Lost & Found
Teen Tragedy Brings New Meaning to Professor’s Memoir
In the days that followed Brandon’s death, news reports revealed that Brandon had suffered years of anti-gay bullying at the hands of his peers. Brandon was soft-spoken and shy. He wore thick-lensed glasses most of his life. He adored his violin and played in what was formerly the Susquehanna University preparatory program’s youth orchestra. He was very artistic. He loved to write and cook. For such things, Simpson says, Brandon was called “gay, faggot and sissy.” The bullying got worse—and even turned physical— when Brandon decided to “go Goth,” a move Simpson allowed so he could express his individuality. At one point, Simpson says someone sent Brandon an anonymous text threatening to kill both her and Brandon. Then, she says, about three weeks before he died, another boy berated him in the middle of class by asking him if he was gay, if he ever kissed a boy, if he ever had sex with a boy.
But none of this ever led Simpson to believe her son might turn suicidal. When the bullying was brought to her attention in middle school, Simpson addressed the problem with the guidance counselor and sent Brandon to a private therapist. Brandon did counseling for a few months, and the therapist said he seemed fine. That’s how he seemed to everyone until the day he died.
“People say there are signs when someone is going to commit suicide, and I say, ‘No, in Brandon’s case, there was nothing.’ His grades didn’t drop. He didn’t miss school. He continued to eat,” says Simpson. “And as we all know, being a good parent doesn’t necessarily mean your child is going to come to you.”
Retief observed this dynamic play out while working as a high school teacher. “I very much felt like there were these two layers. There was this public layer the students presented and then there were these little clues about what might be going on underneath,” Retief says.
“Many of my colleagues would say, ‘The kids seem to be very happy. There doesn’t seem to be much bullying going on here.’ And on the surface, I agreed, but what I would reply to my colleagues is, ‘Well, my school looked like that, too, if you were in the classroom. A whole different dynamic developed when there were no adults around.’ … Kids keep their kid experiences private from adults.”
Retief even recalls talking to his parents in code when they asked about school. “I’d say things like, ‘The guys aren’t very nice,’ which was an understatement, to say the least,’” Retief says, laughing at the thought of making such a benign statement.