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John Boston: On dirt clods and an Acton bullet

How Beige Was My Valley

Posted: December 6, 2008 9:13 p.m.
Updated: December 7, 2008 4:59 a.m.
 
"The world is dying from a lack of love."
- Barbara Mary Muhl

Bullies form us. It ought not to be so. It is.

In a seeming universe away this week, 10 gunmen inflicted their sick will on the ancient jewel once known as Bombay. At last count, 171 were murdered in Mumbai, India, some 300 more injured.

At home, our outlying friends in Acton are famous for nearly becoming the state capital. Today, the sleepy horse community is remembered as that place where 14-year-old Jeremiah Lasater was driven to suicide in late October by that which should be a comforting, consoling word: classmates.

In a familiar and after-the-fact dark comic opera, the community summoned grief counselors, lit candles and scribbled poster boards to show support for a child driven to blow his brains out in a school lavatory.

We are all haunted by predators or by people who did not stop.

As a young man in my 20s, I was a force of nature, strong, agile and quick-witted. Driving to my girlfriend's Cross Street house one afternoon, I slowed down.

A school bus idled by the side of the road. Kids spilled out, dashing in all directions. A common drama centuries old unfolded.

On a warm autumn afternoon, a small mob of bullies was chasing a bookish boy. His shoulders were rounded in humiliation and helplessness as the bigger kids pummeled him with rocks and dirt clods.

They slapped off his glasses and knocked the homework from clenched hands. They screamed names and curses at him as he tried to find that impossible speed to avoid the ugliness of youth.

Too slow and you get hit with more rocks. Too fast and, like elementary school predators, their blood boils from the chase.

I sensed he had lived through this outrage many times.

I'll never know this kid's name. I call him X Boy. Of all the sins I've committed, this one was my absolute best, one I still carry 30 years later.

You see, I didn't stop.

I didn't get out of the truck. I didn't march over and admonish the bullies. I did not yell: "Leave him alone! Get away from him; you know better than that!"

At that moment, I was an indifferent Superman. I didn't save him. Could have. Didn't. I watched, frozen, as the gang marched beside the boy, stoning a stranger's child.

And then I drove off, knowing, at the time, I had sinned.

Through pets, marriages, jobs and car models, the Boy named X stayed with me.

Who, up in Acton, didn't stop for Jeremiah Lasater?

At 6 feet, 6 inches and 300 pounds, Jeremiah was a big kid. In a kinder world - no, a kinder Acton - being big and handicapped should have rightfully been his own damn business.

Michael Daly was a special education teacher at High Desert, the junior high Jeremiah attended. His teacher recalled the boy was tormented daily.

How impossibly hopeless, those two words?

Tormented.

Daily.

Since elementary school, children stole money from him. Jeremiah was pushed, poked, prodded, called names.

Every.

Day.

How do you find the strength to get out of bed?

Here in Santa Clarita, the concept of someone stepping in to stop the killers of Mumbai is elephantine. It doesn't matter whether they were born in Pakistan or England.

Who, years ago, failed to grab the future bullies by the biceps, shake them not with anger, but passion, look them in the eye and demand: "You will rise above your culture, your parents, your environment. You will become the best parts of the Koran. You transcend the meanness that passes over you because you are a blessing, not a bully?"

But in Acton?

What alleged adult stepped forward, not caring about political correctness, what the neighbors or PTA would think or whether they'd be sued or were endangering their very job to make it perfectly clear that no matter what was on MTV or the latest video game, that they would look into the bottom of your soul and make it perfectly clear that bullying would not be tolerated?

That's the thing.

Bullying is very much a possibility.

There are memos. There's policy. There are speeches and sorry after-the-fact newspaper commentaries.

There is even guilt, useless as that is.

What is lacking is intestinal fortitude at an individual and community level. Guts. Strength of character.

For a variety of reasons - television, political correctness, spiritual cowardliness, a not-so-much liberal but libertine and immature society fixated on self-pleasure and whining for rights vs. their ethical obligation, our societal malaise of not knowing what it is to be an actual grown-up man or woman, cripes, pick one - we have an ancient problem of dealing with bullies.

For one thing, bullies are so formidable. They're big. Or they're mobs. Or they're that ephemeral, Dracula-like public prejudice that whispers: "It's okay to be smug and self-righteous. You're better than they are.

They deserve it. It's your right to scold, push, dominate, hit, nag, complain, be sarcastic."

Damn sarcasm all the way down to hell.

Funny is one thing.

