He sat in front of me in 8th grade English class. It seemed like he was always wearing those old style cowboy shirts - the ones with pearl snaps instead of buttons, big lapels and fancy Western yoke along the collar bones. Exactly the kind of shirt you’d expect kids to wear in the 70’s. Except this was the mid 80’s and the other kids in school just had to point that out.
Kids are mean, and these kids were brutal. If there was a way to rank schools on cruelty factors - THAT school would have won hands down. They teased him about his hair, his freckles, his shirts; they called him Howdy Doody or Roy Rogers.
One day, he turned around out of the blue and said “You know, it doesn’t really bother me when they call me Roy Rogers, Actually, I kinda like it. I love that show!” I’d never seen the show, but it was settled - from that day on I’d call him Roy when we walked into class, he’d smile, and we’d have a quick laugh.
In a sea of puberty stricken, peer pressured, desperate-to-fit-in teens, this boy was unapologetically himself. He wore his outdated shirts, so what if the other kids didn’t think he was cool. And every single day in English class, his whole face would smile - freckled cheeks and all.
Until the day he wasn’t there.They called it a suicide but honestly, it was an accident, more like a cry for help. Apparently some kids had been picking on him - calling him fat, pudgy, chubby cheeks. So one day, he put on 3 layers of sweat pants and sweat shirts, then grabbed one of those 80's plastic workout suits - you know the ones designed to make you sweat - he put that on top. Went up to his attic, worked out and climbed under a bunch of blankets. And that’s how they found him. Clearly not a suicide - the tauntings were too much, and his 8th grade brain couldn’t have known what would happen - but in those last few moments, all alone in his attic, he just wanted to be accepted. Michael was dying to be thin.
They never moved our seats - his chair just sat empty for the rest of the year. A daily reminder of a life destroyed because of bullying. Because of name calling. Because other kids were so fucking insecure with themselves, that they picked on a kid who didn’t care what they thought. Until he did.
If I had to guess, I’d say his favorite shirt was the brown one, but perhaps that’s because it’s the one I still see him in. As I write this, now, as a mom, reflecting on Michael's story, I can't help but wonder - did his mom choose those shirts for him and he learned to make do with what he had? Even with all the name calling? Or did he choose the shirts that started the teasing? It’s a question I now can’t quit asking - because I am definitely guilty of giving my young children outfits that I want them to wear. And typing here in the darkened room, listening to their little bodies snore, I wonder if something I do out of love could cause them grief.
For some of my classmates, Michael's story may have ended that year. A few of the bullies showed a little remorse, some of the “nice kids” talked about him as a way of talking about their own demons without claiming them. Even a few teachers tried to figure out the right words to say. Based on the continuing bullying of anyone who didn't conform at that school, it’s doubtful anyone really listened.
In the weeks following Michael's death, I chose to use his story as a lesson in self worth. Know who you are. Like what you like. Believe in yourself and be confident in your own choices. People will always find something to criticize, and everyone has their own opinions - but none of that should ever matter. The only opinion you should truly value is your own. What do you love to do? Who do you want to be? How do you want to shape your life? Do what makes YOU happy and be proud of your accomplishments. Love yourself enough to BE YOURSELF.
Through his death, some of life’s greatest truths were revealed. In all honesty, it’s not often that I think of the boy who sat in front of me. But, every day I live and lead based on the lessons I learned from the short time knowing him.
About the Author - Cathy Wendland-Colby has spent her lifetime empowering others to create the lives they desire for themselves. Having worked with and taught every body type, every skill level, young, old, rich and poor, her work affirms that we are all perfect in our own imperfections. And that life is too damn short to waste any of it worrying about what anyone else thinks of you.