As I ponder the sordid news coming over the Interwebs today about the presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney being a high school bully, I tried to discern why my stomach turned so much and why a feeling of such disgust swept over me … even more than might be the case for an ordinarily compassionate human being.
As you may have heard, Romney led fellow hoodlum classmates to pin down and forcibly cut the hair of an effeminate classmate with long hair. “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” is what one of the perpetrators remembers Romney saying. And Romney is said to have often shouted out “Atta girl!” when another effeminate classmate tried to speak up in English class.
And then it occurred to me. Something happened in my life, when I was just a skinny kid in high school, way back in the early 1980s, which I’ve not talked about a lot and sort of squirreled away deep in my memory banks. Only a few people closest to me have ever heard this.
The bus ride between Yucca Valley High School and my home in Landers, deep in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, was about 50 minutes long. Grueling in the hot months of spring and early summer. I must have been in the 10th grade or so.
There was a girl, a couple of years younger than I, who was mentally and physically disabled. On the way home from school, she always got off the bus one stop before my sister and me. This girl walked with a severe limp, had slurred speech, did not look like other girls, and always carried backpack heavily laden with books and schoolwork.
For several months in a row that school year, a handful of other kids on the bus would verbally, and occasionally physically (shoving) abuse this girl, nearly every day on the bus ride to and from school. It was worst when she first boarded the bus in the morning or left the bus in the afternoon. They’d call her names, make fun of her speech, block the empty seat next to them if she approached, sometimes shove her away – classic bullying.
The bus driver would yell at the bullies to stop, and the bullying would subside. But it would begin anew each day.
My anger toward this grew slowly inside me, day after day, week after week, month after month. I was younger, skinnier, and smaller than a fair number of other kids on the bus, and that was probably the main reason it never occurred to me to be brave enough to stand up for this girl.
But one hot day, toward the end of the school year, on the bus ride home, as the girl got up to leave the bus at her stop, and the insults started predictably flying her way, something in me just snapped. I happened to be sitting near the girl, toward the front of the bus that day. Without thinking logically, or really thinking at all, I stood straight up and turned around. At the top of my lungs, I shouted at the sneering, contorted faces so filled with immature hate, “Leave her alone! You call yourselves human? Well, there’s a word for people like you!”
Instant silence descended on the bus. The girl hobbled off. I sat right back down, bolt upright, and looked straight ahead, not daring to turn around. I was mortified. But also relieved in a completely spent sort of way … like a great burden had tumbled off my back.
My stop was next. As I made my way down the bus stairs to the dirt road that I’d follow home, the bus drive tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and looked up at her. I remember her nodding and telling me: “Somebody needed to say something.”
The next day, as we ragged desert kids boarded the school bus again, the lead bully – a dark-haired girl with beady eyes who kind of looked like a regularly developed version of the girl getting bullied – said loudly, so the whole bus could hear her, “I don’t care WHAT Steve Shultz says!”
I don’t think the bullying of this girl ended entirely after that; but I think it lessened considerably.
And now I learn of a Mormon man running for President of my country who, when he was in high school, was really was no better than those mean bullies on that desert school bus.
I believe that vicious treatment of another who is weaker than you speaks to the worst kind of character flaw; one that someone needs to work very, very hard to rectify. And I think that Mr. Romney has a bit more work to do in that area.
Steven Shultz is a public relations and social media professional who lives in North Park and enjoys writing; riding his moped, scooter, motorcyle or electric bike; travelling; and exploring the city. His usual writing includes a technology and sustainability column on Tea With Lemon.