When you're a schoolkid the world is divided into two camps. You are a bully or, as Jean Shepherd so adeptly put it, you are "one of the nameless rabble of victims." I was in the latter category. Drilling down a bit further, though, you find that the victims can be subdivided into those who are merely annoyed at being bullied and those who are terrified. Again, I was the latter.
I had two main bullies throughout my school career. In elementary school, his name was Stanley. On more than one occasion Stanley made me late for class as he chased me through the streets surrounding my school and refused to let me pass. I guess it didn't bother him at all that he was also making himself late. Then in junior high school, there was Allen. He liked to poke people with sharpened pencils. And hardly a day went by that he didn't remember to threaten me with some sort of violence.
There were other, minor bullies along the way. But these are the two I remember most, because they seemed to be perpetual. The others were transient, or less frightening. And in hindsight, I'm not sure I had good reason to be so terrorized by either of them because in all the years I was bullied by them, neither of them ever actually beat me up. They were simply amusing themselves at my expense.
Decades later, when we were all in our 30s or 40s, both of my schoolyard bullies apologized to me. One had become a born-again Christian and as such was verging on becoming even more annoying to me with his Jesus talk than he ever was in elementary school. The other became a firefighter. And he, Allen, once confessed to me that his decision to become a public servant and first responder was motivated by the guilt he felt for having been a bully in school. It was an act of contrition. It wasn't just me he bullied, although at the time it sure seemed like it. He related horror stories of how he may have actually ruined lives because of his actions as a kid.
His confession really meant a lot to me. Here is a man who felt pain himself for having brought pain to others and set out to make it right in a palpable way. He now unselfishly gives back to the community he once terrorized. And he has become a respected citizen.
This past week, the Washington Post broke a story about bullying. The story details former students of a prep school have come forward to reveal that presidential contender Mitt Romney was once a schoolyard buly, too. When confronted with this old news, Romney basically excused himself, implying that he was just a teenager pulling a prank. He then offered a half-hearted apology to those he might have hurt or offended. "Back in high school, I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that,” he said. Compare that conditional apology ("...if anybody was hurt by that or offended...") with the deeply-motivated act of contrition by my former bully, Allen.
Another difference is that Stanley and Allen were simply motivated to be bullies because it amused them. It was twisted and sad, but they apparently did not hate their victims. I actually believe if their victims had all been absent on the same day they would have been disappointed. And even in the process of bullying me Stanley would sometimes yell out, "Oh come on. I'm just playing!" But Romney was motivated by sheer hatred. He and his bully buddies chased another student down. His friends held him down while Romney actually cut his hair. Apparently, his hair was too long for Romney because it made him look like a girl. The Post story also told of other times that Romney had made fun of students because he thought they looked or acted gay.
If Romney's attitudes toward homosexuals has changed, if he does not loathe them as much as he did in his youth, he missed his opportunity to set the record straight. Instead of offering a half-baked conditional apology why didn't he take the opportunity to not only show real remorse over his actions but come out strongly against bullying, and specifically bullying of gay students? He could have said, for example, something like, "I regret, terribly, what I did to those classmates of mine. It was a terrible thing and I have to live with myself every day, knowing what I did to them. I want to offer my sincere and humble apology to all those I hurt and I want to try to make amends the best way I can. I'm not that person anymore and I don't like that part of the person I used to be. I only hope those who were victims of my cruelty can forgive me." That would be an apology with meaning. But that isn't the kind of apology that was given. The conclusion that begs to be drawn is that Romney still feels the same way about homosexuals now as he did then. But his bullying methods have changed to a more socially acceptable form of trying to limit people's rights through the process of law instead of holding them down and cutting their hair.