Friday, June 4, 2010

Everyone loves a H.E.R.O.

Summertime is officially here, but is bittersweet. My stepson is stepping out into the world and will be graduating high school Monday. I’m blessed in that I’ve always been able to relate well to teens. When I came into his life almost seven years ago, he had just turned twelve. I knew the next few years were critical for Josh…middle school is where teasing and bullying really gets mean. I wanted his middle school and high school years to be something pleasant to look back on. We had many long talks on the long, 30+ mile trek to his school and back everyday, where I tried to instill some of my knowledge and experience. Josh tells me that he really appreciated those talks…I can only hope that he means it. I’m happy to say that I’m extremely proud of how Josh turned out and am excited for his future. Now my worries are about my beautiful 11 yr old daughter who just graduated from 6th grade and starts what I call ‘true’ junior high this fall (she looks 14). She’s on the right path, though, in accelerated classes (all A’s with 1 B) and made the National Junior Honor Society. But it’s in 7th grade where many kids lose their way and it’s in 7th grade where the ‘real’ peer pressure starts…and the bullying.

I say this with some conviction because I experienced it. I have friends on Facebook who post these ‘happy’ high school (and junior high) school pictures, looking back, that for them, are happy memories. I’ve spent the last 20-odd years doing everything I could to forget about those years.

Bullying is one of those things that people would rather turn their heads to, teachers included. They think it’s harmless teasing and just part of growing up. But I’m here to tell you…those ‘scars’ don’t go away…ever. Some, like me, go on to successful careers and make a difference (more on that towards the end of this). Others, like the two beautiful teenage girls who hung themselves recently in the news, never make it that far. For me, it started in 4th grade with a miscalculation during a schoolyard fight…I ‘bobbed’ instead of ‘weaved’ and got caught with an uppercut…and lost that fight. But I lost more than a fight that day…I lost my sense of self-worth.

Kids, especially in middle school, are at odds with themselves…their bodies are changing, they are understanding more of the world and that it is not always a ‘nice, rule-abiding’ place, and that some people are treated better than others and that people can be ‘categorized’. That’s where the cliques start—“you belong—you don’t belong”. So, they are trying to ‘fit in’ with everybody else and find their place in a world where they don’t know their place. Some mature faster than others. Some don’t like the status quo and have different interests—which makes them ‘weird’ and ostracized. Some kids look to be the clown; for others they look to put down someone else to take the focus off of themselves and their insecurities. For the kids that ‘belong’, if one of these ‘leaders’ of a clique starts bullying someone or putting down someone else, the others are obliged to go along or risk being kicked out themselves.

This is where I was glad to read that Cartoon Network is putting together a program to reach middle school kids with a campaign to not just stand on the sidelines when someone is being bullied…which makes sense—85% of bullying events are witnessed by someone else. It’s still being put together, but I’m sure that it will be a proactive approach that will have appropriate safeguards to protect a person who stands up to the bully. I’ve seen this work from my own experience and it is one of the reasons that I’m starting my H.E.R.O. Foundation.

The first time I remember Brian Puls coming to my rescue (indirectly) is when I was being chased home by three bullies in the 6th grade. These bullies had me so scared, they said that they had all the routes to my home covered and that they would certainly ‘get’ me. Crying, I ran up to a house—and Brian and his mother answered the door. She could see how upset I was and offered to drive me home, safely around the bullies.

That was when 6th grade was still elementary school. By the time I got to junior high, I was pretty much ok…it was a new ‘start’ for me. But by 9th grade, another bully, Roland, started targeting me. Everyday when I went to school, he would catch me unaware and ‘knee’ me in a sensitive area. I finally got the gumption to tell my mom about it, at which point she urged me to go to the principle’s office. Funny thing; parents ALWAYS tell you to go to the principal (or worse, they go themselves). That is (at least from a kid’s standpoint) worse than enduring the bullying…and it doesn’t make it stop. I told my mom I would take care of it. So, what I did was I stuffed my knit cap (it was winter), in the front of my pants before walking in the school building. Roland, of course was waiting, and again did our morning ritual. Only this time, he didn’t get the reaction he expected and proceeded to grab my hat, which I then grabbed onto. We then started wrestling.

Funny thing is, I’ve been blessed with my father’s physique. At 71, he still runs 5 miles a day, dances 6 hours every Friday night, plays competitive softball on the 1st place team in the league and has a girlfriend 15 years his junior. So, when Roland and I started wrestling, I quickly got the advantage. That’s when I felt another pair of hands on me. I wondered, ‘what the heck ?’ Turns out, Roland’s lieutenant, Tom, decided to give his buddy a hand. I don’t know what would have happened if a teacher hadn’t broken it up right then. As it was, I had embarrassed Roland and in an effort to save face, he proclaimed loudly, “you’re dead. You hear me…dead ! You better meet me at the playground after school”.

