A while back 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, my late Aunt Bert who lived in New York use to send her nieces and nephews handwritten notes and birthday cards. 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 more than 40 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 becoming 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 enthusiast 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.
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 Amanda Michelle Todd. Amanda took her own life in October 2012 at the age of 15 after she was bullied online to expose her breasts through a webcam video chat site. Prior to her death Amanda produced her own YouTube video with flash cards telling of her experiences detailing the fear, anxiety and depression that resulted. Her death did lead to the development of a national conversation on bullying as well as legislation across the country dealing with cyber-bullying.
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 Amanda was subjected to, those who have been bullied get it. And while we still have a way to go, bullying has become recognized as a criminal act and is no longer shoved under the carpet.
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.
Bernie M. Farber is Executive Director of The Mosaic Institute. He is a native of Ottawa and a graduate of Carleton University. His long-spanning career in the not-for-profit sector includes the role of CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress (2005-2011) where he spearheaded multiple inter-faith initiatives and dialogues among diaspora groups in Canada including Rwandan genocide survivors and support for the Roma community. Most recently, Bernie has served as Senior Vice President of Gemini Power Corporation where he has been working in partnership with First Nations peoples towards economic development and community self-reliance in a way that respects both the environment and First Nations’ traditional values. Bernie is a recipient of the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, the Zaionz Award for Jewish Communal Service, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the St John Provincial Commendation.
“Bernie’s View” is Bernie’s regular contribution to the Mosaic Institute blog. We hope you are stimulated and challenged; and we look forward to your comments in the Mosaic manner.