By ROGER MOONEY
Brendan Thompson remembers the day in the fourth grade when he was jumped by a pack of bullies in a school bathroom. He remembers how he fought back, and he remembers how futile it was, because he was outnumbered. He remembers how classmates watched and laughed as he absorbed the blows to his face that left him with a bloody cut near his eye and a split lip.
There are some days you never forget, even when more than a decade has passed.
Thompson vividly remembers the reaction later that day by school administrators when confronted by his mother, who, you can imagine, was angry.
Her son, she was told, was big enough to defend himself.
Yes, Thompson was among the taller and heavier kids in his school. But Nikki Thompson didn’t raise her son to fight, and Brendan was the mellow type who made friends easily and was nicknamed the “Gentle Giant” by his mother.
Despite his size –and maybe because of it – Thomspon was a target. He was picked on in the lower grades for being pigeon-toed and later for the hump behind his neck, something, he said, that developed from years of walking with his head bowed in an attempt to blend in.
Thompson recently spoke freely of his experiences at the hands of bullies one morning while taking a break from teaching bible and math at Master’s Training Academy, a K-12 private Christian school in Apopka, Florida, which his mother opened five years ago. In the end, it would be a Step Up For Students scholarship that allowed him to attend a private high school where bullying from classmates was no longer an issue.
The bulling started in the first grade and continued through the eighth. Thompson attended four schools during that span, twice changing schools because was bullied.
“It was like a TV show,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next villain? That’s what it was like every single year.”
He is 23 and a recent graduate from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies. He will continue his education in the fall at the University of Central Florida, where he intends to study creative writing.
His plan is to produce movies and documentaries. He also wants to write books, including one on bullying. It will be about his experiences and his thoughts on how bullying is portrayed in movies and on TV.
“It needs to stop being normalized,” Thompson said. “Bullying has become normal, and it shouldn’t be normal, because the kids who are being bullied, they don’t feel normal. They feel alone. They feel suicidal. They feel empty inside, numb inside.”
Though he lived with his mother and two sisters while growing up and had other family members he could turn to, Thompson felt alone, as so many victims do. He would refuse to talk at home and stayed in his bedroom, where he listened to what his mom described as “violent music.”
Thompson said he often thought about running away from home. He had darker thoughts, too.
“I don’t really tell people this, but there were times when I did think to myself, ‘What if I just ended everything? What if I did end my life?’” he said. “Thank God I didn’t, but I did think about that. Those thoughts popped up a lot during middle school.”
What stopped him?
“I would be selfish, because it wouldn’t be me who was in pain now, it would be my family and those who loved me,” he said. “It would be selfish and the coward way out. I would hate for anyone to think I was a coward.”
For Thompson, Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students made all the difference. He used it to attend high school at Apopka Christian Academy, where he graduated in the spring of 2016. The bullying by students didn’t follow him there but he remained wary, alert for the next villain.
“Getting bullied, it was miserable,” he said. “There were nights that I would go home and feel terrible about myself. Prayer got me through a lot of stuff. Reading my bible got me through a lot of stuff.”
His renewed faith began to impact his family. Bible study became a regular part of the family’s week. His mother, Nikki Thompson, who had worked two jobs to support her family, felt the call to start her own faith-based private school.
“I wanted to help those who were in need,” she said.
So, she quit her jobs and opened Master’s Academy in 2016. It has become a haven for children who were bullied at previous schools. That’s by design, Nikki Thompson said. Watching her son suffer the abuse of classmates and listening to school administrators who didn’t seem interested in stopping it leaves a scar on a mother.
“It was hard knowing I had to leave my child (in a school) where he was being bullied,” she said. “He was being hurt. He wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t feel right.”
Today, Florida schoolchildren have more options when they become a victim of bullying. Students in public school who are bullied can benefit from the Hope Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Hope was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year. It provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffers from a qualifying incident at a public school to an eligible private school or help pay for transportation to a public school in another district.
Back when Brendan Thompson was a student, his only option to escape his bullies was financially qualifying for the tax-credit scholarship. For the 2020-21 school year, 468 students are using Hope.
Given her son’s experiences, it’s no surprise that Nikki Thompson is a fan of the Hope Scholarship which opens up a way for K-12 students in Florida to find a learning environment away from their tormentors and feel safer.
“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “There’s bullying and you have parents who can’t afford a private school education and those scholarships, they do a lot. They help a lot of families out.
“Our No. 1 priority is taking care of our students. The moment they walk through the door they become my child and I will protect them by any means necessary.”
The students at Master’s Academy are drawn to Brendan Thompson, who at 6-foot, 290 pounds, remains a gentle giant. Especially to those who were bullied at a previous school. He knows their pain. He understands.
“He’s a role model for kids who have been bullied,” his mom said.
While the incidents took him to dark and painful places, Thompson is an example of a bullying victim who has healed. He knows that many victims still suffer from the experience into adulthood. Not him, he said.
“No,” he said. “I try not to focus on what others say about me, but just focus on the positive things about myself.”
Thompson said being a victim of bullying helped him develop a thick skin against taunts and taught him to stick up for himself.
He recalled an incident before physical education class in the eighth grade when he noticed three bullies were closing in on him. Thompson said he made the first move, asking if they “wanted to go?” They backed down. A classmate who witnessed the incident called Thompson a superhero.
Thomspon didn’t think he was. He just knew if he didn’t act then, he would remain a victim, and he was tired of being a victim. He also knows not every victim can stand up for themselves.
That’s why he wants to write a book about his experiences. While in college, he wrote research papers and spoke about it during speech class, using statistics of the many victims who chose suicide to make his point.
While Thompson has spoken to victims, he also spoke with aggressors. Several of his former classmates who bullied him have reached out on Facebook or by email to express their sorrow for how they acted and to explain why they did. Some talked about being abused at home and turned to bullying as an outlet for their pain.
“Did it change the way I feel? No,” he said. “But it’s better than no apology, I guess.”
If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or are in emotional distress, please speak to someone today. Help is available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.