The worst and most shameful thing I have ever done was as a teenager.
I was the ringleader of a group of friends that wrote, sang and produced a parody song about a younger kid with whom we attended camp. For purposes of privacy, I will call him Jimmy.
In those pre-autism, pre-Asberger days, Jimmy was simply considered strange, bereft of the many of the social and inter-personal skills shared by most teenagers. None of our gang ever made fun of him to his face, but in the conspiracy of a friend’s basement music studio, we sang about his perceived deficiencies to the tune of a then-popular song. At the time, it seemed brilliant and hilarious. And today, it reveals itself as unrelentingly cruel.
I console myself with the confidence that Jimmy never heard the cassette tape we recorded. (Thank God there was no Facebook). I don’t think he even heard about it. I also understand that my own episode of bullying was related to the extensive bullying I underwent in middle school — both physical and verbal — for my strange faith, my short stature, and my own personality issues.
But none of that excuses my behavior. I was wrong. I was awful.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jimmy this week when I heard the story of Mitt Romney’s own episode of teenage bullying. If you’ve been on another planet in the past week, the press has been consumed with the story first reported by The Washington Post that Romney tackled and forcibly cut the hair of a fellow student who reveled in his nonconformity and was presumed gay.
In one sense, I am grateful that the story has been revealed. As I’ve written extensively at this site, I believe that gay rights is the most important civil rights issue of this generation, and anything that enables discussion of teenage bullying, and the horrible impact it has on gay children, is a positive development.
But while this discussion is important, I do not believe that the story is relevant for judging the character of Mitt Romney.
We all have done stupid and cruel things as teenagers. While my own episode did not involve violence, nor did it directly involve the victim, it was awful nonetheless. But I don’t think my character today is defined by that moment.
Indeed, science has demonstrated clearly over the past few decades that teenagers are wired much different that grown adults. Their brains are still developing, and they are prone to move more impulsive, emotional and destructive behavior.
For those of you who disagree with me — those who think that we should hold this 50-year-old incident against Romney — think about your own Jimmy story. I know you have one. We all do. The important thing is not what we did as a teenager, but whether or not we learned from it.
Romney’s record on gay rights and bullying as an adult must be carefully scrutinized. It is very much fair game.
But as much as I’m happy that the nation is focused again on the horrible crime of teenage bullying against gays and lesbians, I do not agree that any one should cast a vote against Romney because of this incident.