It’s an impossible age, but one we all deserve to live through.
Do you remember being 13?
I remember some of my girlfriends liked to tease me.
I remember them running up to ask older, more popular boys to dance on my behalf, and then gleefully returning with the “no”.
I remember them undoing my bra in the midst of a choir concert, when we had big spotlights trained on us and more songs to do.
I remember them telling me my post-haircut head looked “like a mushroom”.
I remember them calling me when I was sick at home to tell me our journalism teacher had removed me as editor of the newspaper because I had too many absences. My mother called him explain my health stuff… and he was perplexed as to why she was getting in touch, as he’d done no such thing.
I didn’t like it, but they did it to one another to some extent, too, so I wasn’t truly singled out for embarrassment; everyone got to feel terrible in their own time. I also had friends who didn’t do those sorts of things, which made life easier.
All things considered, I had a very easy 13… even when it didn’t feel that way.
And he didn’t live through it.
The pain his parents are experiencing now is beyond my comprehension, just as what Danny was going through is beyond my comprehension. Despair can be a quiet, sinister, creeping, consuming thing… when it’s not an unstoppable freight train.
I worked with kids Danny’s age for years, and it’s a fascinating, scary time in the development of a human being. They’re changing in ways they don’t even understand, and coping with those changes in unique ways. Every kid is different, even as they share certain milestones.
But if your different is different enough, it turns you into a flashing red light.
I had dozens of camp counselors come to me with stories about kids being teased, kids being left behind, friends turning on friends, and strangers turning on strangers. What could they do?
I would offer a variety of strategies and suggestions in response, but their sense of helplessness was the toughest thing to overcome. They would tell me they could force kids to stop doing things to one another, but they couldn’t change how they felt. They could make them include one another, but they couldn’t make them accept one another. Not if they were determined not to. Not if they got to 13 believing it was their right to reject people that way. Not if it was ten versus one.
Yes, I’d say. But you still have to try.
I hear all sorts of responses to bullying from adults these days.
“You need a thick skin out in the world! How are you going to make it as an adult if you can’t deal with high school?”
“Kids will be kids.”
“I don’t know how you stop them from doing it — they don’t do it when we’re looking.”
“Well, that kid is weird. I don’t blame them for being put off.”
“It’s not my kid’s job to get in the line of fire for some other kid who isn’t well-liked. They don’t need to ruin their high school experience to defend a nerd.”
“There’s nothing we can do. It happened when I was in high school, it happens now.”
“With the internet and social networks, you really can’t stop them from hurting one another.”
But there’s one really effective way to help stem the tide of bullying.
Don’t raise one.
Don’t tie your child’s value to being “better” than other kids.
Don’t tie your child’s value to the power they hold in social situations.
Don’t tie your child’s value to how beautiful or not beautiful, or athletic or not athletic, or “normal” or not normal, or smart or not smart… the list goes on.
Don’t let them speak about other children in cruel ways, whether face to face, or behind their back.
Don’t let them treat other children cruelly.
What’s more — and here’s a big one — don’t let your children speak to you or to one another in ways you’d be uncomfortable hearing them speak to someone outside your home. Because they will speak that way to others, if that’s how they speak to the people they love most.
And speaking of the people they love the most?
Don’t be a bully.
How do you respond to people you don’t know, or understand, or like?
How do you share the ideas and values and goals and dreams that matter most to you — and how do you react to different ideas, values, goals, and dreams in others?
The schoolyard is where many of us develop our approach to the world around us, but it can’t be the point at which we stop growing.
Be who you want your child to be before you ask anything of them.
And if you can’t get there because you’re still healing from your own 13, or you’re still carrying the 13 you inflicted on someone else, do what you need to do to make things right, inside and out. You owe it to yourself, you owe it to your kids, and you owe it to all the lives they will touch as they grow.
Danny Fitzpatrick had his whole life in the making, but we’ll never know what he could have been and done and become. Decades of potential and achievement and experiences were waiting for him, and now they exist only in shadow.
But there are Dannys in your child’s class, on their sports teams, in their clubs, on the next bunk over at camp, in the school bus that drives by your home.
Maybe even in your home.
And for them, it’s not too late.
Do you remember being 13?
It’s our job to make sure everyone else sticks around to remember it, too.