Today is a very special day -- a child's birthday is always special. Eagerly anticipated, impossible to overlook. Usually it's accompanied by happy thoughts, celebrations, balloons and ice cream.
It's supposed to be a time of joy...but that's not possible when the child whose birthday it is cannot celebrate. Christian Taylor would be 17 today, but he took his own life last May, the final straw after a long bout with bullying.
In the last several weeks, I've had the chance to get to know his mother, Lisa Williams. Our connection came as a result of a post I wrote last June in which I mentioned him and several other victims. I was literally on my way to the airport for my recent trip to Washington DC when Lisa called our office...and I picked up. I spent the next 40 minutes or so talking to her as I drove to the airport. When she heard of my efforts to meet with Kevin Jennings while in DC, she even offered to help connect us because she had received a personal call from Secretary Jennings just the week before. Unfortunately, all our efforts to get that meeting scheduled were wasted; to this day, there's been no response to multiple phone calls, faxes and mail from Mr. Jennings' office. (ironically, Mr. Jennings was in the KEX Radio studio Monday, just two days before my live interview yesterday...talking about bullying and the increased emphasis on the problem by the federal government).
As I sit and write this, I realize how long I've been talking about bullycide and the tragic aftermath it leaves. As I shared in a speech I gave in Portland, OR yesterday, we've had over 29 documented cases of suicides due to bullying just in the last 6 weeks alone. And, note those are only the documented cases, so the actual number is likely higher.
I wonder, what would Christian's birthday have been like were he still here? An avid skateboarder, no doubt he would have spent time riding his board, doing tricks. Perhaps there would have been a family celebration -- maybe a dinner, maybe Lisa would have served some of his favorite foods. Maybe mom would have let him skip class, for a "special occasion" or maybe there would have been a cake. While the living Christian may have been too old for balloons, there'll be plenty of balloons tomorrow released in his memory. I wish I could be there to celebrate his life, perhaps lend some comfort to his mother and the rest of his family, learn more about this young man I never met in life, but am becoming so familiar with in death.
It's natural to think of Christian as the victim in this case, and make no mistake, he certainly is. But, as I've written before, the "immediate target" isn't the only victim. That's one thing I've come to see very directly and very clearly. Christian had an entire family who has had to spend the last five months coming to terms with his unnatural death. And they've had to deal with the aftermath: pain, suffering, trying to come to terms with what happened and why, and the consequences of the bullying -- personally as well as through the legal system.
The entire family must go through the process -- not just the grieving, but the fallout from what happens now because of one or more individuals who thought their rights and needs were more important and pressing than the right and needs of another. Whether the bully "meant it" or not, the end result is this: one life is over before it even really began, and entire communities are impacted, suffering, and dealing with this needless, tragic event.
Most of us don't think about the "collateral damage" when we hear of bullying or bullycide. But we should. Last week, I received this note from Christian's brother William about what he is going through because of this tragedy. I've edited it just minimally to show quotes where they belong, but the rawness of his statements speak volumes:
My feeling are when I get up for school now I hope to see his face,but don't. I dream alot about me and him boarding on the rail and skatebox out back the house. I really wish he [the bully] could feel the pain we are going through; then he would go back and say "Dang, now I know how much that hurts." I think if bullies were able to experience how much hurt my family is feeling they would think for a minute, "God, I really hurt them."
I also sometimes see Chris when I close my eyes saying, "I'm sorry man" and "I love you, bro" and at that point I just want to sit in a corner and cry until I fall asleep.
I really hate experiencing this death and I would like to express my feelings to him (the bully) and see how he reacts to my natural pain and anger.
Rest in Peace Christian William Michael Taylor
Love, Your lil brother 4ever,
For my own "wish" I would say, "Christian, you may be gone, but you are not forgotten." His death, along with so many others I've come to learn and know about are the reason I -- and many others -- fight this fight. Because this death not only didn't need to happen, it shouldn't have. We must make keeping our kids safe and secure a priority -- it's more important than making sure we equip our schools with computers and fancy technology. None of the nearly $5B of Race to the Top money went to school safety or bullying prevention. Nothing went to addressing children's social skills, character and values or giving teachers a better way to manage discipline and behavior problems.
Perhaps, if, as Ellen de Generes called for in one of her shows last Spring, we focused on teaching empathy, compassion, kindness and respect in schools as part of what else kids are learning, we might not have such an epidemic. We may not be mourning 29 deaths this Fall alone. Maybe that's the wish we should all make on this, Christian's 17th birthday so that kids won't miss their next birthday because of a bully.