It was a normal day in my 9th-grade Physics class. We were putting the finishing touches on our big end-of-the-year mini-golf course project. I went out into the hallway with my classmates, Jimmy, Eddie, Martha, and Liam to work on constructing a ramp. We were all working quietly on various segments of the project, making small-talk about the stress of finals and things like that.
Then, Eddie asked me the most random question I could imagine.
“Are you Jewish?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“God, I knew it,” Eddie said exasperatedly. “Everyone at this school is Jewish,” Eddie said, as if it were a burden on the whole community. “Hey, do you want to hear the worst Holocaust joke I know?”
“Umm…sure?” I didn’t know what else to say.
“The difference between Santa Claus and the Jews is that while Santa went down the chimney, the Jews went up.”
Both of my hands clapped over my mouth as if I were going to vomit. All of the blood in my body rushed to my head.
“What? The Holocaust never really happened,” Eddie said.
All of a sudden, the world stopped spinning. I saw my life flash before my eyes.
“Have you ever heard of The Diary of Anne Frank?” I asked.
“It’s just a story some random girl made up,” Eddie said.
As I walked home that day, I choked back tears. I still couldn’t fully comprehend what happened.
“Hey Nessa, how was your day today?” Ellie, my babysitter, asked as I entered my house.
“Fine,” I said. “I have a lot of homework to do.” (Okay, the part about homework wasn’t a lie.) I didn’t tell anyone about it for a few hours because I was afraid I’d be scolded for agreeing to hear the terrible “joke.”
When dinner rolled around, I couldn’t hold back the events of that day any longer. The information came gushing out like Niagara Falls.
“Nessa, what you experienced today is hate speech. You have to report it,” my dad said.
“In another case, I might tell you to ignore this boy, but I agree with your father on this one,” my mom added.
“Write an email to your science teacher and tell us once you have finished so we can proofread it,” Dad instructed.
After I had written it, Dad proofread the email and said that it was ready to send. Seeing as I had no other options, I clicked the ominous blue button.
I was surprised when my phone let out a ping sound, indicating that I had just received an email, not more than 15 minutes after I initially sent a message to my teacher. The message said that Mr. Daniels wanted to meet me in his room at 8:00 sharp the following morning. I showed the email to my parents.
“Do you want us to come with you?” Mom asked.
“I can’t go with her, I’ll be late for work,” Dad said. “Honey, don’t you also have a work call tomorrow morning?”
“Oh, shoot. I’m sorry, Nessa, but your father’s right,” Mom said.
“You’re a big 15-year-old girl. You’re old enough to stand up for what you believe in and defend your culture and lifestyle,” Dad pep-talked me. I nodded my head absently, but my insides were twisting. However, Dad was right. It was about time I started protecting myself and my people.
That night, before I went to bed, I called my best friend, Lexi, to let her know that I would not be able to walk to school with her the next morning. I also explained the entire situation with Eddie and my physics teacher to her.
“That sounds horrible, Ness! I’m so sorry that happened to you!” Lexi exclaimed.
“Well, bad things happen to good people sometimes. It’s just the way of the world. Call me cynical, but it’s true.”
“You are so brave. I don’t know if I could do what you’re doing in this situation!”
“It’s what I have to do. I can’t just let some ignoramus insult my religion!”
“Definitely. Well, I have to get some shuteye now. See you tomorrow!”
“Bye, Lexi!” I said. “Thanks for being such a supportive friend.”
“It’s what I’m here for. I know you’d do the same for me if you were in my position.”
“That’s true. See you tomorrow!”
“Good night!” Lexi said. I pressed the red “End Call” button and somehow drifted off to sleep.
I was as ready as possible when the time came for me to stand up for myself. I ate the Breakfast of Champions (the unparalleled, chock-full-of-nutrients Eggo waffles), and as I walked to school, Fifth Harmony was blasting in my ears. I felt like they were with me as I prepared for this important fight.
I reached the door of my physics classroom and tentatively turned the knob.
“Good morning, Nessa, please take a seat,” Mr. Daniels greeted me. I sat in my usual spot in my classroom, towards the front. Mr. Daniels sat next to me and asked me to recount what had happened, so I did.
