Editor's Note: I am pleased to present the following story by Dawn Boldrin, who was a teacher of Lawrence King in Oxnard, California. King was fatally shot in February of 2008 and quickly became the face of bullying in schools everywhere. While his story is unbelievably tragic, it has also sparked a powerful grassroots movement against bullying and in support of acceptance and tolerance. Dawn Boldrin is a community leader of that movement. Read her words below.
Today, National Coming Out Day, is an important day. It is important for everyone, whether you personally identify with the LGBT community or not. National Coming Out Day represents the feelings, emotions and overall, the support that we should be exuding on a daily basis. But for some reason, the world is cruel, and there are far too many people who do not take the time to understand the struggles of others.
This day means more to me now, as my life was changed on February 12, 2008, with the shooting of my former student, Larry King. I first met Larry in August of 2007. He was starting his eighth grade year and he was in my Literature and Composition class. The first week of school, Larry brought me roses from his garden—I hope—or whomever’s garden it was on the way to school. I don’t know if he did this for all his teachers, but he did it for me. Maybe it was because I was hugely pregnant, or maybe it was because he knew that somehow he could make a difference with the "meanest teacher on campus."
Larry was shy and reserved, and yet he always seemed secure in approaching me. I could count on his help and his smile, no matter what. He didn't judge me as the “mean” teacher, and I am assuming that is because he quickly realized that I didn't judge him and saw him for who he was, a young person struggling to fit in and figure out who he was in the process. I never judged any of my students. I simply treated them all the same and with the respect they deserved. I had a short couple of weeks with Larry. I left on maternity leave a few weeks into October and didn’t return until after winter break in January. However, when I returned, it was as if nothing had changed. He was just the same. Quiet, but with his smile and a greeting that he missed me.
Larry was going through some struggles at that time. He confided in me, and I took his concerns to heart. I know all too well what it is like to be the odd man out in a social situation; add a bit of puberty to that and you have junior high. I did for Larry what I would have done for any of my students had they come to me with their problems—I listened. I accepted him for who he was and where he was at in his life. When Larry understood this, it opened up our relationship, and he felt secure in knowing he had a true source of acceptance, support, and yet discipline. Because of the closeness we shared, I talked to Larry about his role in not only wanting tolerance and acceptance from others at the school, but also his role in extending it to those who might not be ready for his need for it.
February 12 is a day that I still haven’t been able to rationalize or heal from. It is, however, a day that has made me conscious of the fact that there is no room for error in the teaching of tolerance. We can no longer afford the idea or hope that someone else will take care of teaching tolerance if we can’t quite get to it. It is everyone’s duty to teach it, live it and extend it. It is not something we can hope to get a 'C' on; it is something we all must strive to get a 'A' on. I struggle every day with the realization that Anne Frank best put into words: “I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I gradually see the world being turned into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder, which will destroy us too; I feel the suffering of millions; and yet if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. ... I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out."
I try to live every day according to that quote. I uphold my ideals, and do my best to be an example to my daughters in this belief, despite the hardships it has brought upon me. I lost my job and my sense of who I was, and perhaps most importantly, I lost faith in the good that people have inside them. But shortly after the shooting, two wonderful people came in to my life, and with one short email, I began to see that there is good in this world. I received the following message just days after the shooting:
You don't know me or my life partner as we just moved here from NYC to Los Angeles. Growing up in NYC we both suffered in the school system as the "different" ones. We didn't have a single teacher who took the time to try and figure out why we identified as gay at such early ages. My partner, Peter, suffered at the hands of kids in his school. So much so that he almost took his life as a pre-teen and then again as a teenager. His story was chronicled in an Off-Broadway play called Judy & Me. A play where Judy Garland comes to life to save the life of the lead based on Peter's upbringing in a homophobic community on Long Island. I only mention this to you as we were motivated to bring this story to stage after we heard of the tragedy that happened in Oxnard. Originally produced in 1998 Off-Off Broadway, we heard on the Ellen Show what happened here in Cali. After we heard of the tragedy on Ellen we felt it imperative to revive it as to raise awareness of homophobia in the school system. In our program for the show we dedicated the performances to Larry. Today I read your story in the LA Times and was moved to reach out to you. You are a good person, and we only wish we had a teacher like you to provide us comfort, solace and counsel when we were growing up. Larry was lucky to have had someone who understood him.
Please know you are in our thoughts. If you ever get to Los Angeles and would like to see one of our shows, we would love to have you and your family as our guests. We are celebrity impersonators and we both sing and speak live as the women we portray. It might be a good chance when you are ready to laugh and forget the real world for awhile.
