Cook: Searching for Bilal Shabazz

Cook: Searching for Bilal Shabazz

November 17th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

A BULLY'S LETTER OF APOLOGY

Below is an excerpt from the speech Patrick Carroll gives to his high school seniors about bullying a former classmate:

I don't remember my GPA from high school.

I don't remember my SAT scores.

I only remember a few of my extra-curricular activities, and they are mostly snapshots in my mind that lack depth or cohesion.

I can't remember what my favorite song was or my favorite TV show.

Honestly, I can't even tell you what my favorite food was.

I know I fought with my parents, but I can't put my finger on any of the specific reasons other than I had some misguided notion that they didn't understand or appreciate my unique genius. I do know that whatever that unique genius was it disappeared along with my naivete and a good deal of my arrogance.

The person I remember the most and think of on an almost weekly basis is Bilal Shabazz.

Bilal was a small, thin, African-American boy in our PE class with a quiet demeanor and a shy personality. We spent a year in class together and I cannot tell you anything about his likes, his dislikes, his family, or where he was from. The only thing I know about Bilal was that I bullied him. I bullied him relentlessly. I made fun of him, insulted him, hit him, and encouraged my friends to do the same.

Bilal is the only part of my high school existence that remains with me constantly 20 years later. He is a reminder that I am capable, or was capable, of the greatest depths of cruelty. When I graduated, I enjoyed the money, the gifts, the warm wishes of my friends, teachers, and family. I bathed in the glow of my imagined future. I thought about anything and everything except the one thing I should have been thinking about. I should have been looking for Bilal. I should have been desperately seeking a way to make right some small fraction of all that I had done wrong.

Bilal has stuck with me for almost 20 years. One of my greatest fears is that I have, consciously or unconsciously, haunted him. I should have found him before graduation and begged his forgiveness. I should have offered apologies and tried to show him that everything I had done to him over the year was a reflection of my weakness and cowardice and not his. I didn't do that. Now I can't. I have searched for him on the Internet numerous times over the past ten years. No one seems to know what happened to him or where he went. It is too late for me to try and make amends and to try and heal his heart and mine.

In a few weeks is your graduation. I encourage you to find your Bilal. This may be your only chance to heal their soul and yours. Most of you are better people than I ever was, or am now. But if somewhere in the last few years, you have allowed the dark part of yourself to hurt those around you. Fix it. Heal it.

In high school, Patrick Carroll was a bully. And in gym class at Red Bank High School, he bullied a thin, quiet freshman named Bilal Shabazz.

He'd heckle his last name, bleating out the vowels: Shabaaaaazzz. He'd choose Bilal for his pickup basketball team, only to mock him on court. He stole from him, laughed at him, and was the ringleader for others to do the same. Like a wolf picking up a scent, Patrick attacked the mild Bilal.

Once, Bilal stood up for himself.

"I punched him square in the chest," said Patrick. "I remember the feeling of my fist hitting his chest. It was all bone and not much else. Bilal went to his knees but there was this look in his watering eyes like I had taken something from him."

Like I had taken something from him.

That was 21 years ago.

Over the years, the recklessness of high school receded, and Patrick's cruelty softened. He began to look more closely at his own wounds -- he, too, had been bullied as a freshman -- and their influence. He fell in love, got married. They moved overseas. He became a teacher and a father.

As his heart opened, he was left staring at the memory of Bilal.

"Bilal has stuck with me for almost 20 years," he said. "I should have found him before graduation and begged his forgiveness."

Some days, when Patrick hugs his own sons, he sees the face of Bilal.

"Looking at them and marveling at how wonderful and perfect they are in my eyes when I can't help but think that there were two parents at some point holding up a little Bilal Shabazz and thinking the same thing," he said. "Those are the moments that tear at me the most."

He began to search for Bilal, to find a way, anyway, to apologize. He scoured the Internet and asked old classmates for help. He found an obituary when Bilal's father died. It got him nowhere.

"I was hoping you might help me," he emailed me earlier this summer.

Patrick and I were classmates at Red Bank. As I listened to his story about Bilal and gym class, I began to remember my own stories: of being bullied, of bullying others. Of the moments I wounded others, of those who wounded me.

We've all tasted it, haven't we? The helplessness of being bullied, the way it freezes in our chest. The violent thrill of inflicting damage on others, the short-lived power that follows. The shame nearby.

I began to search for Bilal, trying to help Patrick make his apology as a way for me to apologize as well, hoping that the cruel and broken things in our hearts don't have to stay that way.

On a Wednesday in October, I found him.

His mother answered the door. I told her about Patrick and gym class. He's written you and Bilal a letter of apology, I said.

She called for Bilal. Moments later, he came out from a back bedroom. His deep eyes, his very gentle face, that shy kindness.

I handed both of them a copy of Patrick's letter. It took Bilal a long time to read it. I had expected a huge release of emotion: grief or rage or forgiveness. Something. There was none.

"Bilal," his mother said. "Do you remember any of this?"

Bilal smiled, and shook his head no.

I would soon learn why: his freshman year, Bilal was diagnosed with a mental illness. He left Red Bank for another school, where he would earn his GED. He is currently on medication and living a very stable life. He works, has friends and a caring mother.

Yet his illness has blocked any and all memory of Patrick Carroll. He cannot forgive what he does not remember.

"All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord," said Bilal's mother, reciting the verse she uses to make sense of what happened.

That year at Red Bank, as if prodded toward the edge, Bilal's life began coming apart. It caused his mother to take him to the doctor, which led to a diagnosis and treatment ... and his stable life.

"Would you tell Patrick how I appreciate the apology, but he can rest easy. Bilal does not remember the incident," his mother said.

I emailed Patrick.

"I feel a bit better on some fronts," he responded, "but worse on others."

Monday morning, children all across America will wake up, terrified of going to school because of the bully waiting on them. Bilal is able to forget that. We never should.

Like I had taken something from him.

Perhaps now it's being returned. Patrick, like a man being set free, works to stop bullying. Not long ago he spoke to the senior class at the school where he teaches. He told them all about Bilal.

"In a few weeks is your graduation. I encourage you to find your Bilal," he said. "This may be your only chance to heal their soul and yours."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329.

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