Artwork adapted from photos by Gage Skidmore (left | Wikimedia Commons) and Caleb Roenigk (right | Flickr/cc).
by Ashton Pittman
There’s an old platitude that says children don’t know how to hate – that meanness and cruelty is solely the domain of adults whose hearts have been corrupted by the sorrows and disappointments of life. I’m not so sure about that.
When I was a kid, bullies were plentiful and friends were few. Family told me it was because I was smart and that I liked to read, or that I was better looking than the rest of them (thanks, mama). No matter the reason, my bullies were relentless – and it hurt.
More than once, I got in my mom’s car after school and burst into tears after holding them in all day. Third to sixth grade were the worst years. It seemed like I couldn’t go a day without being called a name or having some cruel prank carried out at my expense.
Even so, my bullies never dimmed my sense of self worth. I internalized the messages of songs I heard on the radio at that time – songs like LeAnn Rime’s “Don’t Ever Lose That Light In Your Eyes,” or Mark Willis’ “Don’t Laugh at Me,” the lyrics to which read:
Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names
Don’t get your pleasure from my pain
In God’s eyes, we’re all the same
But I credit my family most of all; as long as I can remember, I was raised to believe that I was special (no, not a ‘little snowflake,’ thanks), that I was kind, that I was handsome, that I was smart, and most of all, that I was good. More often than not, small children will start to believe what you tell them. My family’s words had far more power over my self-image than my bullies’ words.
Still, it hurt that other kids couldn’t see the good things in me that I saw in myself. It hurt that other kids chose to be cruel for no reason. It hurt that kids would come close to befriending me, only to back away, bow to peer pressure, and join in with the bullies.
I remember being 8-years-old and reading the Thank You notes in CD booklets and the acknowledgements in books I’d read. And I remember thinking, “One day, I’m going to do something important, and when I do, I’m going to say thank you to all of my ‘friends’ who taught me how to be strong” (I was making plans to thank my haters before thanking the haters was a thing).
By high school, I had moved to another town and the bullying had subsided. At worst, I was the socially awkward smart kid who didn’t know how to interact with others thanks to years of isolation. Still, my fellow teens were at least friendly to me – and not just when they were trying to copy off of my test paper in Biology I. By the end of my tenth grade year, I had made a best friend. I made a few more in my remaining high school years.
But it was in college where I finally found my place. There, I developed a sizable friend group. I learned how to turn my awkwardness into an asset, and my social skills blossomed so much that, on any given night, I could go to a bar and inevitably strike up a long, fulfilling conversation with a perfect stranger. Some of those strangers are people I consider friends to this day.
Sometimes, I’d marvel at how far along I’d come. I’d wish I could go back in time and show it all to that lonely sixth grade kid who once skipped lunch (ensuring punishment from the principle) so that he could hide behind a bush outside the cafeteria and cry after a morning spent feigning resolve in the face of non-stop, back-to-back episodes of cruelty. He’d begun looking for company in songs like “Loser” by 3 Doors Down (a song that no sixth grader should be able to identify with in any way – just read the lyrics). That kid never really believed the adults who promised him that, one day, things would be better. Seeing who I had become in my early twenties, I wished so much that I could go back and tell him, “They’re right.”
I’d smile to myself thinking about how happy the younger me would’ve been to know that one day I’d be surrounded by friends who did see in me the good things I saw in myself.
Even as life improved for me, I watched from afar as my former bullies’ lives stagnate or completely disintegrate. Some never finished high school. Few entered college, but the ones who did all seemed to drop out quickly. Many married into misery before they even reached their twenties. Others had kids long before they were ready to be parents and struggled to keep the lights on.
None of that gave me any pleasure. Being given a chance to say, “I forgive you” would’ve given me pleasure. Hearing, “I’m sorry” would’ve been gratifying. But where they had once found pleasure in my pain, I found none in theirs.
Even so, it ratified what the adults in my life had once told me – that the bullying would some day end, that I would overcome it, and that my bullies would be the ones who finished last.
And with that sober thought, I knew that I’d finally overcome them. For years, without gloating, I held onto the knowledge that young Ashton had been vindicated. I had won.
And then came November 8th, 2016.
Trump’s win was devastating
Much of my identity was forged through politics, and through this identity, I was able to find my social circle. My political identity went through several makeovers. When I was 13, I thought of myself as a conservative Republican, influenced by the evangelical churches I grew up in and around.
