There was a period of time a few years ago when every negative thing that happened in anyone’s life was considered the product of bullying. I’ll admit, we played it fast and loose with the term and the playground was pegged as the ultimate battlefield for a child’s self-worth. If another kid made fun of you, you were apparently helpless against it and your therapy-stricken future self was all but assured. That’s how we made it sound at least. The notion that a child could be taught that their self-worth came from something other than someone else’s opinion was discarded in favor of tweeting the rallying cry of “bullying!”
Sarcasm aside, bullies have been portrayed in forms ranging from Biff from Back to the Future to the inbred-looking kids in A Christmas Story. Today the archetypal bully looks more like the army of skanks from Mean Girls, but when I was a kid, it was a boy dressed in all black with craggy skin, oversized boots and a maniacal laugh. It was Nelson from The Simpsons or Zach from down the street.
Zach lived around the bend on my road and joined my class halfway through the fifth grade. His house was across the driveway from another family in our church and unbeknown to me, he’d attended our children’s Christmas production as their guest. After a week of being in class together, a piece of paper wound up in my desk that had my dialogue from the production written on it. It was very “the call is coming from inside the house,” in a scribbly, Super-Christian children’s musical sort of way. I only knew two people from my church who went to my school and they were in other grades so it freaked me out that my words were literally coming back to haunt me. That was until I flipped over the paper to see Zach had left his name on the front of the worksheet. Later in the day, he strolled by my desk to ask if I’d gotten the note. I said I had and that I didn’t realize he’d attended the performance that night. His response was, “Well I did,” and he slithered back to his desk across the room. He stared at me for the rest of the day.
Zach, a ten year old, regularly boasted about drinking beer in his driveway and his oily spider-legs hair and sandpaper voice scared me. He had a wide, movie outlaw strut, told us in the bathroom he’d named his penis, and pushed kids down on the playground while laughing maniacally. He both looked and acted like Sid from Toy Story. He taunted me for the rest of my fifth grade year, called me names and cut in front of me in line, that is, when he wasn’t absent for weeks at a time. After that year, he moved to another school and while I’ve had plenty of kids not like me and tell me so, he was the only one who actually scared me. To me, he epitomized what it was to be a bully.
The modern re-popularization of the term “bullying” was born out of a dire circumstance: gay kids and teenagers were killing themselves after being picked on to the point they gave up on hope. The “It Gets Better” campaign emboldened thousands to post their stories of overcoming and thriving as they grew into themselves. The common thread through all the videos was: you are of value and your worth isn’t determined by the inadequacies of others. It was a cosmic hand extended; a cultural shift that formally recognized the importance of inclusive hope. For many, these videos resonated like personal “I Have a Dream” speeches – proof that the world could shift, would shift, and once it had, there’d be a place for them. As a matter of fact, in each of the videos, I could hear my pastor shouting “Never, give up!”
When you’re raised in church like I was, you hear so many sermons it’s difficult to remember most, if any, of them. But this one, I remember as clearly as if I was still sitting on the second row. My pastor, a man who’d led our church since I was a child, stood at the pulpit and decreed to the congregation, “Never, give up!” There was a syncopation to the way he shouted it. “Never” was elongated for emphasis, almost as if Oprah was declaring it to her studio audience, and then “give up” was poppy and staccato. There’s such richness to the logic in those three words. The most important, most emphasized word was “never.” Not at any point should one stop – that’s what never means. And “give up” should be the afterthought, the staccato notion that quickly evaporates. My pastor talked through examples from the Bible of men and women who had the tides of the world crashing into them and at the end of every story, he and we in the congregation would repeat the refrain, “Never, give up!”
When Esther had the weight and responsibility of a generation on her: “Never, give up!”
When Job lost everything, including every person he loved: “Never, give up!”
When Paul and Silas were locked in prison with no hope of release in sight: “Never, give up!”
He then, as all good pastors and Oprah can do, brought it full circle to whatever we were going through in our own lives. No matter what the circumstance, the frustration or how dark our tunneled outlook had become, “Never, give up!”
I wish the church had extended the same sentiment to more of those kids who felt terrorized by their insecure classmates. There’s no reason why a kid, or someone of any age, should be made to feel so insignificant and closed in on that they give up; that they give into the mirage that ending their life is the only way out. The church was relatively quiet though as gay kids killed themselves which, in my opinion, makes them culpable in their plight.
I never made an “It Gets Better” video. I didn’t know what I’d say or how I’d edit my rabbit-trailing thoughts into a productive video. That’s why I’m a writer; Editing. Mostly, I didn’t make one because all I wanted was to play the audio of my pastor telling people to “Never, give up!” It’s been playing in my head ever since I was in high school and it’s permeated all aspects of my life.
I was reminded of this during the lead up to the 2016 Summer Olympics, when American gymnast Danell Leyva wasn’t picked to be a part of the five man team. During the previous Olympics in London, he earned a bronze medal in the All-Around competition, making him the only man on the American squad to medal in the event, but at the 2016 Olympic trials, Leyva didn’t score high enough to make the team. Rather, he was relegated to an alternate spot.
No one wants to be an alternate at the Olympics. More than likely, what ends up happening is you spend the same amount of practice, effort and gym time as the ones who did make the squad, yet you never get to revel in the Olympic spotlight. Nothing is as bright as the Olympic spotlight except for maybe Best Actress at the Oscars, but as an alternate, you’ll be on the sidelines, not in the headlines.
