A smart kid with good grades, Michael Spivak came from a supportive family and had just celebrated a successful bar mitzvah that ushered him into manhood. But he still was a 13-year-old boy who was grappling with his sexual identity, knew the sting of bullies, felt that he was different and a wimp and worried that he would never fit in.
On the first day of school after winter break in 1992, the eighth-grader returned to his home in Buffalo Grove, left his little brother downstairs and went into his bedroom.
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A letter from Michael SpivakIn the winter of 1991-92, I tried to kill myself. I put a bag over my head and waited for the air to run out. I was in 8th grade at Twin Groves Junior High, Rand Campus. And I was queer. I knew it, but I wasn't yet ready to admit it.
I was also bullied. I wasn't punched or kicked. I wasn't urinated on or put in the hospital. But at the same time, they weren't "just words". They hurt.
In seventh grade, yearbooks were passed around for others to sign. I got mine back with my face rubbed out by someone's eraser. The bullying continued as I went through Stevenson. I was active in school. I was on the math team (went downstate freshman and sophomore years) and managed the varsity baseball team my sophomore and junior years. I was named conference all academic one year.
Occasionally, I was shoved or received snide comments. Outside of school, I was active in BBYO, a Jewish youth group with a very strong local presence. I was on chapter board my junior year. My senior year, I was chapter president and was on the council board, overseeing people from all over the north shore and northwest suburbs.
Relatively speaking, I had it pretty good. I had the privilege to be taught by some of the best teachers in the state. The administration knew who I was and did what they could. They couldn't see everything and I didn't tell them everything. It helped that my dad, Marc Spivak, was president of the board of education and served District 96 for 16 years.
Sadly, students today are still bullied based on sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and other differences. They still hear harsh words; they're still beat up; and they're still trying to kill themselves. I had the privilege of meeting a few heroes. Jamie Nabozny, three years older than I am, sued his Wisconsin school district for not protecting him from bullying. Over years of junior high and high school, Jamie was insulted, spat upon, beat up, shoved into lockers, and even urinated on. A federal appeals court ruled that the district had the legal obligation to protect him. A jury ruled that the district failed to protect him. Jamie settled with the district for $900,000.
I also met Tammy Aaberg. Tammy's son, Justin, took his own life in July of 2010. He was gay and bullied. I can't imagine her pain and how much courage and strength it takes her to get up and speak about her son and the tragedy of his death.
Recently, a number of people have posted "It gets better" videos on YouTube. I'm here to ask the faculty, staff, and students of districts 96 and 125, two schools I had the privilege of attending, to make it better. You know who the bullies are. You know who the victims are. Stand up for the victims. Stand up to the bullies. Send the message that bullying will not be tolerated in our communities. Send the message not that it gets better, but that it IS better.
I'd like to share a couple lessons I learned from school and living in Buffalo Grove. Mrs. Waite, the former music teacher at Kildeer, would not allow students to say, "That's so retarded," (then the insult du jour). She taught her students that "retarded just means slow," and told us she was "retarded at art." It was a powerful lesson, and we didn't use that word, at least not in her class. I call upon today's teachers to respond the same to "That's so gay."
Words are not harmless. They have power. They cause pain. I remember the first time I lobbied. I had recently come out. I traveled from Champaign to Buffalo Grove for the grand opening of Country Meadows. The Illinois Human Rights Act was being debated in the Illinois legislature. Hands shaking, heart beating rapidly, I approached Sid Mathias, a man who I'd known most of my life, and asked him to support the bill. He told me he was already a co-sponsor.
Today, for me, it is better. Today, I still lobby. Today, I can enter a relationship with a same-sex loved one and have it recognized by my home state. Today, I ask, what are you doing to ensure that it will be better?
"I tried to kill myself. I put a bag over my head and waited for the air to run out," remembers Spivak. "I was queer. I knew it, but I wasn't yet ready to admit it."
A small hole in the bag foiled the suicide attempt, and out spilled all the pain he had been keeping in secret. His parents Marc and Marlyn Spivak, other loved ones and experts at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge answered his call for help.
Spivak still carries memories of slurs and bullying that followed him through high school. But his appreciation for simple and seemingly insignificant acts of kindness and acceptance from people who provided sanctuaries along his path to adulthood will stay with him forever.
Now 32 and living in Minneapolis, Spivak sent a letter to the Daily Herald reaching out to thank those who helped him, and to encourage others to be similar pillars of support for today's children who are bullied because they are gay or seen as different. Living proof that life for troubled teens can improve, Spivak appreciates those thoughtful and emotional "It Gets Better" videos in which non-heterosexual adults assure kids that their situation improves by adulthood. But Spivak worries some teens might see that message as reinforcing the notion they must tolerate the abuse for another four or eight years of school. That's not a message he wants to send.
"Make it better now," says Spivak. Many children and young adults suffer not from obvious and brutal attacks, but from a thousand subtle cuts that cause just as much damage.
