Sunday, August 25, 2013
MILTON-FREEWATER — Michael Miller clearly remembers the day he was called a “fat faggot.” It was in 2006, the year he was in seventh grade, and Miller had already gotten a strong taste of bullying from day one of middle school.
When enough slurs, exclusions and taunts added up, Miller found himself at the brink of suicide — close enough to consider details that would save his family as much pain as possible, he said.
“Sixth and seventh grade were the worst. When I got to Central, I remember everyone was on edge a lot. Half the kids we didn’t know came from Ferndale (Elementary School), new groups were starting up, everyone was going through puberty.”
Those foul words didn’t come from a troubled peer, however. They came from a teacher’s lips, Miller said.
“People thought it was funny,” he said. “And that’s when we realized it was OK to do that to each other. As negative as he was, he was a role model. He made it seem OK to harass kids in front of each other. And talk about them when they were out of the room.”
That educator had plenty of company. Starting in fifth grade at Freewater Elementary School, Miller’s classmates started marching to peer pressure about how to dress, whom to talk to and what attitude to adopt, he recalled.
It didn’t sit well with the boy. Miller is a multigenerational farm kid in a family knit close by a strong mother who was active in the community. His grandparents, always nearby, showed support in all he was involved in.
Still, Miller noted, his mom was older than most of his classmates’ mothers. Although she coached sports for Michael’s teams, he still didn’t fit in with what he calls “the natural-born crowd,” he said.
Yet he got along with everybody in earlier grades, from preschool on up.
“I did my work and hung out with people I liked,” he said. “It was just really carefree.”
By seventh grade, Miller was witnessing old friendships being torn apart, and new allegiances forming.
“Based not on common interests, but common dislikes,” he explained. “You hang out with this person because you both hated the same person. And we didn’t even know why, it was just a way of life.”
Miller said he believes his refusal to embrace any one group or adopt a snarly attitude made him a mark for contempt among schoolmates and others, he said.
Crowd cruelty became the norm. Whatever gathering he approached, Miller was met with silence. Any attempts to fit in was rebuffed, he said.
“It was a group effort. Anyone being nice to me stood out, because everyone was so negative back then,” he said. “After a while, it felt like I was a social pariah.”
He saw it happen to other kids, as well, although many chose to stand there and try to revive the group’s conversation, he said.
When that teacher decided to verbally diminish Miller — going so far as to encourage another student to name a 4-H pig after him — the youngster was already beaten down by months and months of chronic bullying.
Gina Miller tried her best to help her son. A Umatilla County code enforcement officer, she is not afraid of confronting issues. She didn’t hesitate to “go to war” with the teacher, her son said.
Her efforts went nowhere and school administrators failed to step in to change the situation, even when she reported her son was on suicide watch as a result of what was happening at school, she said.
That teacher is still on staff at Central, according to the district’s website.
The idea of getting rid of the pain of school through death haunted him, Michael Miller said.
“It was all I could think about. I just wanted to overdose and die in my sleep ... back then it seemed like it would be OK.”
His family talked about changing schools, but Miller clung to the musical and other academic opportunities Central Middle School offered. And by the next year, things were starting to turn around, he said.
Just as one teacher made Miller hate school, another teacher reversed that.
The school’s eighth-grade science teacher, Joyce Plyter, not only rewarded Miller’s love of learning by giving him extra projects, she ran a tight ship in her classroom, he explained.
“She made me feel really good, she really made me want to come to school,” he said.
Students who had gotten away with bad behavior in other years got knocked off their high horses, he added.
At McLoughlin High School, the curve continued up as educators, music instructors, coaches and other students encouraged Miller to be his best. Along with his girlfriend, Miller said with a laugh.
Now 18, he is headed to Oregon State University in Corvallis at the first possible minute.
“I am so ready to start the new part of my life,” he said. Plans call for a future in wildland and marine biology.
Miller carries many scars with him, but lots of good memories, he said.
“I can see myself coming back to visit, especially with family,” he said. “But to live? No.”