I can't say I remember with 100% accuracy, but I think I was probably 12 or 13 the first time some douchebag I went to school with (can't remember his name, either) managed to scrawl those words on one of my book covers - sans the (Don't) - when I wasn't paying attention. I vividly remember discovering it, and the weeks and months I spent obsessing over who had done it and, more importantly, why.
I suppose I've always been a fairly introspective person and prone to such over-analysis, but as the older me looks back at the younger me, I don't know quite why I had the wherewithall to flatly decline the opportunity to take the advice.
I'm glad I did. The older me and all of the iterations of me that have lived between that day and this one have gone through several periods where - at the hands of schoolmates, acquaintances, coworkers, strangers - I've been subjected to shades of the same advice. I suppose, in the end, a certain false sense of superiority was required to survive so many assaults that struck to the core of my very existence. "Who the hell are you, inbred/uneducated/hick/backwards/ugly/etc asshole to say such a thing to me?" That was my retort - sometimes verbalized, sometimes spoken only in the proverbial thought bubble that we all rely on from time to time to deal with the crazy that sometimes inserts itself into our lives.
In hindsight, I think I owe far more of my 'survival' to the people around me in my early years, not the least of which being my parents. My mom and dad, far from perfect themselves, had a way of reassuring me that - whatever my differences from others - I was OK. Not better than them, but certainly not worse. That upbringing most certainly saved my ass from many of the hundreds or thousands of images, comments or insinuations I've seen and experienced in my life that would, less fortified, lead me to believe that I had any reason to feel unworthy of my place in the world.
However, given the recent spate of young men who apparently did not have that inner dialogue that told them "Brush it off, you're ok" to rely on when the people in their worlds (in Texas, in California, New Jersey or elsewhere) did or said things to knock them down, I am reminded that we are not all similarly equipped. While the actions of the people who meant them harm are disturbing, I find it equally disturbing that so many of the kids in this country - gay, fat, nerdy, of any number of ethnicities, levels of intelligence, the list is endless - are not being armed with the coping mechanisms required to exist in an increasingly harsh, judgmental and holier-than-thou world.
With the passage of time and the inevitable - and, arguably, invaluable - process of aging, most of us come to realize that those things that once seemed so monumental DO, at some point in the future, fade, so much so that I can barely remember the names or faces of those who have, in the past, tormented me not for the content of my character or the value of my deeds but for something of decidedly less import. And as I wonder what could possibly advance that process at such a speed that 13 yr old kids could have such unearned but irreplaceable insights, I hope more that more and more of us can find the strength to accomplish two things. The first is to think much, MUCH more before we speak, because the spoken word is often one of the deadliest weapons. The second is to think much, MUCH more about our unfortunately common predisposition to NOT speak when we tell ourselves that it's not worth the hassle or the confrontation of an injustice, no matter how big or small we ourselves perceive that injustice to be. The unadulted kindness of one person, known or unknown, has sustained most (if not all) of us at one point, and letting these kids know that being tormented need not lead to a sef-imposed death sentence might just be the anchor that pulls them back down to earth. It could literally save their lives. Do it.
I hope al of my friends who are parents of children, regardless of their age, will take this and every other opportunity that presents itself to remind their children that we ARE our brother's keeper, and that the next kid who feels like the unforgiving world in which they live will punish them so relentlessly that the only way out is death will instead turn to those people in their lives who will have their back and say "Nope, not at your hands, and for damn sure - not by my own."
RIP Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown and Billy Lucas, and to the undoubted thousands whose names we do not know but would, if given the opportunity to have known them, miss.