“I’m so sorry this happened to you, Nessa,” my teacher apologized.
“It’s okay,” I said, even though it wasn’t.
Just then, Mr. Sage, the science department head of the school, came into the classroom. He also asked me to explain the events of the previous afternoon once again.
“I commend your bravery, Nessa. It takes a lot of courage for a student to report something like this.” Mr. Sage shook my hand.
“I have brought this incident to the attention of Dean Blanchard. You may be pulled out of class by the Dean at any point during the school day, depending on when he gets my message. It is now 8:15, so if you wish, you may go to class,” Mr. Daniels said.
“Thank you so much for dealing with this in a timely and respectful manner,” I said and shook my teacher’s hand. I headed off to history class feeling somewhat better about my current predicament.
Later that day, during Physics class, Dean Blanchard stopped by, just as Mr. Daniels said he would. The Dean pulled me out into the hallway, where Eddie and Mr. Daniels were already standing.
“Nessa, I have already spoken with Eddie about the details of this incident, so I just need to double-check with you about what happened. Eddie asked you if he could tell you the joke, correct?” Dean Blanchard asked.
“And you told him he could tell the joke?”
“Why did you give him permission to tell you the joke?”
“I didn’t know what else to say to him. I figured the joke wouldn’t be that bad, and…I guess I was curious about what Eddie wanted to say.” All of a sudden, my shoes became rather interesting.
“If Eddie asked you if you were okay with hearing the joke and you agreed to hear the joke, I can’t punish him for what he did. You opened the door for harassment. This was all simply a misunderstanding. Eddie here did not understand that the joke was disrespectful,” the Dean said.
“My Jewish friend told me the joke, and it didn’t seem to hurt his feelings. I didn’t think it would make you upset, especially since you said I could tell you the joke,” Eddie explained.
“Well, both my family and I were rather offended by it,” I said.
“See, Eddie, you just learned a very valuable lesson. Not everyone is offended by the same things. And Nessa, you learned a very important lesson also. What was it?” Dean Blanchard prompted.
“If someone asks me if I want to hear a Holocaust joke, I say no.”
“Good. Eddie, is there something you’d like to say to Nessa?”
“Nessa, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings with that joke,” Eddie said.
“Nessa, is there anything you’d like to say to Eddie?” Dean Blanchard asked.
“I accept your apology, Eddie.”
“Wonderful. Now, we can get back to class.” With that, Dean Blanchard headed back to his office.
Something in my gut didn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly was off.
“Nessa, just so you know, you shouldn’t take it personally when boys say stuff like that to you. I have a 14-year-old son, and he says stuff like what Eddie said to you all the time. It’s just what teenage boys do,” Mr. Daniels said to me before heading back into the classroom.
All of a sudden, I wanted to throw up. My head started pounding in perfect time with my staccato heartbeat. Luckily, it was the end of the day. I pulled out my phone and called my mom. I told her everything that happened with the Dean, Eddie, and Mr. Daniels.
“I feel sick, Mom. My head hurts, I can’t breathe, I’m sweating all over, my heart is pounding, and I think I’m gonna puke.”
“It’s the last yoga class this afternoon. Are you sure you don’t want to go?”
As if I didn’t know that. I loved yoga and my teacher was possibly the kindest person on the planet. However, hurling all over a rental mat was not on my agenda for today.
“No, I don’t feel good at all.”
“Okay, meet me at Patty’s house.” Patty was my brother’s friend’s mom and a close friend of my own mom. Her house was right around the corner from my school, and it just so happened that my mom was at Patty’s house for tea that afternoon. Despite my possibly feverish body, I trudged the two minutes to Patty’s house because, as pathetic as it sounds coming from the mouth of a 15-year-old, I really needed my mom.
As soon as I got to my mom’s friend’s house, I ran to my mother and hugged her. I also gave Patty a hug because I’ve known her for a very long time. Patty put some leftover pizza in the microwave and gave me a glass of water. I sat down and recounted the events of the day again for my mom and Patty.
“I can’t believe that! At your school, no less! Isn’t a significant portion of the student body Jewish?” Patty wondered.
“Yup, but it still happened,” I said.
