As Seen in Huffington Post
I was always the second or third child from the left on the front row of class pictures in elementary school. I was never the shortest in my class, but always close. That means I had first-hand experience with bullies. My wife was raised by the worst kind of bully until she was fifteen. I’m talking about the kind of bully who abuses his own children. My beautiful little daughter, Annie, was bullied by her peers in her Russian orphanage. The children in that institution didn’t even call her by name, only “Kahsiah” (Cross Eyes).
More and more I read about bullies and how they steal the dignity from their victims. It angers me even more than it did when I was a child, when I was often forced to fight with someone bigger and stronger than me while taking a beating, so that next time he’d go and find an easier target.
These days, bullying is worse than it was when I was a kid. Bullies now have tools my generation never imagined. They wield unprecedented power as their thumbs blaze across screens torturing their victims one electronic letter and picture at a time. Bullies destroy lives and they need to be stopped. I say that, and not without hope. You see, I have found an oasis that is all but free from bullying.
Kamas, Utah, still has bullies. In fact, I just finished with a financial bully in a court battle that lasted almost a decade before the judge sent him packing. The bullies in Kamas, though, are either too young to know better, or they are adults. And the adult bullies are few and far between. The bully-free oasis that I have found was in the least likely place; in the local high school. South Summit High School has about four hundred students. Granted, it’s a small school in a small town. But it is no different from the small town where I was bullied as a child.
I was worried as I brought two teenaged daughters with special needs home from Russia. They had no training for social behavior and their actions, when they first arrived home, were more like 12-year-old delinquent boys than 14 and 15-year-old high school girls. I didn’t know if my daughters would ever fit in. But the kids at South Summit High had compassion for those girls who had been through hell. They took them under their wings. They protected them, taught them, and included them. They forgave my daughters for embarrassing them and for mistreating them when they had done nothing but try to help. Eventually my daughters learned. They progressed. They did everything they could to become the kind of people that their peers always acted like they already were.
Annie has a low IQ and several other disorders, but she is included at school and in after school activities. In fact, the girls’ volleyball team made her the team manager! Two years ago, one of the Senior boys at South Summit called up my wife and made arrangements to ask Annie to her prom. Spencer could have chosen from a long list of girls who would have been giddy to go to the prom with him. But Spencer had a bigger idea. He cut out and assembled construction paper butterflies then put a number on the front and a word on the back of each butterfly. Then he arranged for a time when Annie was gone and he taped them up all over her room. With the words and numbers, Spencer had made a puzzle that Annie could do herself. She was so excited to go to the prom. The surprise wasn’t over. The night of the prom Annie was announced as first attendant. I cried as I watched. Here was a girl that only a few years before had wanted nothing more than a family, and people to stop making fun of her crossed eye. (The eye was surgically repaired soon after she got home.) I watched a junior class turn a tormented little orphan girl into a prom princess. Nothing could have built up my daughter’s self-esteem more.
I also have a son with Down syndrome who just turned 18. As this year’s prom approached, a beautiful girl asked Jack to go with her. One of her friends asked Autumn, another Junior girl at the school with Down syndrome. Zach and Courtnee took Autumn and Jack out for the time of their lives. They went bowling and to lunch and then everybody went home and put on their formals. My wife served an extraordinary prime rib dinner in our formal dining room and then everybody went to the prom.
Now I’ll tell you what you already know. Jack and Autumn were voted in as Junior Prom King and Queen. Courtnee brought Jack home at about 11:30 p.m. and said that after a full day of so much excitement, he was just worn out. He finally sat down on the dance floor and told his friend, Courtnee, “I’m really tired. I think I need to go home and put on my red pajamas.” Jack thanked Courtnee, gave her a hug, and went upstairs to get ready for bed. Then Courtnee thanked my wife and me for the honor of taking Jack to his prom. Can you believe that? She thanked us.
What is amazing about the youth at South Summit High School is not that they vote their special needs friends in as Prom Kings and Queens. What is amazing is how they treat people every day. It’s not just kids with special needs. It’s the shy girl, or the awkward boy. They are included. They are respected. They are accepted for who they are. The youth in our community treat people the way they would want to be treated. The environment that they have created came in a manner that will surprise you.
There are no witch hunts for bullies at South Summit High. No one screams for their rights and the rights of others. The youth in our community are not easily offended nor are they looking to destroy anyone who fosters injustice. They don’t try to stop bullying by bullying bullies. The friends of my children simply treat people the way they want to be treated. That isn’t to say there’s never a shadow of darkness or that no one has ever been mean. But a student from South Summit who Facebooks out a message degrading a less popular person is far more likely to receive responses like; “Dude, don’t send me crap like this. You know I hate it.” Or, “Get a life and quit worrying about someone else’s,” than they are to get a “like” or a “share.”
What I have learned from my young friends at South Summit High School is that they already have the answers. As adults, we don’t need to lead them or teach them. These teens are a great generation. We don’t need to coerce or instruct them. We simply need to encourage and empower the good ones, who already know what to do. As these youth see the success of their efforts and they extend to further improve the lives of others, they will even surprise themselves. And oh, how they will change the world! The good ones among the youth of today are the best that this world has ever seen. And I, for one, am anxious to follow their lead.
More blog articles by John M. Simmons about Down Syndrome/Intellectual Disabilities.