Warmly, DJ Schaefer and Peter Mac
I learned that Peter was abused by his stepfather as a child. In most cases, school would be an escape for a child in this situation. But for Peter, school was another realm of torture. Peter was abused and ridiculed for being gay. His mother would visit the school on a daily basis, arguing for her son's right to be respected in the school. The principal simply responded, "boys will be boys." Learning this, I connected with Peter, as our administration had a similar attitude when it came to Larry's situation and death. No one was taking responsibility. No one was stepping up to find out why our school was breeding this much hatred or, in fact, ignoring it. Obviously the shooting was an act I believe no one can or will ever be able to rationalize or understand. But as a human, I also found the need for my mind to do just that. As I tried to heal myself, and help the children directly involved in watching the shooting, I was horrified to watch our educational system and administrators simply choose to ignore the problems that it had created and were coming as a result. I learned they did have a solution to fixing the situation, and that was by ignoring it altogether. The school, teachers, administrators, HUENSD, CTA as well as HEA felt the problems were solved, as there can be no problem if we choose to ignore or acknowledge its existence. This became evident in the numerous requests for help from myself and the students for counseling—or even understanding when the students asked not to go into a computer lab after the shooting to do school work but were told they had no choice or that they were just using the situation to not do work. Or worse, to "suck it up … get over it." It was clear that the students and I represented a very uncomfortable situation for people, and if we wanted to fit back in, we needed to simply be quiet and understand that our feelings were secondary to the good of all those around. How, might I ask, does this treatment teach anyone to continue wanting to contribute positively to anything, adult or child?
Peter, DJ and I grew closer over the next few months, and Peter began putting the pieces together for me. Words cannot even express how these two new friends, who expressed such concern and support for someone they had never met—only chatting via email—aided in my recovery after Larry's death. Unfortunately, Larry's opportunity to take his struggles and find the positive was taken from him, but I was inspired by Peter's ability to do so.
When Peter was young, he would come home after a difficult day at school and sit in the basement listening to old Judy Garland records. It was the only place he felt safe, the only place he could be himself. Judy provided a feeling of support for Peter. After many years of being forced to find an escape, Peter had found his passion. Peter, as DJ told me through email, took control of his struggles, explored his true self and turned his hardships into a lifelong career that he loves. Today (and I admire him so much for this), Peter performs his tribute shows, honoring Judy Garland and other Hollywood divas, here in Los Angeles. Peter isn't afraid to be himself anymore. He stands tall, proud to support tolerance, acceptance and genuine care for everyone.
I only wish Larry had the opportunity to make something of his life the way Peter did. Larry's opportunity to be himself was stripped from him due to a student's inability to understand the importance of tolerance, understanding and compassion. As I said, Larry's story is tragic, but it doesn't have to be meaningless. Today, National Coming Out Day and every day, we much teach tolerance. We must be the example.
At this point. and through all the experiences the shooting has created and brought into my life, I would say the most important people we can reach out to are parents. The influences that the world has today on our young people are strong—however, at the end of the day, the person or individual that truly shapes how a young person sees the world is the parent. When a parent helps provide their child with an understanding of acceptance for others—and also feel good about who they are—that to me is the most important part of a formula to acceptance. I am not disregarding the influence of teachers or peers or media—obviously those play a significant role as well. But they should all simply be secondary sources, not primary sources. It is the parent or guardian that has the most control over shaping how a child will view himself and others.
After the shooting, I encountered prejudicial treatment because I had taken actual action to supporting a child in his individuality. My own children suffered bullying at school, and because of the shooting, when I went to the administration to mention it, I was treated as a hysterical woman that hadn't come down from the tragedy. Another mother came to me and said, 'You know, you got my son in a lot of trouble because your daughter couldn't handle him calling her a monster. It was just a joke. I am sorry and know what you went through, but really?"
Yes, this was a parent whose child continually called my daughter names, even after she asked him to stop, even after she would come home crying. I would say "It will pass," but it didn't, even after they had an assembly on bullying. How can the problem be stopped if we rationalize or downplay the receiver's emotions, or by thinking we should toughen up our children to understand jokes? Everything comes back to the golden rule. We all learned it in elementary school, possibly even before, but somehow it gets lost as we grow into adulthood. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's really that simple.
Do I have answers? Hell no. I do know that I have raised two daughters, and am raising a third, and that the world will owe me a debt of gratitude at some point for the simple fact that I take responsibility for ensuring they are understanding and accepting of people. Tthey don’t see gay, black, white, Mexican, Jew, Middle Eastern, teacher, politician—or any of that crap. They look at the individual. They accept people for who they are, and I am proud of that.
So please, I ask you, take today to understand the struggles that people are fighting. Be kind, be compassionate and most of all, be accepting. Again, today is a reminder of the compassion and understanding we should be sharing on a daily basis. Hateful actions—bullying, abuse, tormenting—these can all be stopped. But we must take the first step, and the first step is acceptance.