However, one of the American men had to have surgery on his ACL and his Olympic dreams were halted, a devastation that will probably forever leave a pit in his stomach. So, a mere two weeks before Olympic competition was set to begin, Danell was moved up and onto the team, again headed to the Olympics to compete, his way paved by the misfortune of someone else but paid for by years of consistent work and results.
The team competition is the feather in any gymnast’s cap and the American women were the best in the world; unbeatable, unstoppable and received prime time coverage from every news outlet on all 400 channels on my TV. The men’s team however barely received a mention. During the team finals, when the US men were on the cusp of possibly being in contention, Danell fell from the high bar.
I’d fallen from the rings on the school playground when I was in fifth grade. They stretched across a wooden beam like monkey bars and I was convinced I could cross them. Truth be told, I’d never excelled in any sort of strength competition so making it across the beam was a sizable goal. Halfway across, I fell to the ground like Alice falling down the forever hole, landing on my back on the pebble-covered playground floor. It knocked the wind out of my chest and I struggled to breathe for what felt like minutes but was probably only a handful of seconds. Frightened by my gasping for breath and the tears leaking out of my eyes, my playground friend ran to get our teacher. I had too much pride to let myself be seen gasping and crying on the ground so I crawled like a paratrooper under the playground equipment. Hidden from the sight of anyone who came to find me, I composed myself quietly while my teacher did a lap around the playground. I sat under the equipment for the rest of recess, breathing slowly and re-finding my happy face.
If I was embarrassed by the thought of my teacher seeing me on the ground in the fifth grade, I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to hit the mat in front of a global audience. My heart and my chest hurt for Danell. I’d followed him since the London games and had seen his progress and drive play out in various competitions. In my head, I stood cheering next to his dad on the sidelines, bringing him a water bottle when things went well and a whiskey bottle when things didn’t. That’s the wonder of the Olympics. We get to see super humans from our country stand up and do superhuman things, all while coming across in interviews like we could be best friends. I’ve been mentally best friends with quite a few Olympians…and Britney Spears.
Danell suffered what I imagine would be one of the worst blows to a gymnast’s psyche yet he still had two more events in which to compete. We fawn over the Olympians’ accomplishments and their hot bodies but we rarely talk about the mental fortitude it takes to get up in front of the world and hurl your body into the air or the pool. There are mornings when I have to verbally talk myself into putting on pants because I don’t think I have it in me to be a person that day. These people have the pressure of a circus elephant squatting on their shoulders and we at home expect them to be flawless or we’ll drag them through the mud (i.e. bully them) on social media.
At the beginning of the second week of competition, event by event, Danell executed near flawless routines, both on the high bar and the parallel bars. He wasn’t the gymnast anyone saw coming, mostly because he “wasn’t supposed to be there,” but in both events, he found himself on the podium with a Silver medal around his neck. The man who hadn’t scored high enough to make the team was now the most decorated American male gymnast at the Rio games. Never underestimate the understudy.
People like Danell epitomize what it is to never give up. He picked himself up after falling and came out a conqueror. When I was young and full of unstable emotions and hormonal barbed wire, I had to pick myself up many times. Maybe I wasn’t knocked down physically, but as a teenager who was different than the straight/masculine mold preferred by my religious environment, I had to marshal my own internal cheerleader to remind myself to never give up.
In high school, I spent most of my free time with my church friends and often that revolved around our youth pastor’s house. Mere minutes from my school, it was an easy place to congregate away from our parents and with the people we both looked up to and loved. One such evening, while myself and a few of the guys played video games and a handful of the girls sat on the couch, our youth pastor’s wife announced she needed to go shopping for a new dress. The girls said they’d go with her and as they were leaving, she asked if I wanted to come as well.
My youth pastor, an exuberant and fun-loving man who I looked up to, asked why she’d take me with the girls when all the guys, including me, were playing in a tournament together. He had a point. Also, I didn’t want to go dress shopping. I may’ve sucked at most video games, but I still enjoyed playing them with my friends.
“Oh it’s just Ryan, he’s practically one of the girls,” she said with a chuckle.
He wasn’t laughing. He knew then what I know now: Do not assign or lump someone in with a name or moniker that will get stuck in the tarred sludge of their adolescent self-esteem. The tar is unavoidable, we’re all coated in it between the ages of 11 and 19. Maybe that’s why our faces and skin are always broken out and zitty too; self-esteem sludge. I didn’t want to be one of the girls. I was, every single day, working on feeling grounded in my own skin as a man. While shopping was fun and I enjoyed their company, I didn’t need nor did I want to be considered one of the girls.
A neophyte in the ways of self-preservation, I laughed it off and grabbed the Playstation controller for my turn in the tournament. The girls left to go shopping and we ordered pizzas. My youth pastor could tell I was shaken up by what was said and he turned, looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re the man God created you to be, know that.”
He changed my life in many ways over the years, but none more than he did on that day. He didn’t tell me to be macho and he didn’t tell me it wasn’t my place to like shopping. He didn’t imply anything Paleolithic like “Men do this, women do that.” He just spoke the truth of my being back into me after it’d been knocked out of my chest for a moment. Like finding my breath again under the playground, he gave me the space to collect myself on my own terms. I was a person in process, fearfully and wonderfully made.
He’s the reason why today, I won’t give up. Because of his words, I make the daily decision to walk in the knowledge that I am the man God created me to be and in that, I can keep going. His words were the “It Gets Better” I needed when I didn’t know I needed it. Yes, I still fail from time to time, but like Job, like Esther, and like Danell, I too will “Never, give up.” They’re overcomers. I’m an overcomer. So are you.