Who would Peter be today?
It’s a question I ask myself all the time. Where would Peter be living? What would his life be like? What would he have chosen as a career?
I knew Peter for many years when we were kids. We grew up in the same town, but we weren’t friends. In fact, I can’t remember a meaningful conversation Peter and I ever shared. We had many classes together and we were both in the school band. He was definitely a more talented musician. I struggled in my attempts to play the saxophone. Peter mastered playing the tuba. I was more interested in sports, since I also played baseball and football. Peter focused on his classroom studies and his music.
Peter didn’t have many friends. He wasn’t like us. Everything about him was different. He didn’t dress like the rest of us; he didn’t have the same interests as most of us; Peter just didn’t fit in.
For as long as I can remember, Peter was bullied.
Bullied probably isn’t the right word to describe the way Peter was treated. I’m disgusted thinking of the days of our youth and remembering how he had to go through his life at school. The abuse was relentless. Students would heckle loudly as he walked by; he was laughed at and teased at almost every corner. People would shout out, “Peter the nerd!” or “Geek!” every chance they could.
Almost everyone I knew would join in. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not innocent either. I honestly don’t remember any specific taunt or harsh words I may have said toward Peter or his close circle of friends, but I know I laughed along with the others in my crowd.
I watched as he was kicked and I did nothing. I didn’t say anything to a teacher, nor did anyone else.
I watched as people would trip him or knock his books from his hands. I did and said nothing.
I once saw him lose his temper as he was getting smacked in the back of the head. As he ran toward those taunting him, I stopped him and told him he didn’t want to get in trouble. I advised him to turn around and go back to class. I saw the anger and hurt in his eyes, yet I did and said nothing. I think I was convinced that if I let him continue his chase, it wouldn’t have ended in Peter’s favor.
This was the life Peter had to lead in school for years. It never seemed to get better for him; it only got worse as we grew older.
One night in 1986, as we entered our freshman year in high school, Peter had enough.
He ended his life of abuse and ridicule with a single gunshot to his head. He was only 15-years-old.
Friends told me the news as we were waiting for the school bus in the morning. I remember feeling sick to my stomach thinking that this didn’t have to happen. We all knew why he took his life. It was never a question. I don’t know that I would have been strong enough to endure the abuse he took for so many years. I don’t know anyone who would be able to handle that kind of pain.
I didn’t attend Peter’s funeral. I didn’t feel I earned the right to say good-bye. I was upset with my fellow classmates who didn’t seem to feel badly or somewhat responsible for his death. I was mostly upset with myself for laughing at some of those taunts and not telling any of my friends to stop.
I was sitting in class when Peter’s father returned some of the school issued equipment. All he said was, “I’m sorry, but Peter won’t need these anymore.”
I’ll never forget that moment for as long as I live. His father turned and walked out of the classroom without looking at any of us.
Last week, I called some old friends to talk about Peter. We hadn’t talked about Peter in over 25 years, yet we all remembered the same thing: no one at the school ever talked to the student body about Peter’s death. There were no lectures, no demands for this type of abuse to end. No speeches, nothing. The teachers knew why he took his life, the students knew, yet our life continued like nothing happened. I even searched newspaper archives from that time. Nothing was ever written about him.
I think about Peter all the time. I try to teach my own kids not to bully and to stand up for those who are mistreated. I also remind them to talk to us about things that happen at school. Most importantly, a day doesn’t pass when I don’t tell my kids I love them.
I wish I could go back and talk to Peter. I’d invite him to sit at our table for lunch. I’d ask him what his interests were, or just share a laugh together. I also wish I could go back and talk to me. I would like to talk to the kid I once was and tell him how much even a laugh or a taunt hurts. I would tell him there was no place for bullying.
I’m not sure where Peter would be today or what his life would be like. Sadly, he wasn’t given that chance. I only hope that I can take the most serious lesson I have ever learned in life and teach others about the consequences of bullying.
Follow Ismael on Twitter: @ishestradacnn
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