“And that stupid Dean! Wow! He doesn’t know how to do his job! Brushing that off like it was nothing. Please,” Patty continued.
“Completely swept it under the carpet,” Mom agreed.
“Wait until your husband hears about this,” Patty said.
“Nessa, when your father hears about this, that Dean character’s in big trouble,” Mom said.
No kidding. He almost got my math teacher fired in 7th grade for kicking me out of class because I spoke out of turn.
Patty checked her watch. “Oh! Harry has a doctor’s appointment in a few minutes! We have to get going!” Patty ran into the other room where her son, Harry, and my brother, Gavi, were playing on the computer. My mom came into the room and told Gavi it was time to go.
“Patty, thank you so much for having us at your lovely home!” Mom said.
“No problem, Batya. We love having you and your family over!” Patty replied. We all turned around and left the house.
That night at dinner, I told my father what had happened with Eddie and Dean Blanchard today, and he was not exactly pleased.
“Nobody talks to my kid like that! I’m going to give that Blanchard character a piece of my mind! ‘Opened the door for harassment,’ my butt!” Dad, being his normal man-of-action self, stormed to his home office and wrote an angry email to Dean Blanchard.
Nothing much happened over the rest of the weekend. My family and I went to temple on Saturday morning, I did homework and studied for finals, hung out with Lexi, and went to dance class. By the time Sunday night rolled around, Dean Blanchard still had not responded to my dad’s email.
“So what do we do now?” Mom asked Dad.
“I say we just drop the subject,” Dad replied. “We did everything we could possibly do as parents, and Nessa did an outstanding job handling this situation to the best of her ability.”
“Why do you think I didn’t know how to respond to Eddie’s comments in the moment?” I asked. “He clearly targeted me because I gave him the big reaction he wanted, but I didn’t know what else to do! Dean Blanchard was right. It was my fault. Why did I let him insult my culture?”
“Nessa Hana Levine, in no way was this situation your fault. Another child said something derogatory and offensive to hurt your feelings,” Dad said.
“Your autism makes it harder for your brain to process new social situations on the spot. You had never experienced this situation or prepared for what to do in it, so the only way in which you knew how to respond happened to be a big reaction. The only reason other children hold it together in that situation is because they instinctively know that if they have a big reaction, it will only strengthen the aggressor. You had no way of knowing that,” Mom explained.
After dinner, my dad was checking his voicemail messages in his office.
“Nessa, Batya, I got a message from school!” Dad exclaimed from the other room. Mom and I rushed into Dad’s office. My dad put his phone on speaker and played the message from school.
“Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Levine, I’m Steve Blanchard, the Dean of students for the graduating class of 2019 at George Washington High School. I’m calling in response to a message from Mr. Levine stating that he was unsatisfied with how I handled a child who had made some comments that Nessa found to be derogatory. I personally feel that Nessa handled the situation like an adult and that the staff here at Washington High dealt with the grievance as best as we possibly could. In my professional opinion, there is nothing left for myself or the other faculty at Washington High to do in this situation. Thank you for reaching out to me. Have a good weekend, and goodbye.”
“Well, that’s a load of baloney,” Dad said.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Nessa. At this point, it’s up to you,” Mom said.
“I’ll drop it. It’s not worth it anymore,” I said. But I knew that was the wrong answer. On the other hand, I didn’t know what the right answer was. In my heart of hearts, I wasn’t satisfied with Dean Blanchard’s response. It was not my fault that Eddie said some really hurtful things.
It took me the entire summer to figure out what to do. I needed to do something powerful, but not harmful. Eventually, I decided to do what I do best: write about it. I wrote down everything that happened in the format of a short story. I changed everyone’s names, including my own and the name of my school, and I published it on the Internet under my fake name. The result was the piece you are reading at this very moment.
I did not just write this story to get the last laugh on a childhood bully or to insult my teachers. I wrote this story because it is bigger than just me and my family. This story could help other students who, like me, were bullied in school and overlooked by their school’s administration. Maybe one day, the world will change, by what happened to me or otherwise. Maybe it won’t. Only time will tell.
If you learn anything from reading this piece, it should be that all you need to do to make a difference is tell your own story.