When I was 19, I voted for John McCain. Four years later, in 2012, I voted for the man who beat John McCain – Barack Obama. By 2016, I came to see Hillary Clinton and the values of the Democratic Party as being far more aligned with the Christ I’d read about in the Gospels than the Republican Party that the evangelical Christian world had pointed me to.
I know there are good people of all political persuasions. After all, I’ve always known myself to be a good person, and, at some point or another, I’ve considered myself a conservative, a libertarian, a progressive, and a liberal. I thought that my fellow good people would ensure that a grown adult who embodied all of the unrestrained and senseless cruelty and malice of my childhood bullies could never ascend to the Presidency.
That’s why November 8th shook me to the core. It ripped my foundational ideas about my country and my countrymen out from under me.
When we elected Donald Trump, we elected a man who, mere months before, had attacked, disparaged, and belittled the grieving mother of a fallen soldier. When the parents of Captain Humayun Khan stood at the podium at the Democratic Convention, Ghazala Khan chose not to speak, and instead to stand silently while her husband, Khizr Khan, spoke about their son, respectfully imploring Trump – who had been championing a ban on Muslims entering the country – to recognize the sacrifice of Muslim-American servicemen and women.
Mrs. Khan chose not to speak that night because she was overcome with emotion, seeing photos of her beloved son on the screens all around them. She stood in silence, a grieving mother longing for her son, trying to hold herself together. But that didn’t stop Trump from attacking her. Days later, he suggested that she didn’t speak because she – a Muslim woman – wasn’t allowed to speak. Out of nothing but pure spite, Trump forced a grieving mother to defend her faith, her dignity, and her grief.
When we elected Donald Trump, we elected a man who once called a Hispanic Miss Universe winner “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.” We elected a man who, twenty years after that, while in the midst of a presidential campaign, woke up at 3 a.m. to attack her again. In those 3 a.m. Tweets, he called Alicia Machado “disgusting” and directed his followers to find a “sex tape” of her without providing any evidence that such a tape existed (it didn’t).
When we elected Donald Trump, we elected man who we’d all heard – on video tape – bragging about the women he’d sexually assaulted. “I did try and f*ck her. She was married. And I moved on her like a bitch,” he said of one woman. Of countless other women, he said, “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything . . . Grab them by the p*ssy. You can do anything.”
When over a dozen credible women came forward to corroborate his comments and reveal that he’d done exactly those things to them, he ridiculed them, mocked them, called them liars, and used his Twitter account to bully them. He dismissed the video as “locker room banter” – as if all men brag about committing sexual assault. As if locker rooms are the natural habitat of the misogynist and the rapist.
I could give countless other examples of Trump embodying the bullying spirit that I and countless others recognize from our youth. But perhaps the most infamous such incident is one that transpired early on in his run for the Republican nomination.
In November 2015, Trump claimed to have seen video tape from September 11, 2001 in which “thousands and thousands” of Arab Americans in Jersey City “were cheering as that building was coming down.”
After Washington Post reporter Serge Kovaleski pointed out that no such tape or reporting ever existed, Trump took the stage at one of his rallies to mock Kovaleski. For Trump, making fun of the media is just par for the course. A main feature of his campaign was its ongoing crusade against the “dishonest media,” couched in language reminiscent of the demonization in 1930s Germany of the “Lüggenpresse,” a German slur used by the Nazis that means “lying press.”
But in mocking Serge Kovaleski, Trump didn’t just call him a liar. Instead, in front of a crowd of thousands of laughing, cheering sycophants, Trump curled his right hand in towards his wrist at an unnatural angle and began flapping his arm around as he grossly mimicked Kovaleski in a whimpering, childlike voice. Kovaleski suffers from arthrogryposis, which limits the movements of his joints and causes his right hand to curl in towards his wrist. Trump wasn’t just mocking Kovaleski’s reporting. He was mocking his disability (Trump would later deny that that’s what he was doing – but watch the video for yourself).
When we elected Donald Trump, we elected a man we’d all seen lead thousands of people in imitating a disabled man in childlike mockery – the ultimate staple of the heartless schoolyard bully. It’s no wonder reports of school bullying skyrocketed during and after the presidential campaign.
That’s why, on the night of November 8th, I felt like that helpless child again. That’s why, for three days after the election, I didn’t eat and I barely slept. That’s why I wept for days. It felt like – after everything – my bullies had been vindicated and legitimized. My bullies had finally beat me. My bullies had finally won.
