, it was hard to talk about it. But there was one person I could talk to. I developed a strong bond with one of the guys on my basketball and wrestling teams. It was easy to talk to him — we stayed up late talking on the phone and even made mixtapes for each other. (Looking back it was probably my first crush, but at the time I didn’t realize it.) One day in the locker room we were talking about the movie Back To The Future 3 which had just come to theatres and I asked him if he wanted to go see it with me.
This moment was overheard by some of the other guys on our team who didn’t like it. They started asking us if we were gay and though I laughed at first, it wasn’t a joke. The verbal assault continued with boys shouting things like “We don’t want no faggots on the team.” The guy who I thought was my friend denied being gay and quickly added that I probably was — I had asked him to the movie after all.
That was enough to spark their rage and soon I found myself hanging from a hook in the locker room while several of my teammates took wet towels, wrapped them around their fists and delivered blow after blow, taking turns “beating the fag out of me” while my friend just watched.
Eventually I escaped and walked myself to the hospital in agony, sobbing and unable to breathe. I told the emergency room nurse that I fell down the stairs at school and was treated for my injuries and given a note excusing me from gym class. I was devastated and humiliated, but never spoke of it to my parents or to the school. I was afraid of what would happen if my friends and family discovered the reason I was beat up. I had learned that being a “fag” was worse than being a werewolf and was something not tolerated in locker rooms.
That year I quit all sports and didn’t tell anyone the real reason why. My coach tried for 4 years to get me to rejoin the basketball team — I had “so much potential” he said. That coach turned into one of the most successful university basketball coaches in Canada and I often wonder where I would be if I had kept playing; if my teammates could have accepted me for my talents instead of rejecting me for something that had nothing to do with the sport we all loved. I wish I could have kept playing and not let bullies take that away from me. Lesson #1.
Fast forward ten years to the Gay Pride parade; a place where people like me were welcomed and even celebrated for who they are. I was enjoying myself when I saw, marching in the crowd celebrating gay pride, two of the boys who had attacked me years ago for being gay. I was irate. How dare they be here?
Instead of blinding following my emotions, I ended up talking to them. We went for drinks and they told me how vividly they remember attacking me, that I wasn’t the only one they had attacked for being gay and how badly those memories haunt them. Remembering the pain they caused me was in large part, the reason they had gone to the parade. To support and stand up for all gay people and to make amends for who they had been in the past.
We talked well into the night, laughing, crying and dancing. It became a highlight of the parade that year for me and taught me Lesson #2. I learned to forgive them and to believe that people can change. Their pain of being the bully was different from my pain in being the victim, but we all felt a hurt and that night being together, we all healed our wounds just a little bit.
Matt is the Business Development Manager at Mazu and is a huge sports fanatic. He has worked on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games and over 24 World Cup/Championships. He now lives in Kelowna BC and in the summer is found kayaking on the many beautiful lakes in the Okanagan Valley.