AMHERST — As a middle school student, Bryan Naelitz witnessed a disturbing incident he couldn’t shake.
“I was in the eighth grade and saw a special-ed student get bullied,” said the soft-spoken Marion L. Steele High School senior.
“She got tripped and knocked down,” Bryan, 17, said as he sat talking in the school’s lobby Wednesday. “It was my first experience with discrimination and bullying.”
Up to then, he had no frame of reference for such prejudice.
Bryan’s memories of that event and his troubled conscience led him to write a 500-word essay on bullying that has made him one of 10 finalists in the fourth annual Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage “Stop the Hate: Youth Speak Out” contest.
The 10 will vie for top prizes of three four-year college scholarships valued at $15,000, $25,000 and $50,000. The 10 were winnowed down from more than 1,800 public, private and home-schooled juniors and seniors who submitted essays from a seven-county region encompassing Lorain, Cuyahoga, Medina, Geauga, Lake, Portage and Summit counties.
Since the incident five years ago, Bryan, who serves as vice president of his school’s National Honor Society chapter, has become much more aware of bullying.
“There was a lot of bullying last year, especially at the junior high,” Bryan said.
He said he believes the increasing frequency of bullying in schools is caused by fears by an increasingly conformist society — “especially in a middle class suburban area” — directed toward anyone who is different.
“I think it’s the idea of finding anyone who is different and exploiting that difference as a way of defining an entire person by it,” Bryan said. “They rip other students to pieces. It’s really destructive.
“There’s a mass mentality that dominates. Most kids are of the same ethnicity and same lifestyles. Bullies feel better about themselves because others (who are different) aren’t in the same clique.”
He said he believes that classroom studies of the writings and philosophies of people including Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged,” are a positive effort to demonstrate the value of each person and his or her distinct personality.
Each student was asked to focus on three main points in the essay: Describe an experience, reflect on that experience and develop an action plan to deal with it.
For Bryan, his action plan is a campaign to recruit more coaches for Special Olympics sporting contests, an endeavor with which the National Honor Society has partnered.
“It’s a way to celebrate our differences and grow together,” he said.
The son of Doug and Cindy Naelitz, Bryan acknowledged that the rising cost of a college education was part of his motivation to enter the contest.
He plans to attend Washington University in St. Louis and major in biochemistry with an eye toward medical school and an eventual career as a physician.
Bryan and his fellow finalists will make presentations on their essays at an awards ceremony April 22 at Severance Hall in Cleveland.
Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or email@example.com.