published Sunday, November 17th, 2013

Cook: Searching for Bilal Shabazz

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.

Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.com

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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soakya said...

The bullying I see today is from editors, local papers, and the media in general which typically lean left. No one has been more bullied than Palin, the tea party and anyone that disagrees with your agenda. Just take a good long look at your comments David and that of Clay. Day in and day out you and Clay are two of the biggest bullies on this playground who have no problem using your bully pulpit to harass, intimidate and disparage those who think different than you and Clay.

Maybe its time you and Clay took the advice of Patrick and find your Bilal Shabazz and make your heart felt apologies.

November 17, 2013 at 9:31 a.m.
soakya said...

wanted to add politicians to the list of bullies. they take to the paper and other news outlets to call those who disagree with them naysayers, terrorist, anarchist and one local politician calls the people he represent sheep. Arnie Duncan now is belittling white suburban mothers and their children because they disagree with him and Common Core. You want to stop bullying start here.

November 17, 2013 at 3:51 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Good lord, soakya, can't you lighten up on your ideological biases for even a minute?! Is it so hard for you to give credit where credit is due for a thoughtful article that should touch the hearts of all of us, regardless of our political leanings? Not everything is or needs to be a liberal/conservative issue.

November 17, 2013 at 7:09 p.m.
aae1049 said...

Amen Soakya,

Clay Bennett, David Cook and the ultra left agenda of the TFP is so apparent. It is undeniable. Bennet's latest cartoon church goers as bigots,....anything to shock. Well, TFP is becoming tiresome, predictable, and protects the left politicians in local government. In short, TFP has no credibility. That is why watch groups are emerging throughout Hamilton County, because the TFP does not report local news, rather they report their agenda.

November 17, 2013 at 8:35 p.m.
soakya said...

go back to your make believe utopia rickyroo where those with huge amounts of time on their hands are creating the great inventions of the world and where welfare benefits are responsible for saving the nation from the brink of a world wide depression. do you even listen to yourself.

cook wants to talk about bullying then I'll talk about bullying where I see it, And where I see it is a leftist radical media that's in bed with a corrupt government. you don't like it, tough luck but here's a suggestion for you, when you get up tomorrow morning take the red pill instead of the blue pill and go ahead and give one to the other leftist guerillas on here . if you decide you don't like reality you can also go back to the blue pill and continue to be oblivious to what's going on around you.

November 17, 2013 at 11:27 p.m.
soakya said...

I'm afraid you are correct aae1049 the media is not interested in reporting they are interested in spreading their agenda. as I mentioned above one local representative said the media and government should be working together to guide the sheep. that's the typical out of touch elected official who not only doesn't understand his role but doesn't have a clue what the media should be doing.

November 17, 2013 at 11:41 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Soakya, you are a sad little person with a sad little mind. I'm not going to dignify the asininity of your comment with a response. Enjoy your delusions.

November 18, 2013 at 12:06 p.m.
soakya said...

you do understand I'm talking about the red and blue pills from the film Matrix. when you take the red pill you are awaken and face reality. you liberals need to take the red pill.

you spew pure utter non sense about economics, the role of government and the economy and you think someone else is delusional. again put down the blue pill.

November 18, 2013 at 1:12 p.m.
cooljb said...

The truth is like a needle in the eye to them, soakya, very good points of truth.

November 18, 2013 at 5:01 p.m.
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