As it was, Roland was a bad kid (imagine that) and had to stay after school for detention for an unrelated infraction. So I waited. And waited. And waited. News of the upcoming fight had even gotten to the high school…and Roland was a well-respected ‘tough’ even in high school. My friends had all tried to talk me out of it…but I wouldn’t hear of it. “I’m done. Win or lose, it ends here, today”. Finally Roland shows up. We circle each other and trade some punches. Of course, fights inevitably wind up on the ground…and this one did. I again was able to get Roland in a compromised position. The high school kids stood us up as the fight was going nowhere. It was apparent that Roland’s eye was starting to swell up. What was also apparent was the 3-inch long piece of one-inch steel Roland was holding in his hand.

Being in 9th grade, you’re not sure about a lot of things and believe things you’re not entirely sure are true. All I knew was that that piece of metal looked MEAN and that I could be seriously hurt (I remember paralyzation coming to mind) by that gleaming metal. “Ill fight him, but he needs to put that down”. This is when Tom, Roland’s friend, started tossing pennies at my eyes.

“Leave him alone”.

I looked up. It was Brian Puls. Of course, Tom, who was a little guy, nearly shouted, “leave me alone ! How would you like it someone bigger than you picked on you ?!!!”. Brian, who was a really big kid, looked slowly around and said, “like who’s here ?”. “Vassell !”, Tom pointed, using the kid’s last name. “Ummm, why don’t you put the bar down, Roland,” Tom’s would-be champion exclaimed.

The rest of the story was like a fairy-tale. The fight continued and I was able to get Roland’s back. I then proceeded to rain upper-cuts into his face. What happened next is forever etched upon my mind. As if in slow-motion, my fist connected with Roland’s nose, which gushed a fountain of crimson, at the same time I remember a blonde girl turning (in slow-motion) her face, with her hands flying to her face, in a scream. I planted my hand in the middle of Roland’s back and stood up, simultaneously pushing Roland down on his belly…”Hah!! I beat you !!” I said quietly. And then all the kids ran because the red and blue lights had found us.

In the police station, I kind of got an idea of what Roland was going to face when he got home. His father was more irate that he lost the fight than anything else. I realized something that day…not all kids have the same happy home life that I did. As I walked out of the police station, Roland and I parted ways…I extended my hand, “see you tomorrow at school” I said. Roland shook it.

It’s funny. From that day forward I never got in another fight. But the teasing continued…just at another school. Physically, I’m now only 180 pounds, but I went on to bench-press over 430 pounds. The damage that happens to kids because of bullying isn’t so much physical…it’s mental and emotional. That’s why I am starting the H.E.R.O. Foundation, (Help Everyone Respect Others). One of the best ways I’ve found, (and you’ll be hearing me talk about it in the future), to instill respect, discipline, as well as physical fitness and the ability to defend yourself, is through the martial arts. Perhaps most important is that it instills CONFIDENCE. It’s funny--I had strength and natural grappling skills, but because my confidence was shaken by that uppercut in 4th grade, I allowed myself to be bullied for so long. I have put in a request to the Cartoon Network to try to work with them in any way I can.

In these economically troubled times, everyone deserves a chance to participate. I actually had started martial arts as an 8-year old…but my mom couldn’t afford it. I wonder how my life would have been different if I had continued to go. To that end, the first act I am taking is to write a check to the United Studios of Self Defense to sponsor one kid to attend the karate tournament in California this weekend. I hope to expand it from there. I chose USSD because it is where I currently go, but more importantly, because of the atmosphere…it is truly self-DEFENSE…the best defense is to walk (or run) away, and differs from most of the popular UFC-style MMA schools that have sprung up which only teach you how to hurt people. Also, USSD has individualized instruction but with a common curriculum…by having ‘standardized’ training it allows a structured environment which helps facilitate bonding with other students. My sensei, Mr. Barajas, is one of the best people I know, period. Trust me, a sensei works long hours…and it’s not for the money. He has patience, skill, a love for his craft, and honor. Master Black, the Regional Director, embodies all these characteristics as well. They work with each person’s individual strengths and weaknesses (there was an autistic kid in one of the private lessons I observed). They have a multitude of payment plans, and for a limited time, you can even get your child (or yourself) free lessons. I urge you to call Mr. Barajas at 702-454-6656---they are nationwide if you aren’t in Nevada and can help you connect with a school in your town. I love that when I’m traveling around the country.