“I really do think we need more love and kindness”
Not long after Trump mocked Serge Kovaleski, Hillary Clinton was holding a campaign rally when 10-year-old Hannah Tandy spoke up.
“What are you going to do about bullying?” Tandy asked the then 68-year-old grandmother.
“Can you tell me a little bit more about why that’s on your mind?” Hillary asked her, concern and empathy already apparent in her voice.
“I have asthma and occasionally I hear people talking behind my back,” the fifth grader replied.
Then, Hillary took young Hannah’s hand and wrapped her arm around her.
“That was really brave,” Hillary said, her voice cracking. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a young person in today’s world where that’s coming at you all the time.”
“I really do think we need more love and kindness in our country,” Hillary continued. “I think we are not treating each other with the respect and the care that we should show toward each other. And that’s why it’s important to stand up to bullies wherever they are, and why we shouldn’t let somebody bully his way into the presidency, because that is not who we are as Americans.”
In true bullying fashion, Trump suggested that Hannah was an actress, tweeting “The Hillary Clinton staged event yesterday was pathetic.” But anyone who knows what it’s like – and who saw that little girl, trembling as she told her truth – knew Hannah wasn’t lying.
Hillary Clinton knew that, too.
Don’t think that I only supported Hillary Clinton because I saw my tormenters in her opponent. Even more powerfully, I supported Hillary, in part I think, because in her I saw a piece of myself.
From the moment Hillary entered the public arena, she has been harassed, maligned, and smeared in ways that would’ve broken the spirit of any man. She has been accused of being a man-hating feminazi. She has been falsely accused of murdering a good friend of hers. She has been blamed for her husband’s affairs.
She has been blamed for the attack Benghazi – despite numerous Republican-led congressional investigation that concluded she was not to blame. Even the left has accused her of being a “Wall Street whore” – even though her record is one in which she has often sided against the interests of big banks and in favor of working people.
She is a woman who began her career fighting for minority and disabled children at the Children’s Defense Fund. She helped establish a children’s Hospital in Arkansas. As First Lady, she pushed for and ensured the passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which to this day provides healthcare for 8 million underprivileged children who otherwise wouldn’t have any. Despite that, millions of Americans who fail to grasp the complexity of the issue of abortion call her a “baby murderer” and use names like “Killary.”
Recently, through a fake news outlet, she was accused of running a child sex ring out of pizza joint in D.C. Millions of people ignored their good sense and chose to believe the story, simply because they hated her.
Millions of Americans don’t know why they hate her. Their reasons for hating her aren’t based in any objective reality. They just do.
And that’s how it always felt for me as a kid. There was no reason for those kids to be so cruel to me. No reason for them to hate me. They just did.
But for 30 years – through every shout of “Killary!”, “Benghazi!”, “Wall Street Whore!”, and “Emails!” – she has always moved forward, with her belief in herself and her purpose intact. She never lost her capacity for empathy, for compassion, or for doing the hard work of fighting to make life better for other people – even when those same people rejected her and hated her without cause.
Through all of it, she never let go of the creed that she’d held onto ever since she was a child in the Methodist Church: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
“Let us not grow weary…”
I felt like darkness was all around me the day after the election. If such a lazy, ignorant, hateful, boastfully uninformed bully of a man could beat such a long-suffering, hardworking, compassionate, kind, intelligent woman, what was the point of my education? What was the point of all the years I’d spent seeking knowledge and wisdom? What was the point of my political science education? What use was any of it if a man far less informed than me – who bragged that he doesn’t even read books – could rise to become the most powerful man in the world?
What I felt was complete and utter despair. I could only imagine how much it must’ve hurt for her – a woman who spent her whole life dreaming of breaking that glass ceiling.
And then, around noon on November 9th, she Tweeted out the following message:
Scripture tells us: Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. pic.twitter.com/snXfdLgZq8
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 9, 2016
Tears welled up in my eyes once again. I’d heard that verse from Galatians thousands of times in my life, but the gravity of it didn’t hit me until that moment.
Hillary was reminding me how I had already overcome my own bullies before.
“Do not lose heart.” That was how I beat them the first time. Now, she was encouraging me to beat them again.
This time, my bullies are America’s bullies. Like all bullies, they target the most vulnerable first. And I know that millions of Americans fear what the next four years will bring. I do, too. Trump is a bully who has the power to sign laws, to appoint judges, and to make war.
But millions of us have overcome bullies before. And together, united, indivisible, we have the power to do it again – if we don’t lose heart. Our bullies haven’t won.