Family won't stand silent in bullying issue
NEW YORK — Kirk Smalley stood directly in front of Andy Pettitte and held a photo of his son Ty inches from the Yankees star’s face, pleading that such a tragedy should never again take place.
A father of four, Pettitte sat there stoic, nodding along as Smalley told the tale of his 11-year-old son who will never celebrate another birthday.
Afterward, though, the 41-year-old left-handed pitcher had trouble containing his emotions.
“It’s tough; you try to hold the tears back. You see a man’s pain. I got kids,” Pettitte said, tears streaking his face, voice breaking.
“It’s just a hurt that won’t quit hurtin’ and you feel for him.”
Pettitte along with several teammates, general manager Brian Cashman, Yankees vice chair person Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal and the WWE’s “The Big Show” joined about 500 students and adults in the Great Hall at Yankee Stadium to hear Smalley’s anti-bullying presentation with his organization “Stand for the Silent” as part of New York’s fifth annual HOPE Week.
A self-described private person thrust in front of a microphone by tragedy, Smalley ended up as the face of the organization formed after Ty committed suicide May 13, 2010.
Eighteen months after he began giving his talks, more than 700,000 people from kindergartners to corporate workers to prisoners and now, to the Yankees, including Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan and Travis Hafner, have taken “Stand for the Silent’s” oath, which ends with their motto: “I am somebody.”
Smalley’s son was bullied to the point of desperation. On the day Ty finally fought back, he was suspended from school.
When he returned home to an empty house in Perkins, Okla. — his parents were at work — he took his life.
A few months after “living in a fog” as Smalley put it, he and his wife, Laura, saw a news program about a group of high school students in nearby Oklahoma State University’s Upward Bound program who decided enough is enough.
They were going to honor Ty, and try to prevent such a senseless thing from happening again.
They decided it was time to get involved and they’ve been on the road ever since.
“We honor him every day,” Laura Smalley said.
Kirk does the speaking. Laura and their daughter Jerri Dawn, the organizing. They all provide each other support. The soft-spoken Kirk said he’s on the road 320 days a year — telling Ty’s story sometimes four times a day.
As emotionally draining as it is, Kirk can’t stop, won’t stop. For one reason:
“I get messages from kids that we talk to that tell me we saved their lives. They actually had a plan to do what Ty did and after they had heard me speak, they aren’t going to do that anymore,” he said by phone Tuesday.
“You get that many messages from that many kids saying that, how could you not do it?”
Wearing Chamberlain’s unbuttoned No. 62 jersey over his “Stand for the Silent” T-shirt tucked into his blue jeans, Kirk folded his long, lanky body into a contemplative crouch next to a large photograph of his son that sat on a stand in front of the stage.
A few of the original 68 students who founded the group told the story of five youngsters from around the world who killed themselves after persistent bullying.
When Ariel Hernderson spoke of Ty, Kirk rose and turned to the photo.
He whispered something to Ty and tenderly touched the image before turning to face one more crowd in one more city.
Henderson introduced him as “Ty’s dad.”
His voice quavering, eyes full, Kirk implored the engrossed audience with a passionate message, “that we all learn respect for others.”
He shared some staggering statistics: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death after car wrecks for young people and every seven seconds, someone is bullied.
He didn’t let anyone off the hook, getting down on a knee to look a child in the eyes as he told him he could be the person who offers a hand.
Kirk turned to Pettitte and called him out by name, “Andy,” and held up a book of letters written to the Smalleys after Ty’s death.
Kirk taught everyone “Stand for the Silent’s” hand sign — it’s the same as the American Sign Language symbol for “I love you” — thumb out, forefinger and pinky raised high.
Kirk has a second meaning for it, “I’ve got your back,” and he and the guests traded the gesture throughout with people in the audience raising their hand high unsolicited to show support for Kirk.
Throughout the presentation, Kirk used numbers to emphasize his torment.
It was 1,166 days since Ty died.
The time was 2:38 p.m. when he received the frantic phone call from his wife that awful day.
And finally, in the most assertive voice he could muster, an angry call to action, he said on Father’s Day, a month and seven days after The Day, he made Ty a promise, to stop bullying in the world.
But he went on, “I can’t do that alone. ... I’m not even asking you to do it for Ty.”
“You got three kinds of people in your world,” he said.
“You got those that wish that things could happen. You’ve got those who make things happen. And you got those who wonder, ‘What just happened?’
“Which one are you?”