In closing, the scars I bear inevitably remain a part of who I am…I still have a bit of shame and haven’t quite learned to wear those experiences as a badge of honor yet—even talking (or writing about it) helps. But I take comfort in the fact that my unfortunate experiences will allow me to help other kids avoid the same (or worse) fate that I endured. I can be their H.E.R.O.; like Brian was to me all those years ago.

A quick epilogue—I’ve looked for Brian online for some time now; I know he had cancer as a teenager…I lost touch when my family moved to the new high school. I’m hoping beyond hope that he beat it and is alive and well. So I can thank him these many years later.

Dan Heffley
(No, I’m not Greg Heffley’s father of the book “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”—I just have the same name…coincidence ?)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Make My Day

Make My Day.

What does NAHU and the person that uttered that famous line have in common ? Both have been around for 80 years this year. May 31st was the 80th birthday of Clint Eastwood- actor, director and advocate. I mention this because in addition to giving us acting (and directing) such movie favorites as Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino, directing Invictus and Flags of our Fathers, he is an avid advocate for businesses, recognized by various organizations for his advocacy.

As this health reform has started to shake out, we’re already seeing the shape of things to come. For those of you unaware, I was informed today that Golden Rule (a United Healthcare Company that sells individual products) is discontinuing insuring children as a standalone policy because of the provision in the law that all children must be taken irregardless of pre-existing conditions. Anyone that understands the insurance industry understands that it can be compared to a balloon…squeeze one area, and another area over-inflates…it’s called cost-shifting. We’ve seen it with insurance mandates and we’ll continue to see it as this defective law’s provisions are implemented.

More than anything, we need a legislator who has a good grasp of business and insurance principles. A background in healthcare is also helpful. Accessibility and active listening are also helpful. In the Senate race, I’ve met with Harry Reid’s office numerous times…but never with the Senator himself. By contrast, I have met with Nevada’s other Senator numerous times and even had the honor of serving on his health care roundtable this past summer. I say this for what follows.

In the race for the Republican nomination for Senator, I attempted to meet with the three (in my estimation) front runners: Sue Lowden, Danny Tarkanian and Sharon Engle. Danny was kind enough to call me back personally; I scheduled a meeting with him and health care reform leadership…it was canceled with a promise to reschedule. I’m still waiting. Sharon Engle couldn’t commit to a face-to-face, but was gracious enough to hold a 45 minute conference call with us where we were very impressed. Sue Lowden, on the other hand actually met with me a couple months back—personally for near-on two hours. Well here it is a week before the primary…and I called Sue’s office and suggested a telephone call with leadership. She wouldn’t do it…instead, she found time to personally drive to Henderson and meet with us face-to-face, where she expounded her pro-business standpoint (she helped with the Worker’s Comp issue in 1995) and her toughness as a litigator.

I know we’re not a political organization. Clint Eastwood stated, “A man needs to know his limitations”. I know my limitations…and I know what I’m good at. Some people say that our state would be better served by having a Senate Majority Leader in power. Whether that’s true or not I cannot comment on…What I CAN comment on is that the Senate Majority Leader believes that the PPACA law is the fix for our system (we know it’s not) and has been parroting rhetoric at the forums he’s held. (We all are familiar with his infamous Chamber of Commerce speech-which he repeated less than a week later !) We are an inherently non-partisan organization; however, we are faced with an imperfect law that threatens our very survival as an industry because it left out cost-containment measures needed to make health reform work. We need leaders in Washington who are willing to listen to us and act upon our input to make the best of this law. We need leaders on a national and state level who are willing to put in place cost measures not in the bill on a state level to help us contain these costs. We need leaders who are ACCESSIBLE. In a perfect world, we all would have health insurance, live in a white house with a picket fence, dog, cat and two-and-a-half kids. However, as Jon Ralston said, “that’s all well and fine on Planet Utopia, but we live in the real world”. In the “real world”, payroll has to be met, the rent has to be paid, business licenses have to be renewed. In a perfect world, I’d be driving a Lamborghini…instead I drive a fuel-efficient convertible…not that I’m complaining.

Clint Eastwood showed that you had to be a fighter and sometimes take unpopular positions, that on the surface, would could looked at as ludicrous…one that Sue Lowden did in testifying against the mammogram mandate because of the cost-shifting that it would entail; I feel her pain. After all, I testified against the autism mandate last year, which didn’t exactly sit well with my brother and his family (my nephew’s autistic). Doing what’s emotionally right doesn’t mean it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. I mean, who DOESN”T want to help autistic kids or advocate mammography ?

The point of all this is that as an industry, I need to advocate on behalf of our membership and by default, our clients who look to us for guidance. I can’t tell you who to vote for, but I can certainly pass along the information on who has our collective backs and who doesn’t.

Dan Heffley