Confessions of a Bullied 'Cubanito'

2012-04-18-bullying.JPGI was an 11-year-old Florida "Cubanito," and for almost five years I was bullied repeatedly. I was followed home from school. I was jeered and taunted. I was called a sissy and worse. I was pulled and pushed by bands of teens. I was afraid. I cried a lot. What was wrong with me? What had I done to provoke such treatment? My tormentors never explained. Although I didn't contemplate suicide, I suffered almost daily reminders of what I believed was my worthlessness. Then one day I got the courage to stand my ground.

The pain I felt as a frail child in Hialeah, Fla. came flooding back to me as I read about one of the latest modern-day American horror stories. Police say 15-year old Phoebe Price committed suicide after being taunted by classmates at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. Nine students are now being prosecuted for charges including statutory rape and civil rights violations. In the uproar over the suicide of Ms. Price and an 11-year-old boy allegedly bullied in nearby Springfield last year, the Massachusetts legislature decided to get tough. An anti-bullying law that appears to be near passage would require school staff to report suspected cases of bullying. The cases are far from isolated. Recently, reported that 14-year-old Kenneth J. Weishuhn, Jr. of Primghar, Iowa committed suicide after coming out as gay. Published reports say that allegedly he had been bullied for months and reportedly had received death threats. On March 16 Dharun Ravi, the roommate of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University freshman who also took his life, was found guilty of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. According to the New York Daily News, "The case made national headlines in 2010 when Ravi was accused of using a webcam to peer into the Rutgers dorm room he shared with Clementi and caught him kissing an older man." More recently, the critically acclaimed documentary Bully has touched a nerve. Its director, Lee Hirsch, writing on The Huffington Post, said, "Every year, the U.S. Dept. of Education estimates 13 million American kids are bullied. If you extrapolate that number, year after year, decade after decade, that means hundreds of millions of people."

I know. I was one of them. I have never told of my experience -- until now. I had blocked the memories. They hurt too much. How did it happen? Let me take you back. Although I was born in Miami, children whose parents were born in Cuba were referred to as "Cubanitos." Older Cubans used it as a term of endearment, but some Americans would use it derisively to refer to the kids of immigrants. At that time they weren't entirely welcomed in a new land. Starting in 1960 I noticed that my Catholic elementary school, Corpus Christi, was beginning to fill up with child refugees fleeing Castro's Cuba. Because I was born in Miami and spoke both English and Spanish fluently, I was often assigned to help the new Cuban kids adjust to their new surroundings. In 1965 my parents moved us north to Hialeah, Fla. They could no longer afford to keep my brother and me in an exspensive Catholic school. That's when the bullying began.

I was an asthmatic child and suffered from almost daily attacks. They were severe. My nights were spent wheezing and gasping for breath. A vaporizer would hum in the background. The smell of Vicks VapoRub filled my tiny bedroom. My mother, Angelina, prayed the rosary over me as I fell asleep. She tried to shield me by prohibiting me from playing with other kids. While my brother joined the Boy Scouts and participated in rowdy team sports, I was treated like a hothouse flower. "Stay inside," my mom would say. "If you get another attack we can't be rushing to the doctor's office every minute." Increasingly I turned to books. They became my best friends. I became a first-class nerd. I wore "old-man" glasses that were bottle-thick, and my eyes seemed to pop out from behind the lenses, like those of a goldfish. I was chubby, with chipmunk cheeks, and I wore ugly clothes. One day I rebelled and told my mom I wanted to be just like other kids. I ran out of the house and to the corner, where the neighborhood kids played softball.

"I want to play, " I announced as though I were delivering a pronouncement from Mount Olympus.

My brother, who was a year older, discouraged me. "Charlie, it's not a good idea," he whispered into my ear.

"I want to play, and nothing will stop me," I argued.

So they let me play. It was not a pretty picture. When I ran, I wheezed. I threw the ball awkwardly. My wrist would turn downward, and the ball would flop to the ground. Some of the other Cuban boys began to yell. "Look at him," they laughed. "He throws the ball like a pato." In Spanish "pato" means "duck." It didn't make much sense to me. It was only later that I learned that calling someone a pato was the same as calling him a sissy. "Pato, pato," they yelled, over and over. The yelling reached a crescendo. It was my first taste of the shame and humiliation that were to be part of my life for years to come. I cried all the way home. My mom tried to comfort me, and my macho father sternly shook his head. "Boys will be boys," he said. "You can't act like you're afraid of them. Angelina, it's your fault for keeping him tied so close to you. Look what you've turned him into." I tried to understand what he meant, but through my tears I wasn't understanding. I couldn't connect the dots.

