On this, the anniversary of Columbine, I want to talk to you about Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover and the lessons about school bullying we still have yet to learn.
I’ve been trying to find the words to memorialize 11 year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who hung himself in his home after repeated homophobic bullying at his school. His mother did everything she could think of to protect her son, going to his classes, talking to his teachers, alerting administrators and trying to hold them accountable. She told young Carl that who ever he was, how ever he chose to present his gender or live his life, he was loved. (Carl was called gay b/c of the way he dressed and being actively involved in after school programs, church, and volunteerism.)
It wasn’t enough. The constant barrage of bullying in school and in social settings made Carl feel unsafe, unlovable, and unworthy of the life he and his mother fought together to fill with hope. The child who had survived witnessing his mother’s abuse in a dsv relationship to come out the other side more sensitive and caring about the people around him, did not survive middle school.
Every time I think about him, I feel lost about our world. I worry about all of the youth who don’t fit into the gender boxes, who cannot fake “perfection,” whose desires have been publicly and repeatedly labeled as against G-d and Nation. I also worry about the children of color that Anderson erroneously argues are no longer targeted with racial slurs b/c that is simply not true and for those who sit at the intersections of blackness and potential queerness where torment feeds off of intersecting oppressions. And I worry all the more b/c schools are becoming less tolerant not more tolerant.
On the one hand, media and technology combine to encourage a profound lack of empathy and a daily sort of Lord of the Flies mentality. Conservatives constantly barrage us with the fight over gay marriage that consistently paints children and gay adults who are “too far outside the gender box” or whose desires extend beyond heterosexuality as the evil in our midst. The unexpected impact of these public, vehement, arguments is that youth feel all the more empowered to attack those who are different among them. They learn that calling someone “gay” is akin to permenantly branding them an outsider and a pariah. Where these moments may have once been confined to a single play ground or lunch room incident,now internet social network sites encourage people to humiliate and demean friends, foes, and allies alike to get their way, to make a name for themselves, or simply b/c their own hurt makes them want to hurt others. Intolerance is far too common place in this new society where the lynch mob is often virtual and therefore too diffuse to reach or undo their damage. And in a world where youth can egg each other on all day long with text messages, twitter, myspace, livejournal, etc. the real lived experience of youth confronting bullies just waiting to text their friends about humiliating someone else in class is unbearable even if you don’t know about or visit their hateration pages. (Yes, people actually put up pages where they name the object of scorn and then encourage others to hate on them. The fact that pages cross political and social boundaries, and are even found amongst supposed social justice activists, points to how ubiquitious the politics of bully-punish-anihalate has become in our society no matter who we are or what we claim to believe. When in doubt, say it is a joke or that someone else started it or simply scream the other person is wrong until they shut up or hang themselves.)
When schools do nothing to protect youth, they make it easy for this suffering to kill people’s spirits or even take their lives or the lives of others. And while Carl’s school has a written zero tolerance policy for oppression and school based bullying, they seemingly did very little to enforce it. In fact, their brilliant idea was to force Carl and his tormentors to eat lunch together for a week to foster friendship; Carl staid home for fear of reprisal and what they might do or say during the lunch hour. Like with young Lawrence King only a year earlier, the school made its statements and issued its policy but individual administrators seem to have done very little. And also like both these young boys’ cases, one school teacher in Ohio, stands accused of doing nothing while watching daily homophobic slurs heaped on Eric Mohat. Mohat like Walker-Hoover took his own life 2 years ago, unable to endure anymore unchecked homophobia during the school day; King, as we all know, was shot in class by a classmate who had been bullying him for weeks prior. And for all the Carl Joseph Walker-Hoovers, Eric Mohats, and Larry Kings that we know about, there are 1000s of other kids suffering through the school day and trying to quell the stinging dehumanization from bullies echoing in their hearts and their heads well into their nights and weekends.
Whether you are a girl like Megan Meier, slightly overweight with braces, or a quiet and caring boy like Carl or Eric, or a young person experimenting with gender presentation like Larry, whether the bullying takes places for you wholly in real time or mostly on the internet, the bottom line is that we are living in a world where the school yard bully has found his way into the hearts of the majority of students and convinced them that violence and humiliation are ok. The limitless wireless world convinces people to be cruel and encourages them to keep it up, instead of wind themselves down. Media arguments that demonize the oppressed or erase oppressions like Anderson Cooper’s voice over above, make it that much more acceptable to target the people who are different or sadly too recognizable to be left to claim their own truths. We live in a world where individual school administrators and/or individual teachers let their own biases against identity, personality, or appearance allow them to look right through the suffering of marginalized students. The school system is so overtaxed that those who do care may not have the resources or the support to do anything about it. And while many of us who grew up different can remember a bully or a teacher who looked the other way, or played along, it seems like the endless loop of youtube and the permanance of archived phone videos or blog comments makes it that much worse even for the kids whose harassment happens exclusively in real time as far as they know. Youth culture seems to have shifted and our nation is shifting with it.
Prop 8 passed partially on the “fear of the queer” in our schools and the curriculum that would “teach homosexuality” to our children. But the reality is, not teaching youth about gender and sexual difference nor about respecting their peers regardless of their identities or appearances has led to the kind of violence and pain which ended the lives of at least four children in 2 years, 3 of them at their own hands. It is intolerance and bullying that many cite as the reason behind school based violence in general. Whether that violence is targeting their peers in a school shooting or shooting a single child as he sits in the computer room seems irrelevant in the face of so much senseless death. Sexuality and gender based violence amounts to over 50% of school aged youth experiencing some form of harassment according to CNN and 9 out of 10 transgendered, gender queer, or gender exploring youth are harassed at least one or more times according to GLSEN. The number of youth feeling less safe as a result of anti-marriage activism in communities like California, Florida, Massachusetts, etc. is also on the rise based on youth self-report on blogs and social network sites. And all of this is added to the social ostracism and harassment or social sanction of poor youth, youth of color, large girls, and girls not willing or unable to meet the beauty myth.
Ultimately no child should ever be so bullied that they have to sit alone, parceling out their meager belonging, cross-checking their suicide plan one last time, before writing simply: I’m sorry mom . . . But this is exactly what happened to Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, whose mom says he didn’t even know what his sexuality was yet, reminding us once again how hatred of the margins is ultimately visited on the center.
When I think about Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, I weep for him and for all of us, gay or straight, cis or trans, poc or white. It seems we have learned nothing from all of the youth who have died before him on this or any other day. (Carl should have turned 12 on April 16th.)