This week, I was forced to take pause as I recounted the anniversary of a very proud moment in recent Fort Worth history.
Three years ago, on October 12, 2010, at a Fort Worth City Council meeting, a young, and at that point, unknown council member by the name of Joel Burns spoke into a microphone for 13 minutes on behalf of the “It Gets Better” campaign. He started by acknowledging numerous heartbreaking stories of gay and lesbian teens who had taken their lives due to extreme bullying. Joel then went on to tell his deeply personal experience as a victim of bullying that started when he was a 13-year-old in Crowley, TX. In that moment Joel made his life an open book so that numerous other teens would understand that “it gets better”. He pleaded for struggling teens to simply “stick around” and see into the future passed the very real but momentary pain that comes with bullying. He recounted life events that he wished his 13-year-old self could see, including proposing to his now husband under a West Texas sunset. Watching the video is the only way to truly understand how powerful his message was.
In mere minutes, Joel’s speech would go viral, and in the following weeks he and/or his speech appeared on CNN, NBC’s The Today Show, Ellen, MSNBC’s The LAST WORD, and NPR’s All Things Considered just to name a few. As of today, Joel’s “It Gets Better” speech has garnered more than 2.8 million views on YouTube. Even President Obama invited him to the White House a few months later to speak on the issue.
I knew Joel in a different arena years before he was a YouTube phenom. I guess you could say that I had a secret crush on him. He’s very tall and handsome. Just my type. (You can’t see me, but I’m winking at my 6’3” husband right now. He can’t see me either because he’s sleeping.) Joel was also a fellow Realtor and had many listing in Fort Worth’s historic Near Southside where he lives – a neighborhood for which I also have a bit of a crush. Normally, I would have considered him a rival – he had some great listings in one of my favorite hoods. But, I couldn’t, for he was cute, smiley and always a pleasure when our paths would cross. As is usually the case, I soon found that there was more than met the surface with Joel. I found out on October 12 along with the rest of the world that he had a great passion and talent for making the world (not just our great city, but the world!) a better place. My crush would grow.
Over the past three years, Joel’s fame has skyrocketed and he has carried the ever-important issue of bullying with him along the way. This Tuesday, as a direct result of his famous speech, he proudly read a City of Fort Worth Council Proclamation naming October as Bullying Awareness Month in Fort Worth.
Both ironically and tragically, also this week, on the three-year anniversary of said speech, I read two heart-wrenching stories about recent victims of bullying – one from as nearby as Plano. A point from the Plano victim’s mom rings especially true in my mind.
The strong mother pointed out that the old saying, “sticks and stones may break bones but words can never hurt you” just isn’t true anymore. No kidding! It is unfortunately a relic of ancient times. A time before text messages and emails. A time before biting insults and character assaults could be written, typed, displayed on a brightly shining screen and etched in a child’s brain forever.
While I find joy in the progress that has come since Joel’s speech, I also find myself sharing in the plea that my friend, FoxSports.com writer and fellow Fort Worthian, Jennifer Engel made via her Facebook page this week. In response to a story recounting the suicide of a Florida girl and the cyber bullying she endured, Jenn said this:
This hurts my heart and makes me wonder, where were the bully’s parents? Where are they now? What have we modeled for this next generation by our escalating rhetoric and meanness toward one another – strangers, friends, family?
As a parent of young children who are constantly doted on by surrounding friends and family members, I’m not yet in a place where I have to worry about bullies from a first-hand perspective. But, I am filled with fear when I look ahead and wonder what others may say to my children and how they might be hurt by others words and actions. In light of recent news stories, I am terrified by the thought of how my children’s peers may shape their self-image. I am left with only questions. What can we do as parents to ensure that our children won’t be victims? Or the bullies? How can we strengthen them so they are less susceptible to the influence of others? And, what can we do to ensure that our children are kind, empathetic humans who never intentionally cause the suffering of another human?
I don’t have the answers yet. But, maybe I will start by making them another enlightened viewer of Joel Burns’ speech.