The Bully Project
How a lesbian boxer taught a little girl to fight back.
When a single mother and her young daughter were invited by a friend to dot429’s Straight Talk, a symposium on issues that unite the LGBT community and its straight allies, they had no idea that they themselves would meet an ally who would help them tackle their biggest problem.
Elizabeth Raphael has been the victim of chronic bullying from her male peers at her New York City school. Her mother, Jane Raphael, is distraught that nothing has been done to stop the abuse, and is frustrated at a school system that seems unwilling to protect her daughter.
“I’ve been forced to pull Elizabeth from public education and home school [her] for fear she will be thrown down a flight of stairs and killed—I’m not kidding.”
Raphael has reason to be worried about her only child. Elizabeth was born via an emergency C-section, and at the age of 1 her heart stopped and she had to be resuscitated. At a year and a half, she suffered a stroke and has continued to suffer seizures triggered by overheating and a lack of hydration. Thin and small for her age, she has been academically challenged by dyslexia and numeracy issues and yet presents as bright, friendly, and articulate. Nevertheless, her school environment seems to foster bullying, with teachers apparently turning a blind eye to this ongoing abuse.
“The teachers refused to follow Elizabeth’s Individualized Education Plan. This made her stand out as needy and struggling,” says Raphael. “The IEP is a document explaining the rules on how they are to educate Elizabeth, specifically. While the law compels the school and teacher to follow the IEP, unless a parent gets an attorney, ultimately there is no way to ensure it is followed. With a class of 28 kids, the teachers didn’t want to be bothered with details.”
Singled out as different, Elizabeth was teased in the first grade and tripped. “She hit her head so severely during lunch one day, her doctor asked that I watch her several days to make sure she didn’t have a more serious concussion.”
Enter Lillian Vinci, an out lesbian boxing trainer who runs The Lady Trainer Inc. and offered, after hearing these stories, to train Elizabeth—physically and psychologically. Months later, Elizabeth is transforming.
“Boxing has helped Elizabeth with self-esteem by strengthening her body and bridging her fears, so that she’s becoming more confident,” says Vinci, a former sales manager, mortgage broker, and stock broker.
In Elizabeth, Vinci saw a way to do something about bullying that went beyond lip service or making a video. “It’s easy to turn into a victim. Elizabeth needs to learn to turn around and become a leader,” says Vinci, who meets with her charge twice a week after school, ties boxing gloves onto her hands, and takes her through her paces.
Boxing is “not about physicality. It’s about using your body movements and brain to not get hit. It’s all about dancing,” says Vinci. Elizabeth, who played a role in a local stage production of Miracle on 34th Street last year, appears to be enjoying her pugilistic outings. “She’s trying hard. She’s excited to go home and do exercises,” says Vinci. “I really do see a magnificent future for her. She already has the ability to be a leader, to be a voice, and prevent other girls who are being bullied from self-harm. It’s already there, and when she throws a left and a right, you see the leader.”
However, the bullying has continued, says her mother, Jane Raphael. This year alone, she was teased, pushed, hit, and shoved while walking in line. The latest physical bullying was last December when, according to Elizabeth, a male classmate kicked her repetitively under the desk because she rested her foot on the side of his chair during an exam. “She tried alerting the teachers, but they told her not to speak out. They refused to acknowledge a problem,” says Raphael, who has taken photos of her daughter’s bruises. “I feel like my teachers are also bullies,” says Elizabeth. “They try to pair me up with people I don’t like.”
“It appears the teachers do not have a handle on the situation, do not have control over the kids, and violence has become the acceptable norm,” says Raphael. “Adults who should know and do better have created the scenario that fosters bullying. The principal himself told me several years ago that my daughter needs to toughen up. That’s bullshit! Physically violent children have no place matriculating with nonviolent children. Our society can do lots more to fix and acknowledge the roots of violence and bullying.”
Vinci agrees and says more work needs to be done on both sides. “The bully is damaged. How do you try to fix the real problem, which is fix the damaged person? Stop the vicious cycle by educating. Hurt does not have to produce hurt.”