As a freshman, walking through the doors of Belding High School for the very first time, the pressures of the entire world weighed on the shoulders of Aleksandr Silva.
Surrounded by hundreds of students he did not know, facing immediate intimidation from upperclassmen and hours of stressful homework, Silva was in a new, unfamiliar world and unsure of how to get a firm grasp on the pressures he was facing.
To make matters worse, Silva soon found himself becoming the target of heckling from fellow students. Sometimes in good fun; other times in more hurtful ways.
Already facing the many pressures of high school, Silva couldn’t handle the extra verbal abuse from his classmates.
What resulted was a mentality often discovered in your average school bully.
“Anything I could say to get back at them, I would,” Silva said of those who approached him. “If I could see that something was bothering them, I’d target that. If you’re going to have a bad day, why shouldn’t you make them have a bad day, or worse?”
Silva said anything from his clothing to his Mexican heritage, snide remarks to racial slurs, there was no limit to what other students would focus on to upset him.
And when the comments would come flying in his direction, he’d hurl them right back with a vengeance. He’d push the limit as far as his vocabulary and mindset would allow him.
“You’re an idiot, why do you even try?” he’d say in response.
“Honestly, why are you even talking? Nobody likes you,” he’d bark back.
“I would just keep going until they would finally stop. I would call them any name in the book if it meant they would feel like crap for making me feel bad,” he said.
Silva said his behavior landed him in the principal’s office a number of times, and while things never escalated to physical violence, aside from the occasional push, he admits the verbal abuse more than likely did more harm.
“I didn’t necessarily know when to draw the line or stop,” he said. “I would go back at them with mean comments, I wouldn’t stop until I knew they felt worse than me. I was a bully. I picked on people to make them feel bad.”
No way out
Silva, now 17 and a senior at Belding High School, looks back at his negative comments and attitude and says there wasn’t much else he could do at the time.
“It felt like you were alone, in a brand new school that you have never been in,” he said. “You don’t like the feeling of being brought down, so much so, that you end up having this aggression or anger toward them for making you feel bad. All you want is to make them feel the way you used to feel.”
Silva said that being young and confident, while at the same time also afraid and confused, left acting out as a bully as the only outlet he could comfortably identify with.
“People making fun of me, I didn’t like the way it made me feel, I didn’t feel comfortable with the way they made me feel,” he said. “Being young and arrogant, not knowing the effects that it has on others, you forget that they end up feeling the same way.”
According to Silva, these outbursts would occur as often as twice a week, sometimes several times in one day.
“If somebody upset me toward the beginning of the day, it would set me on edge,” he said. “It didn’t take much at that point for me to start picking on someone.”
Principal Brett Zuver said Silva was rarely the instigator when altercations would occur, but his reactions were always what landed him in his office.
“There was never anything major, mostly ninth grade energy, but we had to have several reminder visits,” Zuver said. “It took a while for Aleksandr to see the harm his words were doing to other students.”
Looking in the mirror
Toward the beginning of his sophomore year, Silva said he began to see the error of his ways.
One morning after stepping off the bus, he witnessed two students who began arguing just outside of the school entrance.
“We had just gotten off the bus, and two guys were arguing over something. It was over something stupid,” he said.
Silva said the two students then attempted to fight, but that’s when he stepped in.
“They tried to fight, so I pulled one kid back and told the other to stop,” he said. “I walked into the school with one of them and just told him to knock it off, and that was the end of it.”
Silva said he saw a little something of himself in those students that day, and it wasn’t long after that he realized just how hurtful his actions were to others.
“I guess I found out how other people felt when they got hurt,” he said. “I finally realized that I didn’t like it when they did it to me, so why go back and try to make them feel worse than I did?”
Silva said he soon became more involved with his friends and school activities.
By his junior year, he felt comfortable joining the wrestling team, and as a senior this year, he played on the varsity football team.
“Sports helped a lot, it helped make me aware of the things I did wrong, to become a better person,” he said. “The teachers and environment helped improve me and make me a better person.”
Silva said the change in atmosphere, from feeling alone to being accepted as part of a team, helped change his attitude altogether, and made him want to reach out and help others.
“Being around people and understanding them, you’re around these guys for months on end and you grow friendships, you see what they’ve been through and become a part of their life,” he said.
Zuver said he wasn’t surprised to see a turnaround out of Silva.
“He’s really done a nice job, not just in my opinion, but in the opinion of his teachers, too,” Zuver said. “Over the last couple of years he’s really turned the corner, maturity-wise, academically and socially.”
Zuver added that Silva’s participation in sports was likely the final component that helped him to see a full turnaround.
“The nice thing with that is all of our coaches strive to be positive role models,” he said. “How to treat people right, that’s something they really work on. All of our programs hit hard on how you should react, both on and off the field.”
When picked on or bullied now, Silva says he just brushes it off.
“I try not to get upset anymore, I react in a mature way,” he said. “They want something to happen, they want you to blow up. If you don’t react, they move on.”
A complete turnaround
Once he understood the consequences of his bullying ways, Silva found a new outlet altogether to give back in a healthy direction.
He joined the school’s Links Curriculum program, which pairs students with autistic students, working side by side with them to help them through the day.
“They don’t really have the control to stick up for or protect themselves,” Silva said. “It makes you realize you should enjoy the little things, because they are always living in the moment. We need to pay attention to the little things, because things like calling someone a name can lead to much more harmful consequences.”
Silva has decided to attend either Central Michigan University or Grand Valley State University after he graduates in 2014, with a desire to pursue teaching with a focus in special education.
He credits his wrestling coach, Travis Meyer, who is a special education teacher at the school, for helping to guide him in that direction.
Zuver said though the school has its fair share of students such as Silva, who turned to bullying early on, the majority of the time the outcome ends as his did, positively.
“Not to say we never have our instances, because we do, where people don’t treat people the way they should, but we handle every single thing that we are made aware of as quickly as possible,” Zuver said. “We’ve had a number of students over the years that we’ve noticed, from the the day they walk in the door as ninth graders to the day they graduate as seniors, the transformation is unbelievable. Our teachers do a great job of modeling positive behavior.”
A message to others
Silva said when it comes to bullies, he now understands where they are coming from and knows how difficult it is to let someone in to help.
If he could speak directly to a bully today, he would tell them to simply stop and think about what they have been doing.
“I would tell them to slow down and think about the situation for a moment,” he said. “Think it out, think about all of the consequences your actions could have in the future. Would you want other people to treat you like that? Just think about it, let it sink in, and don’t say or do anything you’re going to regret.”
For those who are being bullied and can’t find a positive resolution, Silva had a message for them as well.
“Step out and ask someone for help,” he said. “The bully may not realize what they are doing. I didn’t realize the situations I was creating, I was so young and careless. Just reach out and ask for help.”
Silva said holding in those feelings can be far worse than acting out negatively, as he previously did.
“When you’re being bullied, you tend to keep it in, you let it hurt you and affect you negatively,” he said. “The emotions hurt you. But if you speak out, get help, those situations could change positively.”
And lastly, Silva said there is no reason the common bystander shouldn’t reach out and help as well.
“If you see someone struggling, they may not have enough courage to speak out, they are scared of what might happen” he said. “You should lend a hand, recognize that they need help. Comfort them, let them know that it’s OK and you are there for them.”
Now looking back, Zuver said he hopes others can look at Silva and find inspiration to turn their own lives around.
“He’s a very good young man and I’m really proud of the way he’s turned himself around,” he said. “We’re proud to have him here at Belding.”