I've been writing community columns for the Times for more than eight years. Some pieces seem to write themselves. I pour a cup of coffee, sit down with the laptop and an hour or two later I have a community column to zap over to The Times.
This isn't one of those columns. This was hard for me to write and harder still for me to read. Over 40 years down the road, my eyes still sting at the memory of cruelties forgotten by everyone but me.
The catalyst of this angst was an 11-year-old DeKalb County boy named Jaheem Herrera. He came home from school on April 16 and hanged himself.
According to reports from family and schoolmates, he had been the victim of relentless taunts and bullying. His lilting Caribbean accent was enough to label him as "gay," his homeland in the Virgin Islands enough to inspire a snickered nickname of "The Virgin." His mother says she complained to the school on a number of occasions.
The school isn't talking.
When I read about his tragic death, I felt an immediate connection. I could understand his helplessness, his fury turned not at his tormentors but at himself.
When I was Jaheem's age, I was a chubby fifth-grader with thick cat's-eye-framed glasses and a bad Toni home permanent. Days before school started, I broke my leg and had to spend the next nine months on crutches. The resulting immobility soon morphed me from chubby to obese. And then the games began.
The teasing, the name-calling, the snickers and ridicule were unending. My labored clumping down the halls was a source of much amusement. I stopped speaking up in class. It only inspired piggy snorts from the back of the room.
During that year of almost constant ridicule, not one teacher offered one word of reprimand. Kids who I had considered my friends distanced themselves. To my 11-year-old mind, the only conclusion could be that I somehow deserved this treatment.
On Valentine's Day there was an elaborate envelope in my bag, much bigger than all the others. Excitedly, I opened it. Maybe I had a friend after all. On the unsigned card was a drawing of an elephant. Har-de-har-har.
I told a teacher. I told my parents. They all said the same thing: "Just ignore them and they'll quit." Like it's ever that easy.
Sunday nights were the worst. After a two-day respite, I knew I was facing another week of nothing but misery. Although I never made an actual suicide plan, I came very close. I remember thinking that a kinder God would have seen to it that I never woke up.
This morning, I dug around in a battered storage box and brought out a school picture of a chubby-cheeked little girl with artificially induced curls, ghastly glasses with pink glitter around the edges and a smile that doesn't go with the wary look in her eyes. I imagine someone gave a piggy snort just as the cameraman pressed the shutter release.
When I started junior high, the clouds parted a bit. I grew four inches over the summer and, while never svelte, I was at least within a more acceptable size range. The taunts were replaced with indifference from my primary tormentors. Blessed indifference.
High school was heaven in comparison. I made friends who are still on my speed dial. I discovered writing, debate and drama and had teachers who encouraged those interests.
If this had been a movie, I would have either ended up as homecoming queen, a la John Hughes, or created a clever "Revenge of the Nerds" style payback. The real world, however, never provides cut-and-dried closure. I merely finished high school a year early. I couldn't put that chapter of my life behind me fast enough.
What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. I've never again felt that degree of helpless hopelessness that dominated my fifth-grade year. Possibly, if little Jaheem Harrera had managed to hang on until middle school, he wouldn't have, either. If you stick around long enough, life gives you tools to deal with the jerks of the world.
Sadly, sometimes the hardest part is the sticking around.
Jaheem, I hope you're at peace. B'shalom, sweet boy.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com.