"I have recovered from my injuries and can't remember the physical pain," says Jamie Nabozny, a gay student who won a nearly $1 million settlement from his Wisconsin school district in 1996 by proving his school failed to protect him from frequent and severe beatings, being spat and urinated on, and other horrific abuses. "However, to this day, when I hear (a slur for gay men), my whole body tenses up. Words alone can and do hurt, and we need to quit dismissing this as childhood teasing or some sort of rite of passage."
Two decades later, Spivak still remembers passing around seventh-grade yearbooks for classmates to sign.
"I got mine back with my face rubbed out by someone's eraser," Spivak says, recalling the pain of a kid feeling he didn't belong seeing tangible evidence that he didn't exist. Spivak got another yearbook, and kept this traumatic episode, along with others, secret from his parents.
"I wasn't punched or kicked. I wasn't urinated on or put in the hospital," Spivak says. The worst physical abuse occurred when a boy in his P.E. class deliberately ran across the gym to "check" him during a non-contact game of floor hockey, knocking him down, injuring his wrists, and making him cry.
Spivak tells these stories, he says, because he wants teachers, other adults and even students to realize the power of the smallest actions or an offhand comment.
Dismissing something by saying, "That's so gay," or using demeaning slang words for homosexuals aren't "just words," he says. "They hurt. Words are not harmless. They have power. They cause pain."
Spivak points to studies showing that a kind word, acceptance or even ambivalence can prevent suicides. He remembers the healing power of simple gestures by teachers, who made him feel better about himself and the school.
Ruth Waite, now deceased, was Spivak's music teacher at Kildeer Countryside Elementary School. Music is not all she taught.
"She would not allow students to say, 'That's so retarded,' then the insult du jour," Spivak says. "It was a powerful lesson, and we didn't use that word, at least not in her class. I call upon today's teachers to respond the same to 'That's so gay.'"
Thousands of schools across the country and some in the suburbs just finished "No Name-Calling Week," an educational program designed by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network to curb bullying. Sunset Ridge School in Northfield, where Marlyn Spivak works as a teacher assistant, used Michael Spivak's letter as part of the program.
The "Straight For Equality" movement of the national organization Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays will host "Talk: Not Turmoil" training from 7-9 p.m. Wednesday in the Blume Board Room of the Frick Center at Elmhurst College, 190 Prospect Ave., Elmhurst.
"PFLAG moms and dads know how comforting kind words from a straight ally can be, especially from peers and teachers," says Rabbi David Horowitz, the national president for PFLAG, which supports the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. "Even a small gesture or a refusal to find an anti-gay joke funny can show support to an LGBT kid in a meaningful and powerful way."
Bob Mackey, the legendary Stevenson High School baseball coach who retired in 2007, says he is surprised that Spivak, who was a student manager for the baseball team, still remembers how the P.E. teacher permitted the teen to take a physical fitness test after class, when potential mockers were gone.
"I don't have direct memory of it, but I must have felt he was sensitive and felt awkward in that situation, so I worked out something for him," Mackey says, adding that letting nonathletes serve as team managers was "a good way for kids to fit in at school, and we've reached out to a few kids over the years."
Stevenson High School postsecondary counselor Sue Biemeret says she had no clue she had been one of those teachers who had made such a difference until Spivak contacted her recently to issue a thank-you 15 years in the making.
"I'm thrilled to death. That's kind of cool," Biemeret says. "It wasn't like we sat down and had long discussions. We never, ever talked about his sexuality."
That pressure-free environment, perhaps, is one of the reasons Spivak sought refuge in Biemeret's college counseling office lounge before school. The counselor says her longtime secretary, Ruth Hedberg, is "so genuinely nice all the time" and welcomes kids who long to feel welcomed.
"I'd be sitting out there usually having a cup of coffee. We'd joke. We'd laugh," Biemeret remembers of Spivak. "He was a funny kid and made me laugh. It (the issues surrounding his sexuality) never came up."
Spivak also found comfort in the Spanish class taught by Daniel Bender, who is retired from Stevenson but just finished a semester teaching at New Trier High School.
"I knew none of this information," Bender says when told of Spivak's teenage turmoil. "I remember him as a quiet and polite student who tried his best."
Saying that he is happy Spivak found a peaceful and "positive learning environment for everyone," Bender says a foreign language class can be an oasis from bullying.
"Bullies, too, are reduced to making mistakes and not being able to communicate the way they want," Bender says. "It gives students a second chance."
A graduate of the University of Illinois and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Spivak volunteers as an activist with The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Minneapolis. He also volunteers with OutFront Minnesota, the Minnesota Lavender Bar Association, Lamba Legal, just got elected treasurer of the Bisexual Organizing Project, plans to pedal his bicycle 300 miles in this summer's Red Ribbon Ride to raise funds for AIDS-related services, and is promoting Creating Change (www.creatingchange.org), a five-day leadership workshop that begins Wednesday in Minneapolis.
Possessing a quick wit and a quirky sense of humor, Spivak says he sometimes has to remind himself not to use disparaging words. He still uses some of the lessons learned from the staff during his inpatient treatment after his suicide attempt.
"I need to be more concerned about how I'm coming across," Spivak says.
After all, an innocent joke or a seemingly insignificant act of kindness can stick with a person for a lifetime.