I spent most of my last years of school in the same small town of Bryant, Arkansas.  I can remember when the fun thing do with my friends was drive down the main street, eat at the local ice cream shop or hang out at the Walmart Supercenter – yes, that was actually something FUN to do!

Regardless of where you live – a small town in Arkansas or a major city like New York City, there is an ugly secret that no one talks about in this country.  We sweep it under the rug, and tell our children it’s a right of passage that we have all been through.  We broadcast stories about it, and explain (in detail) how it happened, but then nothing changes.  We tell our kids to go to an adult of authority to get help, and those people end up failing them too.

The ugly secret is bullying, and it has to stop.

My bullying wasn’t typical.  I was never beat up or called names – in my opinion that would have been easier.  Instead, certain kids in school would give me dirty looks and then whispers to their friends and laugh at my expense.  I never really let it bother me, since I knew in my heart that I was a person who has something to offer to this world, and I knew I would make it through and grow so much from the hatred.  I was also harboring a secret myself:  I was gay, and I hoped and prayed that no one would figure it out and “out” me to my friends, teachers and family.  So I tolerated the looks and whispers, and I took what some people might consider to be an unorthodox approach:  I made friends with the bigger kids in school who were doing the bullying, so there was no one left to pick on me.  From that day forward, I walked into every class with my head held high, knowing that I wouldn’t have to hide in the bathroom during lunchtime so I wouldn’t have to be confronted by the judging eyes of someone who never once took the chance to approach me and see who I REALLY was.

Looking back on it now, I wished I had done more.  I wished I had been strong enough to approach my teachers and school administrators to make it stop.  But as I watch story after story on the 10 o’clock news, I see that the odds would have STILL been stacked against me.  But, I handled it the way I knew how, and I am stronger now because I know how to show respect and empathy when it really matters.  I like to think this makes me an excellent friend.

I can only imagine how high school has to be now, compared with 1999 when I graduated.  With the invention of Facebook, Twitter and teen chat rooms, there are more ways to spread lies, rumors and horrible things about people.

Recently, I learned about a new documentary called “Bully” and the plans by the Motion Picture Association of America to give it an “R” rating.  I was shocked and angry.  To put this into perspective, the movie “Hunger Games” which is about teens who fight to the death was given a PG-13 rating, meaning a movie about teens killing each other could be watched by children older than 13 without issue, but Bully could be watched by teens who are accompanies by an adult. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s a perfect example of how messed up this country can be sometimes.

We have to do more to help victims of bullying.  We have to identify the early signs, step in to stop it, and educate children – starting at a very early age – about how important it is to respect people and show them compassion.

“Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.” – Benjamin Disraeli

If you or someone you know is being bullied, here are some resources for people who WILL help.  Reach out to them, and know that you are not alone.  We all have hardships in our lives, but it’s how we handle those hardships that dictate who we are and how we are remembered.