In many ways, Hunter Layland was like any other freshman boy in the Metroplex. He played football, spent time with his friends, and tried to adapt to high school. But unlike most young people learning the ropes in our communities, Hunter didn’t have much luck.
He’d been in a car wreck as a toddler, and it left him with facial scarring and hearing problems. At Cleburne High School, he was constantly made fun of. Some of his schoolmates even went so far as to say that if they looked like him, they would kill themselves.
On Sept. 31, 2009, at 6:35 a.m., Hunter did exactly that.
Over the last few months, I’ve thought a lot about Hunter and some of the kids who got bullied when I was in school. Some of them had it pretty rough, but most of us hardly even noticed or cared. I think about the scorn and derision they endured and how, even though I usually wasn’t party to it, I certainly didn’t do much to prevent it. I was too concerned with being cool or popular or simply deferring to the bigger kids.
I remember the victims’ names and faces. I even remember what was said to them and about them. They were targets of ignorance, stupidity, and sheer meanness. They were often teased unmercifully no matter what they did. And, like Layland, their attempts to placate their tormentors only made things worse.
Looking back, I can’t help but despise myself a little for not doing something. I could say it wasn’t any of my business or my fight. But that doesn’t help. What happened to some of these kids should have been everybody’s business. We were all to blame.
As I get older and re-examine the events of my life in broader perspective, it’s not always the things I did that give me painful pause. It’s often the things I didn’t do, like not speaking up when I should’ve or not standing up when others were being pushed down.
This summer will mark the 25th anniversary of my high school graduation. Out of my class of about 85 kids, only two have died — and both committed suicide. One killed himself while we were still in school, the other a few years ago. I hardly knew the former and certainly wasn’t a friend. I knew the latter well enough, but we had our differences. I don’t remember either of them as being easy marks for bullies, but they didn’t have it easy either. And when I read that another kid, from another class, at my old high school committed suicide this last fall, I couldn’t help but think of them. And Hunter Layland.
I don’t know how some of the kids we mistreated had the fortitude to keep coming to school. The slights, the name-calling, the trip-ups. There wasn’t a lot of room to breathe. And there certainly wasn’t any room to be different.
My classmates who were the most accomplished tormentors back then are normal folks today, happy, complacent, and churchgoing. Did they finally achieve enough popularity or a strong enough sense of superiority to erase the need to bully? When they get down on their knees to pray at night, do they beg forgiveness for what they did to kids like Hunter?
In my experience, our victims usually don’t attend class reunions, and, if they do, they seldom betray any hard feelings. Did that which didn’t kill them make them stronger?
What is it in so many of us that craves superiority, that requires us to put down others to feel better about ourselves? We seem to needs victims, pariahs — collective or individual otherness that we can rally against or look down upon. In fact, it often seems like that’s where we’re most comfortable.
I hope Hunter is at peace now, in a place where scars and misfortune don’t make him the target of human knavery. I’d like to think he didn’t die in vain, but the news indicates otherwise. As long as folks are still showing up at town hall meetings with guns or threatening people whose color, belief system, or appearance they don’t like, then the bullies are still at it. And we’re still not stopping them.
E.R. Bills is a local freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications.