Sometimes toy nun chucks and a court jester hat are not enough to keep the young crowds awake during my anti-bullying speeches. But I do my absolute best and must sometimes accept that I won’t have control over the situation. One time I paid a videography company eight hundred dollars to splice an hour-long presentation into a 15-minute YouTube video and I requested they edit out footage of a little girl sleeping. My worst nightmare is when the students fail to laugh when an audience normally laughs. Or when the constantly interrupt the flow of my talks with obnoxious questions. When they are not responsive toward my messages to create mercy and compassion for those students who lead lives of rejection. I leave with the understanding that abuse will continue toward individuals regardless of whether they suffer from mild autism or are just a little bit different with no diagnosis to buffer the harsh judgments. I have absolutely no control over what happens next and there is still a good chance my younger peers will become just as miserable and bitter as I have been most of my life. Fortunately, these apathetic schools are few and far in between. And the faculty, students, and parents of Hamburg Middle School in the Buffalo area were anything but apathetic. In fact, everybody blew me away.
The enthusiasm in response to my presence was merely an acceleration of the progress that has already taken place within the scholastic body. During the first five minutes of my presentation, they had already delivered at least four heavy rounds of applause. The humor and comedic students were not necessary to stimulate this crowd because the passion was already present. The best part came when a little girl asked the most amazing question I have ever heard from a student during my career. She asked, “How can we better help students who have disabilities?”
I let her know the best way to help misunderstood students is, “Don’t be afraid. Be a friend.” I wish this were my original statement, but it was actually purloined from my good friend, Joey DiPaolo, who was the second child after Ryan White to publicize his HIV/AIDS status. Ask questions even though the occasional student may shirk back and say, “That is none of your damn business! Got it?? Most students with a disability will prefer someone actually take the “radical step” to understand than choose irrational fear or malice. Or ignoring. Ignoring will always be the worst form of abuse because it robs an individual of social stimulation, which is the essence of life itself. The applause was absolutely deafening and the message shall linger.
Bullying is not a rite of passage and there are plenty of other ways to build character than entering a world full of abuse and rejection. It is also important for the world to understand that most individuals who suffer from constant bullying are not going to write books that transform them into quasi-celebrities. I wrote my book to alleviate my suffering upon realizing how bullying does not end when an individual enters the adult world. In some ways, it will grow progressively worse when the irrational fear also comes with the burdens of job terminations, constant misunderstandings, and even legal trouble. Public schools terminated me from substitute teaching positions for benign infractions, such as telling a student my name is “Jesse” instead of “Mr. Saperstein.” (The final straw came when a bank threatened to refuse service because a fellow employee was terrified of me.) These days, however, it seems like the public is more likely to ask for an autograph than treat me as a social pariah. I want to believe bullying is behind me, but have an obligation to eradicate it for my peers who lack the resources to end it for themselves. I will obsessively dwell in the past to make the present a gift for others.
The family hosting me during my visit was Christine Hoff, her husband, Tom, and their four amazing children. Tom and Tim are both students at the middle school. The visit ended with the relentless falls of Niagara with unseasonably frigid weather. But winter’s death-like grip will soon be conquered with long-term vitality like a seasonal Benjamin Buttons. But the school’s change in attitude and scenery will undoubtedly remain permanent…