Of Mitt Romney's high school hijinks and the effects of cruelty

Mitt Romney misses an opportunity to acknowledge bullying and why it must stop

May 14, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Stories about Mitt Romney's bullying behavior during his prep school days in Michigan made me think of a message that popped up on my Facebook page last year: A woman from my hometown wanted to know why, 40 years ago, I had laughed at the news that her brother had been killed in a car accident.

I was startled by the question — not because the woman had raised something shameful from my past but because I had no idea what she was talking about.

I was not friends with the woman, but I knew her older sister. Her older sister and I had been classmates through high school, though we were not particularly close. I had no recollection of a brother, much less one who had died in a car accident — something that would have been big news in a small town.

The woman said she'd heard of my good-riddance laughter from others and had always wondered why I would react so cruelly.

I told the woman I was sorry for her loss and for the memory my appearance on Facebook had stirred. I responded to her questions by saying I had no recollection of the tragedy or of ever being accused of laughing about it. I expressed the hope that she would disentangle me from thoughts of her brother's death. I have not heard from her since.

Though I was confident I was not guilty of the cruel thing the woman had suggested, I was greatly disturbed by the message and picked through brain cells for some memory of this tragedy. I called my younger brother and spoke to him about it. He wasn't much help, and he found the Facebook message as oddly out of the blue as I had.

While I couldn't recall having laughed at news of another teenager's demise, I could imagine such a thing happening because boys will be boys will be jerks. I could recall daily laughter around lockers in the crowded high school hallways, imbecilic shoutings on the sidewalk in the center of town, one punk trying to get the others to laugh. And cruelty was key to comedy.

I could imagine the wrong thing being said in the moment and becoming in the next a thing of gossip. We didn't have cell phones and text messaging back then, but we had telephones and a busy teenage grapevine.

It's possible something was misconstrued or exaggerated, then reported as fact -- cruel boys laughing about another's death — and carried through life by the woman who contacted me on Facebook.

So a couple of thoughts about all this, prompted by the Washington Post story about Mr. Romney's "hijinks" as a student at the Cranbrook School in the 1960s, and the Republican presidential candidate's reaction to it:

I can think of several stupid things I did on purpose as a teenager, but laughing at the death of the Facebook woman's brother isn't one of them. Mr. Romney, on the other hand, is accused of an overt act of aggression. He and a "posse" reportedly tackled a fellow student, held him down and took scissors to the boy's bleached-blond hair. Witnesses confirmed the story for the Post. It's impossible to believe Mr. Romney when he says he has no specific memory of such an orchestrated and physical act.

Does any of this matter?

A lot of people have come to Mr. Romney's defense since the Post story to argue that what we did as teenagers is irrelevant to the present. I'm inclined to agree with that. Anyone who's gone to a high school reunion recognizes the difference between the people we knew in adolescence and those who have been out in the world for 20 to 30 or 40-plus years.

And yet, this is clear from the Romney story and mine: Teenage bullying and cruelty, perceived or real, can have profound effects on people, and for decades, if not their entire lives. Apparently, Mr. Romney has missed anti-bullying campaigns all over the country, including one here led by the Baltimore Ravens' popular running back Ray Rice. Instead of a lame "if anybody was hurt" apology on Fox News, Mr. Romney could have used the Cranbrook story as an opportunity for contrition and a speech about bullying. That would have been the grownup thing to do.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Follow him on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/dan.rodricks, and on Twitter: @DanRodricks.

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