Two weeks ago we learned of the tragic death of 13 year old Daniel Fitzpatrick after he took his own life, leaving behind a heartbreaking letter describing the relentless bullying he endured every day at school. We can’t know for sure, what the school did or didn’t do to help Daniel, or what his home life was like. One thing is for certain, Daniel Fitzpatrick desperately wanted a friend, and left this world feeling alone and unheard.
As with all incomprehensible occurrences that leave the nation shocked and confused, we grieve…and then we point fingers. We want to separate ourselves from what happened and we want to believe that it could never happen to us. So we find someone…or something to blame. ?If we can identify the problem, we can fix it, thus preventing it from ever happening to us. It is a coping mechanism.
Some are blaming the school system for not getting involved. Some blame the bullies, themselves, while others blame their parents. Some people are even blaming his parents. We need a villain in this story, and we want to find a way to create some kind of happy ending.
Daniel Fitzpatrick is dead. We can not undo the events that led him to believe that life was too lonely and painful to bear. There is no villain in his story. And there will be no happy ending.
Do I think that his death could have been prevented? Probably. ?But I also think that his school was probably not unlike any of the other schools in this country. I do not think that the teachers, the students, the parents, were any different than those in our own communities.
I think that before we are so quick to judge, to assume, to condemn, the parents, the teachers, or the even the bullies; we need to take a good close look at ourselves. ?What are we?doing to protect the vulnerable children in our communities? What are we?doing to actively prevent these children from being singled out? or left out? ?What are we?teaching our own children about kindness and integrity?
When I was in high school, there was a reclusive little boy named Doug. He sat alone at the end of my lunch table, pretty much, completely unnoticed by the group of girls that I sat with on the other end. No one was mean to Doug. No one bothered him or asked him to kindly leave “our” table. Nobody said anything at all. ever. At first I didn’t say anything either. I talked and laughed with my friends, oblivious to little Doug eating all alone every day.
I mentioned Doug to my mom one day, while we were in the car. “This kid, Doug. He’s so weird. He sits at the end of our lunch table, by himself, and he doesn’t say a word. He just eats his lunch in silence. Every day.” ?My mom looked troubled by this, probably disappointed by my lack of consideration for this boy, who obviously could probably use a friend.
“Well does anyone talk to?him?”?she asked.
“Um. Well. No. I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
Yep. That look. It was definitely disappointment.
“Well, what’s the matter with you?” she said. “You go and sit with him tomorrow, and strike up a conversation. Nobody should have to eat alone. That’s ridiculous!”
“Well, Mom. I think he might?want?to sit by himself. I have never seen him try to talk to anybody, ever.”
“Sit with him tomorrow and talk to him. End of discussion.”
And that was that. The following day I sat next to him and did exactly what my mom had asked. (demanded, actually) I struck up a conversation. It was pretty painful. Like pulling teeth. He wasn’t much of a talker. But I talked. I asked questions. He kind of answered. He seemed like a nice enough kid. Incredibly quiet. But nice.
I wish I could say that eventually Doug and I became friends and he’s been in my life ever since. (we all love our happy endings) But the truth is, I would visit Doug at the end of the table from time to time. We’d have our awkward conversations and that was about it. Most of the time I sat with my friends, but I’d always ask him to come down to our end and join us, and he’d politely decline.
Years later, my brother’s wife was at work and was approached by a young man. It was Doug. He recognized the last name on her badge and he asked if she and I were related. When she told him yes, she was in fact, my sister-in-law, he told her to tell me hello for him and that he hoped I was doing well. He then went on to tell her that I was the only person that was ever nice to him in high school.
While, it was nice to hear that he remembered me, and that it appeared his conversation skills had improved greatly, I mostly felt terrible. Those couple of exchanges of words we had, was the closest thing he had to a “friend” in high school. I regretted that I didn’t do more. I should have tried harder to make him feel comfortable with me, and the rest of our peers.
The point is, that sometimes hurting someone, is not just pushing them around or calling them names. Sometimes it is not doing anything at all. Not standing up for them when someone else is treating them badly. ?Not?trying?to get to know, or understand, the people who may have a harder time fitting in. Or, not even noticing them at all.
As parents, we need to teach our kids, early on, that we must be considerate of the feelings of others. We need to lead by example. We need to ask questions. “Is there someone at school who doesn’t seem to fit in?” ?”Do you know someone who always seems to be left out?” “Are there any kids who are treated badly by other students?” Then encourage them to really think about it. “How do you feel when you see that person all alone on the playground?” “How would you feel if that were you, all by yourself, with nobody to play with?” Teach them to understand those who are different. Teach them that they can make ?an incredible difference in somebody’s life, just by being a friend to them.
As parents, we should know better than to contribute to the isolation of another child. Take birthday parties, for example. If you leave it up to them, they may decide that there are a couple people that they just don’t want to invite. Yes, it is their party. And yes; they are entitled to enjoy their own party. But not if this means leaving out a select few from the class. Children talk. The uninvited ones always find out. And it hurts. Use this as an opportunity to teach compassion. “I understand that you may not want Peter to come to your party, but I bet that would really make him feel sad if he were the only boy that wasn’t invited. I wouldn’t want Peter to feel sad, would you?” I am not saying that you must invite?every?kid to?every?party, but for God’s sake, if there are 20 people in the class, it is not?OK to invite only 15.
Teach them to be brave. To go out of their way and out of their comfort zone, and strike up a conversation with that quiet kid eating all by himself at the end of the lunch table. ?Because it’s quite possible that they may be the only person to ever reach out to that child. And that can make all the difference in the world.