A few weeks ago a strange thing happened to me: I received a three-paged, hand-written letter from an old public school chum from Ottawa. You remember before the advent of the Internet and email there use to be writing instruments called pens? We used them to make these squiggly marks connecting symbols or letters together in a form known as cursive writing.
I was taken aback. I haven't received a handwritten letter in cursive since, well, I guess since I was back in school more years ago than I care to remember. I sat down with John's letter and marveled at his beautiful penmanship (another bygone word), very moved that he chose to renew a friendship that goes back almost 50 years.
John was different. In public school he wore a starched white shirt and plaid tie, grey flannels and a navy blazer. He carried a beat up old briefcase and was very much a loner. In a way I admired John's individuality. He didn't need (or so it seemed) to be with the "in crowd." He refused the allure of hanging out with the guys and sneaking the odd stubby Labatt's from his parent's fridge. For this he paid a heavy price.
He was a victim of bullying. High school could be a very unfriendly place for those who did not fit in. John did not fit in.
As we continued through high school I found myself being friendlier with John. In fact I suppose I was one of the very few that made any time for him. John, it turns out, was a wonderful conversationalist. He was (no surprise) a proud and dedicated monarchist with an encyclopedic knowledge of British royalty.
He was also somewhat of a political history buff with a finely-tuned sense of right, wrong and what we would refer to today as social justice. I recall that John was also a model-train buff with an intricate array of electric model trains in his basement set up to whistle its way around the room on painstakingly erected tracks.
Intrinsically I understood how it felt to be different. As one of only four Jewish students in my school, I too became a victim of bullying. I suppose it was one of the things that helped define our friendship.
The need to finally address bullying in law is before the Ontario legislature. Sadly there have been some who for political purposes want to use the passing of Bill 13 to squeeze out other political asks, thus delaying its passage. Nonetheless, last week Bill 13 reached second reading. This is not a bill with which to play politics. Let's amend it in committee and make it the best it can be, but let's not lose it on the altar of political gamesmanship.
Receiving John's letter brought back some wonderful memories but it also triggered some very painful ones: having to withstand taunts from bullies -- John for being different, and me for being a Jew. We took strength from each other in an odd way but it didn't dissipate the hurt and sadness we ultimately felt.
Today, more than 40 years later, school bullies still exist. However, there is a much better understanding of the pain bullying can cause.
While we may revel in how much more open we have become, that openness is fraught with potential problems. Just ask the parents of 15-year-old Jamie Hubley. Jamie committed suicide in October 2011. His father told the CBC at the time that Jamie had to deal with bullying from the time he was in grade seven. Jamie was different from the others, a kind, sensitive boy who enjoyed figure skating; he was taunted mercilessly for being different.
By the time Jamie entered high school it was common knowledge that he was gay and this became the hammer bullies used that eventually led Jamie into a deep depression and ultimately to take his own life.
John's letter got me thinking of how deep the bully's knife can cut. While thankfully neither of us faced the level of anguish that Jamie was subjected to, those who have been bullied get it.
Today I found myself with laptop at the ready to write my friend John and tell him how thrilled I was to get his letter, how so many memories -- many good, some though very hurtful -- sprung to mind, and how his letter motivated me to write this piece. Then I remembered John has no email address. How good it feels to bring back to life my old fountain pen and put real words on real paper.