Sarcasm can tear the flesh off the gentle. It hardens those who survive it, making them prisoners in their own bodies, never able to come out and truly be whom they are. What a waste of life. To never blossom.

What a waste of life, to be forced by faces too young to be snarling and accusing and left with the seemingly only option of aiming a pistol to your own precious head. The last thing you see on Earth is the
boys' bathroom.

Jeremiah had some developmental issues, which means he should have been loved a lot more than he was tortured. He was in fights frequently. Finally, the boy grew tired of living in Acton's version of the Serengeti.

Don't kid yourself.

Mumbai. Acton. What's the difference? A body count? Hart, Canyon - pick a school - each has its own plains of prey and predator.

Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District Superintendent Stan Halperin issued this statement about bullying after the on-campus suicide: "We have a zero-tolerance policy."

I mean the following with all due and sincere respect:

No.

You don't.

You don't - we don't - have a zero-tolerance policy. We have a bumper sticker. And a second-hand Band-aid.

This has nothing to do with Mr. Halperin or all the other good teachers and administrators in Acton, Santa Clarita, California or Pakistan who take delivery of the confused, sometimes arrogant, hormone-driven, often-damaged youth who are fed a constant and rancid diet of bad environment and churlish manners by their parents.

For us, it is cultural.

Bullying is a slime, oozing into offices, homes, the local hamburger joint and airwaves. It's in our off-handed remarks, bad manners and loud voices.

Sometimes, in daily lower-case re-enactments of "Lord of the Flies," we're not around and our children wallow in a self-inflicted purgatory.

As alleged stewards, some of us sheepishly shrug at our seeming helplessness. We lazily invite into our children's heart violence, hatred and not sex, but orgy.

That quote at the beginning of this Sunday story - "The world is dying from a lack of love." - was written by philosopher, opera singer, author and my ex-mother-in-law, Barbara Muhl.

I remember when she said it. Her eyes welled up in tears because she could feel the unweighable tonnage of what fills the vacuum of a world without love.

It's an ugliness without bottom.

"The message I want to send," Mr. Daly commented after Jeremiah's suicide, "is if we practiced kindness, if the students practiced kindness, we wouldn't have had this happen."

I agree, in part.

But also missing from this formula for raising our children, for raising ourselves, is strength.

No. Better: Cajones.

You see, we can get an A-plus in kindness right up to the instant we're plucking flowers and humming while
the terrorist/bully/saber tooth tiger is climbing up the front of our shirt, leaving, at best, muddy paw prints and a recollection of bad breath.

Thirty years later, I root for someone I only saw through a windshield along the side of a Newhall road. I pray Boy X survived and prospered. There is a curious phenomenon about sin. You can forgive yourself.

Even completely.

Still. You never forget. I just recently made the painfully obvious connection. Boy X? He was me. I too had stumbled through early years filled with being chased, and worst, captured by bullies. I lived through beatings, living frequently alone in cars, bathtubs and basements, and an infrequent and insane mother who, an inch away from my face, snarled at not strangling me in the cradle. Bless her heart; as a girl, she, too, had been abused.

With all the problems my childhood held, I sense in no way did it come close to the living Hermione Bosch painting that was the campus life of Jeremiah Lasater. But when I was in my teens, I faced a bully almost twice my size.

Every torment I endured surfaced. What followed was not a threat, but clarity. I put up my fists and assured him: "One of us will die here."

Luckily, he backed off. And I was reborn.

We need to be fierce.

Fierce. Today, that is a such dirty concept and that needs to change.

We desperately need to be fierce that we are not going to accept bullying in our lives. We won't accept it in
our relationships, in our homes, in our schools, in our neighborhood, in our stores, in our community.

Bullies being bullies, they can be terrifying and even life-threatening. Facing up to bullies is not something we do very well, and it doesn't mean getting into a fistfight with the insane road hog. We can jolly well be kind while we're being fierce. We need to join together to do the unthinkable - become a community, not a series of housing projects.

Jeremiah Lasater's too-short 14 years ended in tragedy and a cloud of shame over school and community.
Nothing I can do will change that ugliness in Acton.

My gauntlet of childhood? It has a happy ending.

You see, I made it.

Today, I'm a grown-up. Flawed, but not as painfully as I used to be. I am working on myself. And, in facing my bullies, I blossom. I am passionate.

Today, I stop. Today, I pull the truck over. I get out and I do march over to the bus to stop the mob of kids with dirt clods.

Tomorrow's Monday. School starts. Will you pull your truck over?

John Boston has earned 117 major national, state and regional awards for writing. His column appears Fridays and Sundays in The Mighty Signal.

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