"Have a good day at school."
Such an innocent, innocuous phrase, yet last year when I said that to my son, Akian, when the school bus arrived in the morning, it sent him into a spiraling panic. I would later learn that his pained reaction was merely the exposed wick of the candle -- a manifestation of a greater crisis whose origins were, until I sent him to school with an audio recorder in his pocket, buried beneath the surface and invisible to me.
It all started when Akian returned to school in September of 2011. My son, who had always been a gentle and loving child, began lashing out and hitting his teacher and aide. I was in disbelief and alarmed, for this wasn't just abnormal behavior, it was unprecedented in his ten years of life. As the weeks passed and the behavior continued unabated, I slipped into depression. Whatever was causing my son to act violently was changing him, warping his very being, and I watched as the great light in my son's eyes flickered and faded. I desperately tried to find answers for my son's sudden and dramatic change of behavior, but none were forthcoming.
Akian has Autism and has limited verbal communication skills, meaning he couldn't tell me what was happening and why. We had multiple meetings with the school yet from his teacher and staff came nothing but red herring explanations, such as Akian was getting older, or his hormones were kicking in. I didn't believe any of it. The final piece of the puzzle was when a behaviorist tried to aggravate Akian to see if he could recreate a violent incident, yet my son did not hit anyone. I knew then that there had to be something going on inside his classroom, something hidden, that was the causing my son to lash out. I needed to find out what it was, and the only way I could peer into that room was to put an audio recorder into his pocket. It was an act of desperation, but I did it because I literally felt my son's life was at stake.
As heart-broken and despondent as I was in the months leading up to February 17, 2012, it was but a soft wind compared to the typhoon that would hit me when I touched the play button on the recorder. You can hear some of what I heard in this video that I uploaded to YouTube.
I say "some of what I heard" for a mistake people make is they think that the audio clips in that video represent everything that happened that day. They do not. They are just a fraction of the total ordeal and misery. Even combined with the additional audio I uploaded to my website, the public has only heard part of what that day was like. Literally from the minute Akian walked off the bus until he left the room at the end of the day, there was a seemingly endless stream of inappropriate and inexcusable conversations, and worst of all, cruel and vicious language that demeaned and dehumanized my son.
It is ironic that people tell me how calm and controlled I am in that video. They don't know what I was like when I first listened to that audio. There were times, especially after hearing my son cry in distress, that I would scream a father's rage of failing to be there to protect his child. After hearing one of the worst parts, I drove my fist into a wall again and again, barely feeling the pain as my hand bent off my wrist, my fingers more a blunt instrument than working digits.
There was so much on that audio that was so painful to listen to that it took me more than a week to go through all six-and-a-half hours. That's how bad it was. That's how bad it is, for the pain I feel for what happened to my son has subsided not at all. It is an open and bleeding wound, and even as I write these words I feel it, as if it was a jagged creature of considerable size crawling from my stomach to my throat.
Though to me the abuse my son received was universal in size and weight, in the days following the release of my video, as e-mails poured in by the thousands, I learned that we were but one star in the teeming night; so many people -- some students, some adults, some with special needs, many without -- wrote to me with stories of how they were bullied and abused in school. It was overwhelming; one story after the other of innocence crushed and lives sent down a darker, more difficult path. Each one of them, even those in the senior years of their lives, could vividly remember the insults and physical abuse that battered them when they were children. That is how sharp and enduring their pain was. In an unexpected and unplanned way, the video I released shattered the glass wall of an issue that had been hiding in plain sight and revealed this dark truth: Bullying destroys lives.
The stories of personal pain and suffering I received may have been unique, but they all had one thing in common; the victim felt alone and helpless. To suffer, then to suffer in silence, compounds the originating injury and wraps it in steel, making it ever more difficult to cure and heal.
People wrote to me because they felt so terribly alone. They just needed someone, anyone, even a stranger on a video screen, to hear their story. They needed validation and vindication and someone who understood their pain.
If some good is to come from what happened to my son, I pray that it is that the wronged and the mistreated know that they -- that you -- are not alone. We are a community of the abused and though we may never meet, we are united by love and bound by honor.
Bullying is a weapon of mass destruction because it not only affects the intended victim, but those who love him or her. It is an expanding injury that can shake a person for decades, if not being a life long malady. We may never be able to stop it, for I fear there will always be those who prey on others, but we can disarm and dismantle it by standing together. Be the one who defends the ill-treated, so when a child or fellow student is targeted, they remember the hand that lifted them up more than the one that struck them down. That is how we fight. That is how we win.
For my part, I will continue to speak out and advocate, not just for my son, but for all those who have been hurt, for the price paid in life and soul by the bullied is too costly to go unopposed. And if you are one of the wounded, and have no one to hear your story, consider me a willing listener.
I am often asked how my son is doing now. I say that he is better, but that does not mean that there are no emotional scars nor effects that linger on. No one can go through that and not carry the abuse with them. It may be years before he is fully able to talk about what happened and to deal with it.
I can share this with you: A few months after I removed him from that classroom, I ventured to speak to Akian as the morning school bus arrived. I quietly said "Have a good day at school."
And my son was fine and happy.
Chaifetz can be reached at Akian5@comcast.net or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/NoMoreTeacherBullies