Dear Jackson Bezzant:
Hi, my name is Leonard. I read your dad’s Facebook post about you and wanted to share some thoughts.
When I was your age, I was a shy, skinny kid with thick glasses, couldn’t play kickball to save my life, always had my head in a book, lived alone in my own little world. All of this drew bullies to me like moths to a porch light. I got punched a lot. I had my glasses broken more than once.
I know what you’re going through is a lot worse. My bullies never threw rocks at me. They never called me a monster or a freak. I never told my parents I wanted to wear a mask to school. I never told them I wanted to kill myself.
Your dad, Dan, said you were born seven years ago with something called Treacher Collins syndrome. He said people should look it up, so I did.
According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s a genetic condition that causes underdeveloped facial bones and tissue – your mom, Kelley, told the Washington Post you were born without cheekbones and had to have facial reconstruction surgery at just 13 months old. The condition can lead to a very small chin, downward slanting eyes and unusually shaped ears or none at all. It can also cause hearing and vision problems. Your dad says that when you talk, you sound like you’re under water, and many people have trouble understanding you.
Wow, Jackson. That’s a lot to deal with. And then, to have to deal with bullies on top of it? Incredible.
No wonder when your dad learned that you had no friends and felt everybody hated you, he wrote what he did on Facebook: “My heart is in pieces right now … my soul feels like it’s ripping from my chest.” … It’s also no surprise the post went viral.
I hear that a neighbor there in Ammon, Idaho, came right over with her sons, and the boys gave you toys and promised to look out for you and play with you at school. I hear you’ve been getting letters and encouragement from around the world. I hear you told your mom you made 165 friends at recess.
That’s a lot of friends, Jackson. I’m really happy for you. Still, there are two things I want you to know, things I want you to remember after all this attention has gone away, things I wish I’d understood when I was your age.
The first is that every person – even bullies – is dealing with some challenge in life that makes them feel small sometimes, feel sad and alone. It may be looks, health, a family situation, disability, poverty, weight, or something else entirely. It may be something less serious than Treacher Collins syndrome, it may be something a whole lot worse. But I promise you, you’re not the only one. We’re all struggling with something.
Which brings me to the second thing I want you to know, Jackson. We live in a culture where people often mistake how you look for how you are. They think you’re a good person if you look like a movie star, or you’re bad if you don’t.
But that’s silly. Nobody can know who you are just by looking at you. They can’t know how smart you are, how nice you are, or what makes you laugh. They can’t know your favorite movie or flavor of ice cream. So when people who only know your face try to tell you who you are, why should you listen?
The answer is, you shouldn’t.
Always remember, Jackson, you are not your cheekbones. You are not your ears. You are not your eyes or your voice. No, you are the one and only Jackson Bezzant. Never let your condition – or your bullies – define what that means. Make sure you define that for yourself.
Like I said, Jackson, everybody has something. The trick is to make sure your “something” doesn’t also have you.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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