Former foes form unlikely friendship
An unlikely yet beautiful friendship has formed after 40 years between a former schoolyard bully and his defenceless victim, which carries a message of reconciliation and forgiveness.
When acclaimed musical director Bryan Schimmel of A Handful of Keys, Chicago and Jersey Boys fame was a teenager, he dreaded going to school most days. It was mortifying coming face to face with one of his tormentors, Clinton Fein, in the corridors of King David High School Linksfield during the early eighties.
Heart-warmingly the two have recently become friends after confronting their past and putting it behind them.
Fein was part of a pack of butch rugger buggers who relentlessly picked on and tyrannised Schimmel – the quintessential nerd of the time who played the piano, wore glasses, and had a debilitating stutter. He was the despised “young gay boy” in a tortured time of cultural homophobia. He was ripe for the picking for the strapping, popular, rugby-playing Fein, who had a secret of his own: he, too, was gay.
Fein, who has lived in the United States for 38 years, was obsessed with hiding his burgeoning homosexuality from his peers and Schimmel became his obvious scapegoat. It was a time of exhausting torment for both for different reasons, as they navigated their path out of adolescence into early adult hood.
Before moving to King David, Fein was at Highlands North Boys High School, where he learnt how to hide his identity for his own self-preservation and craftily “honed his skills in deflection” for fear of being outed. It was there he learnt how to “butch it up” and embrace an all-pervasive toxic masculinity. When he got to King David “Bryan was the perfect decoy”, said Fein in an extract from his memoir, a work-in-progress, which he posted on Facebook last week to elicit feedback.
“I didn’t just join in the bullying, though, I would also initiate it,” he wrote.
“I remember punching him – physically inflicting pain – as a deflection, foolishly deluded into believing that my bullying made me more of a man, not less.
“So long as [it was on] Bryan, who was mercilessly mocked and branded with every anti-gay epithet under the sun, it wasn’t on me.”
While he doesn’t recall every incident, he said the few he did recall made him feel “viscerally repulsed”.
“I vividly remember seeing the hurt and anguish on Bryan’s face. In his eyes. It’s ingrained.”
After school, they moved on. Skip 40 years and, as odd as it seems, the two have recently forged a unique friendship, even if it took them four decades to shake on it.
In the ensuing years after school, both went on to carve successful artistic careers, the one becoming a well-known and much-loved musician, musical arranger, performer and educator; the other a controversial artist and photographer in the US. Unbeknown to them, they moved in similar circles in the US and always had a lot in common in terms of religion, sexuality, creativity, substance abuse and addiction. Ironically, there were many times when their lives could so easily have intersected, but they never did. That is, until a mutual friend, Alain Soriano, in the same class of ’82, gently encouraged them to meet in a bid to let bygones be bygones.
Soriano set up a meeting two years ago at Tasha’s eatery in Morningside as a sort of starting point for truth and reconciliation.
Fein knew he owed Schimmel an apology. However, he had no idea how deeply his horrid behaviour had affected Schimmel.
Schimmel agreed to meet Fein, seeing it as an opportunity to confront him and let go of the past.
Fein wondered if Schimmel would even remember him as a bully. This was immediately erased when Schimmel greeted him with the words, “I recognise you from your resting bitch face”.
The meeting was revealing and heartfelt.
“I realised that Clinton was curating an image back then, hiding in plain sight. This must have been tiring and taken a lot of work,” Schimel told the SA Jewish Report.
By forgiving Fein, he said, “There’s a funny thing about forgiveness – the lightness you feel afterwards. By letting someone off the hook, it’s also about letting yourself off the hook.”
They both walked away with a feeling of freedom, Fein said this week. It has been healing.
“I detested any role I played in causing so much damage,” said Fein.
“Bryan got the opportunity to confront me on his terms. I got to apologise. We have become friends. He’s my people,” said Fein.
Their friendship is an example of what’s possible when two people come together and reconcile.
Though they haven’t seen a lot of each other since that first meeting, they met this week to discuss a future artistic collaboration aimed at educating people about bullying, tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
“It’s not about rehashing the past, ours is a cautionary tale that teaches tolerance and respect for people’s differences,” said Schimmel.
“Parents run the risk of being out of touch with their children. We want our story to encourage them to ask the tough questions, to take a hard look at their children and ask if they are the tormentor, the tormented or neither,” he said.
“Ours is a warm, friendly relationship which we are leveraging to try to make something powerful in an attempt to have a meaningful impact in a tough time of cyber bullying,” said Schimmel, who gives motivational talks on bullying, addiction and his story.
“Being a bully doesn’t take away what you’re scared of it just hides it and, in the end, you’re worse off for it,” said Fein this week.
He regrets losing out on what he know knows would have been a great friendship.
“My actions cost me dearly. The worst for me was that I was unkind. Bullies are remembered as the loser in the end. It’s so much better to be remembered for being kind and compassionate.”
Fein marvels at how Schimmel was able to translate his pain into art in “the most remarkable way”.
“As much as I dislike bullies, I understand they come from a place of fear. In our day, it was very tactile and happened in real time. Today, it happens on social media, which is a whole different ball game, but the fundamentals are the same,” said Fein.
In hindsight, he realises that the best way for him to have asserted his masculinity would have been as Bryan’s protector not tormentor.
Schimmel’s musical titled: Bryan Schimmel: More than a Handful – everyone has a story of their own, opens at Theatre On The Square on 31 March. Fein will no doubt be in the front row.