We never used the word "bully" then. There was little sense of outrage from parents when a kid was bullied. Teachers looked the other way. I sought refuge in my beloved books and writing long, make-believe stories. By the time I finished sixth grade I had written a 150-page Hardy-Boys-type private detective novel about buried treasure. That won me praise from my English teacher and even my principal, but the bullying didn't stop. By now it had spread to the American boys. "There's the sissy who can't throw a ball," they jeered. I would try to ignore them. The girls would try to be sympathetic. "Don't listen to those morons," Susan Bracewell, a pretty girl with long, brown hair would say to me. The boys would just laugh. In gym class I was a disaster. When it came time to climb a rope, I could only hold on at the bottom, unable to move up even an inch. "Try, Gomez," the male gym teacher would say. "Use your legs, for God's sake." Still I couldn't move. When it came time for the 600-yard run, I ran as fast as I could. Then I would crumble in an extended asthma attack. "Poor Gomez," the boys would jeer. "Don't cry now, baby." I was always the kid picked last for the teams. I became withdrawn.

In junior high the teasing continued. "Am I a sissy?" I wondered. I had some friends who were effeminate. In an attempt to fit in, I joined Speech Class, hoping that if I learned to speak in a lower register, I would be able to gain the respect of the swaggering boys who made me feel inferior. Every day was a test. Could I get home without being followed? Could I make it home without hearing them yell, "Charlieee! Sisssy!" Would they try to push me? Could I run away?

In the last year of junior high school, I poured myself into my studies and joined the Special Education Service Club. We helped kids with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other afflictions get to class comfortably. We pushed their wheelchairs, pretending they were race cars. The special-needs students would laugh long and loud. We tried to make them feel like everyone else. One day, some of the jocks began to make fun of one of the students with Down syndrome. He began to grunt and flip his wrists, mocking them. I felt a rage building inside me. In a crowded hallway between classes, I found my voice. "You guys think you're so tough," I said. "But anyone who would make fun of these special kids has a big problem. Why don't you pick on each other instead of making other people's lives miserable? You guys should be ashamed of yourselves." You could hear a pin drop. I thought I might have seen the faint sign of some grudging respect from one of the bullies.

In the months that followed I noticed a subtle change in the way I was treated. The taunts came less frequently now, and my confidence began to grow. A hip English teacher who had once worked as a Playboy bunny tried to talk me into running for student council president. Her name was Miss Host, and she wore her light-brown hair in a flip like Patty Duke. I told her I thought I was too much of a nerd. "You're not a nerd," she said triumphantly. "You're cool. From now on, you're no longer Charles. That's too stuffy. How about Chaz? No, from now on, you're Chuck." I hated the name at first, but soon I became used to it. I started giving speeches and letting my fellow students know how I would improve school activities. I was like Kurt Hummel (played by Chris Colfer) on the television show Glee, a gay, bullied character who runs for class president. My posters featured Snoopy, the pet dog of Charlie Brown in the Peanuts comics, and they read, "Go Go With Chuck." I won the election, and the following day, the headline in the student paper, Hialeah Hi-Lites, read, "'Go Go With Chuck' Was The Winning Slogan, And The Student Body Went!" I was still a big nerd with curly hair and big glasses, but now I was student council president. I slowly won the respect of the bullies who had once teased me. But it wasn't because I was president; it was because I'd stood up to one of them in a crowded hallway.

Today's bullying is much more severe, and what worked for me so many years ago might not be effective today. Kids can be meaner now, and the Internet has made bullies much bolder. One click of a mouse and a kid's reputation can be destroyed. The bullies' taunts can be more frightening, and the fallout can be deadly. All it takes is one word to spark a teen suicde. I believe there must be frequent, principal-led parent-teacher meetings where the subject is addressed. Bullies must be identified and not just be punished but educated. Bullying must never be an option. Teens need to know that there are people out there ready to support them. And at home parents must be ever-vigilant and question their children. They must not ignore signs of isolation and depression. There are no quick answers for the bullying epidemic, which now seems so alarmingly widespread. As Bully director Lee Hirsch wrote in his Huffington Post piece, "Here's what I do know: that in every corner of this country, children, teachers, coaches, parents, athletes, and musicians are now standing up, and standing together. Tony Scott from The New York Times has said that the film documents the emergence of a movement and a 'shift in consciousness of the kind that occurs when isolated, oppressed individuals discover that they are not alone.'" Tony Scott and Lee Hirsch are right. I know. I was once one of the bullied.