Friend Friday

Today’s guest is Michelle Houts with whom I shared an editor (who is, sadly, no longer at Delacorte). Michelle and I got to meet in person a few years back, when I took that great trip out to Ohio and visited schools in Dublin and Botkins. I adored her first novel, The Beef Princess of Practical County, and am delighted to see her career taking off. She is a hard worker with a huge heart, as you will see below.

Michelle Houts

Before “Bully” was a Verb …

Writers are storytellers. It’s what we do. Sometimes we make them up. And we call it fiction.

Sometimes we take moments and people and events and put words to them so that others can read about those moments and people and events. We call that nonfiction.

I have story to tell. The words are mine. But the story belongs to Mark Boney.

When Mark was born, he was no different than any other baby. His parents were overjoyed to have him in their lives. He cooed and cried and smiled and burped. He was like everyone else.

By the time I met Mark, he was an elementary school student. And it was very clear that his classmates viewed him as someone different from themselves. And they were mean.

They picked on Mark for being the smartest one in the class.
They rolled their eyes and groaned when he raised his hand to ask the teacher another question.

They picked on him for wearing pants that were sometimes too short.

And for buttoning his shirt up all the way to the top button.
They teased him because his voice could be loud.

And they mocked the slight Southern twang in his vowels.
Mark’s classmates were relentless. He was target of endless teasing and taunting in second grade. In fourth grade.  In middle school.  And in high school.

I know this not because Mark was one of my students. I know this because Mark was one of my classmates.

So, I now you’re wondering. Was she mean?  Did she torment Mark Boney until he cried, “Please, stop. Just stop?”
Although many years have passed since Mark and I sat in the same classroom, I’ve often asked myself that question. Did I? Was I mean?

And, to the very best of my ability to recall, I believe the answer is no. I didn’t fling the insults. I wasn’t one who taunted and teased. I never pointed out Mark’s differences. I never tried to see if I could make him cry.

But I did something far worse.

I stood there. I just stood there when a girl made fun of his clothing. I watched and did nothing when the  boys made him cry.

Now, this story might just be my recollection a boy from school was picked on by his classmates, but the story doesn’t end here.

Not so long ago, I was digging through a box of old pictures and found this. My second grade class. You already know which boy is Mark. Which girl is me? Why, I’m the awkward one, third from the right, bottom row.
It was a Thursday,  so I posted the picture on my Facebook page as my “Throwback Thursday” post. The comments started coming in. Some from classmates I’ve been in touch with recently and some from folks I haven’t heard from in years. We reminisced. We tried to remember all the names.
And then, someone asked.

“Hey, whatever happened to Mark Boney?”
For quite a while, no one answered. And then, a post.
“Mark married, became a pastor of a church, and had a daughter. Then he died of cancer. Just a year or so ago.”
Silence. No one posted.

And, then everyone seemed to be posting at once.
I had a moment of guilt when I was reading that post. A lot of us teased him…… #feeling awful!”
“We were closer when we were younger, but as a teenager I was a mean jerk to him.”
“He never knew that we both had become pastors. He was a great man.”
“I teased Mark a bunch growing up too.”
“Wish I could have been nicer.”

One by one, 48-year-old teachers, pastors, businessmen, and writers took a long look at their 8-year-old selves, and expressed sorrow over words they now know they can never take back. Actions they can never apologize for.

It is too late.

For our Mark Boney, it is too late. But, there are Mark Boneys in every school today.

So, with the help of Mark’s only sister, Tammy Boney Martin, in March 2014 I launched The Mark Boney Promise. Every author visit I make now includes Mark’s story. And my new website has a place where students can go and hear Mark’s story.  And most importantly, they can make a promise. The Mark Boney Promise to Always treat others with respect, and to Speak up when others do not.
Because you don’t have to wait until it’s too late to do the right thing.
Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle grade readers. The Beef Princess of Practical County, The Practical County Drama Queen, Winterfrost, and her first non-fiction book, Kammie on First: Baseball’s Dottie Kamenshek.  Visit Michelle’s website here.

No Responses to “Friend Friday”

  1. Sylvia Liu

    Michelle, what a powerful story. Thanks for sharing. I also had a similar experience of watching from the sidelines. It’s hard for a child to stand up to the mob mentality. I hope your school visits make a difference.

    • Michelle Houts

      Thanks, Sylvia! I think many of us can say we have early memories of a classmate being bullied. Standing up is what we need to teach more often!

  2. Rosi

    Thanks for a very important post. I hope you can keep getting Mark’s story out there.

    • Michelle Houts

      Thanks so much, Rosi! Kids really listen when I tell the story. I don’t think they hear it from this angle very often.