When I was 11 years old, I was a bully. Along with several other knuckleheads in our middle-class Edison, NJ neighborhood, I picked on a kid named Billy. He was a year or so older and was mentally challenged with special needs.
I remember doing mean things to him, like calling him names and chasing him. He had a younger sister, who was also mentally challenged with special needs. Billy and his family only lived in the neighborhood for a year or two. One day, his family was gone, they moved away and no one ever saw or heard from them again.
Fast forward 50 years later, and I still think about Billy and his sister. Over the years, in my role as a journalist, I have read and written stories about young boys and girls being bullied and assaulted by classmates–to the point where they contemplate or commit suicide. For example, a recent case of a 14-year-old girl named Adriana Kuch in Bayville, NJ, committed suicide after four female classmates brutally attacked and beat her in the hallway at Central Regional High School. The girls videotaped and posted the brutal assault online. A few days later, she killed herself.
And then there was the case in November 2022, when 10-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor in Utah killed herself. Classmates repeatedly bullied her due to her race (she was African American) and was disabled. Her parents filed a $14 million lawsuit against the Foxboro School District in Utah, alleging school officials did nothing to prevent the bullying that led to her suicide.
According to the National Council for Mental WellBeing, student mental health is the number 1 concern for school administrators across the country. Additionally, the country continues to grapple with a youth mental health crisis—with suicide the third-leading cause of death for people between 15-19 years old—social media influence and bullying are listed as the critical reasons for suicide among teens. It’s a disturbing and sobering statistic.
In grade school, I vividly remember a classmate named John, who suffered a severe speech impediment—he stuttered. I recall when the teacher would call on him to read something aloud in front of the class; he would struggle to read a paragraph. I also remember some of our classmates snickering and making hateful comments about him afterward. During the 5th and 6th grade, he was one of my friends.
In 2015 and out of the blue, I received a FB message from John. In part, he wrote, “Glenn, you may not remember me, but in elementary school, I used to stutter and some of our classmates laughed and made fun of me. You never did, and I always remember how kind you were to me in school. I hope life has been good to you.” Sadly, John passed away in June 2017. He was 56. I have reread the message countless times over the years and it continues to bring tears to my eyes. Contrarily, I also remember how I was one of the kids that bullied and picked on Billy.
I often wonder about whatever happened to Billy and his sister. I think about how if I saw them today, I’d tell them how sorry I am for what I said and did back then. I’d ask for their forgiveness for my disgraceful behavior. I’d also tell them that I had endured my share of bullying and mistreatment over the decades–both personally and professionally. And while I can’t change the past, I’d tell them it really is true—“What goes around, comes around and Karma really is a b**ch!” I know!