- Walter Novak
- For Kelly and Mike Wencho, Harding Middle School was their son's Vietnam.
You have to be Michael to understand. He was but 11 when it started -- just a shy, well-mannered boy tossed into that shadowy swamp of pre-adolescence: junior high.
Examine him with a magnifying glass, and you'll find no bull's-eye. But you understand through the reticence of eyes and limbs, and the way he explains himself in one-word sentences -- yes, this is why the wolves circled. They smelled his fear.
It began early in the sixth grade at Lakewood's Harding Middle School. A few kids started knocking him around -- pushing books from his hands, pulling the chair from under him when he tried to sit. Michael never fought back. "I wanted to, but I didn't because I was afraid I was going to get suspended."
Mom Kelly speaks a purer truth: "He's not a fighter."
In the animal kingdom of junior high, this is the last rep you want. It is an age when aggression and cruelty ferment to perfection, while minds grow distant in the rearview mirror. A boy who won't fight back? That's the middle school version of a shooting range, where the bullets are free and plenty.
Others soon joined the fun, using his lunch as a football, spitting in his food, knocking him down the stairs. "Fucking retard" is what they called him.
Mike Wencho Sr. knew something was wrong. His boy's grades were dropping; there was luminescent distress in his eyes. But Michael "was afraid if he revealed names, the next day would be worse."
Dad's decidedly old-school, from the day when principals used huge wooden paddles, nuns wielded the fear of God, and adults were quick to teach that wonderfully pragmatic lesson: There's always someone bigger and badder than you, kid.
It was a time when fathers taught their boys to punch, how to bring damage even if you lose. But these were not those days, and Michael was not that kid.
Around Halloween, a boy decided to flip Michael's desk, banging his head against the floor. Kelly called the school. The perpetrator, she was told, suffered the ubiquitous "rough home life." Kelly let it be.
She was a ready volunteer at Harding, spending plenty of time at school. She trusted administrators when they said they would act.
Counselor Abby O'Connor tried to mediate the problems, busting out the soothing timbres of modern psychology, urging the boys to "just be friends," says Michael. In the context of the young and merciless, it was like sending Dennis Kucinich to settle the beef between Sunni and Shiite. Jeepers, guys, wouldn't peace be fun? We can rent Aladdin and order pizza! It only made it worse.
The aggression would stop for two weeks, then reappear, meaner and harder. Now Michael wasn't just weak; he was a rat, a target made fatter and more appetizing. Some 20 kids were getting in on the fun, he estimates.
The drumbeat of humiliation pummeled away at him day after day, hour after hour. He started faking sick from school and suffering panic attacks. Michael was incapable of fighting back, and a tormented sixth grader can't see more nuanced options.
So he took solace in secretly plotting to kill himself. A knife to the heart -- that would end it.
O'Connor and other officials kept assuring the Wenchos that all was being handled. Rules and procedures are in place. "We were kinda not believing him, because they told us it was being taken care of," says Mike Sr. "We were dismissing what Michael was saying."
But modern educators are wholly unequipped to handle primal conflict. Theirs is a life of rules by the pound, governing everything from dress to language to behavior. Got a problem? Create another set of rules.
Yet in the quest to build a softer, more cerebral new world, they've forgotten a central tenet of the old: Young, wild boys don't respect an authority whose greatest weapon is "That's totally inappropriate." School officials were merely the adult version of Michael -- just as weak and easily beaten.
The final straw came in March. Michael had his head slammed into a locker. When the Wenchos took him to the hospital, doctors found him suicidal, prone to falling into strange, quasi-catatonic states, and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. For Michael, Harding Middle School was a little boy's replica of Vietnam.
Cleveland Clinic shrinks told the Wenchos to yank him from the school. He never returned.
Michael now attends Catholic school, where administrators still know how to kill a beef. He's safe -- or so it seems. On a warm winter's afternoon, he stands on the family's thin patch of front yard, playing with a baseball and his catcher's mitt. He looks, for all purposes, to be a sweet, red-blooded American kid.
But he won't play outside unless his parents are near. Won't sleep alone in his room, won't go next door. Harding is just a few blocks away. The kids told him they know where he lives.
The Wenchos have since sued, and their voice mail is filled with messages from willing allies. One mom says the same thing happened to her boy; she now homeschools. Another mom calls to say her handicapped daughter was "seriously injured." All offer their rage and testimony in court.
O'Connor says she "can't really talk" about Michael. She's enduring her own teachable moment, after all.
Litigation is polite society's version of a brawl, the kind an educator can appreciate. There are pounds and pounds of rules, no real threat of violence. Just the agony of a vise squeezing your wallet ever tighter, and the disconcerting prospect of being hunted by mean little lawyers.
But she is now the prey. And like Michael, she's afraid to speak. Perhaps she now understands that when it comes to a fight, the rules protect no one.
Hindus call this karma.