Angello Portillo at the Los Angeles Benefit Dinner: What Facing History Gave Me
Angello Portillo, a Facing History and Ourselves alumnus and student at Santa Monica Community College, spoke to hundreds at the Beverly Hills Hotel during the Los Angeles Benefit Dinner. In the address, he tells his story about being a bully during middle school and reflects on the role Facing History played as he examined his own behavior when he was in high school: “It gave me the language to examine the repercussions of the evil that I did, and to examine the repercussions of the good I could do as well.”
Hello. My name is Angello Portillo. I’m 18 years old, a student at Santa Monica Community College, and someday, I hope to be a scientist, an astronomer to be precise. Why? Well, I guess it’s because ever since I was little, I always felt that life was a mystery, and that if you look close enough, you may not find the answer you’re looking for, but at least you’ll find better questions--questions that bring you a little bit closer to understanding a small piece of the world and your place in it.
Sometimes you need a telescope to see what’s hidden. Sometimes you need a microscope. And sometimes, all you need is a mirror.
Tonight, I want to share with you a discovery I made with a mirror. Not one made out of glass and silver, one made out of flesh and blood. It was a discovery that changed my life. And, in part because of Facing History, maybe it helped change a few other people’s lives, too, if only by helping us ask better questions of ourselves.
It happened a while ago, back when I was a 7th grader at Virgil Middle School, a typical, outcast kid. Shy. Quiet. Kind of lonely. I wasn’t really all that great of a student. I guess you could say I was lazy, and I would do just what I needed to do to pass. But I always loved knowledge. I’d always be the first to raise my hand in class. And that was enough to get me labeled as a nerd by the popular kids.
I don’t like that word – popular. It wasn’t that they were popular. It was that they were a crew--a kind of gang of attention grabbers who thought the world revolved around them and would bully and tease anyone who wasn’t part of their crew. They wouldn’t bully you in the physical sense. It was psychological. And that, sometimes, can be just as bad or worse. Especially when you’re a 12-year-old kid desperate to fit in.
I tried to stay in the background. If I couldn’t be one of them, at least I didn’t want to be one of their victims. But then, one day, I found a way in.But to get in, I had to stomp all over somebody else. There was this one girl in particular who had caught the crew’s attention. Like me, she was an outsider. Just like me, she was a rocker . She was, as far as they were concerned, an easy target. They would clown on her. A lot. They would call her “horseface” and “emo” and laugh at her all the time.
Looking back, it’s odd that I never realized how much she and I had in common. Back then I saw her as my ticket into the crew. I realized I could make them laugh by mocking her, and I did, relentlessly, for a month or so, every day in class. I was so desperate to be one of them that I became worse than them; I was the one who attacked her the most and the most viciously. And never once did I think about what I was doing to her.
And then, one day, I got called down to the social worker’s office. Getting called down to the office like that, that was a badge of honor for the crew, and I walked out of the classroom with my head held high.
And when I got there, the social worker asked me a question. “Has anyone ever hurt you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad was it?” she asked me.
“About an eight,” I said.
“That’s interesting,” she said. Because she had just been talking to the girl I had been tormenting, and had asked her the same question. On a scale of 1 to 10, she said, the pain I had inflicted on her was a 20. It was so bad, the social worker told me, that this 12-year-old girl who I had sacrificed to buy my way into the crew, this girl who in so many ways was just like me, had started cutting herself.
She told me that someday I would get what I deserved. But in the meantime, she told me that I needed to write a letter to the girl to apologize for what I did.
That night, I wrote the letter. And for the first time, I realized what I had done and how easy it had been to do it. Every word hurt. Even the first few words, “Hi, how are you doing?” were painful to write because I knew she was in terrible pain and it was because of me, what I had done. I told her how truly sincerely remorseful I was, how I now understood that something I had done for my own good had been – there’s no other way to say this – evil. And the next day, when I gave her the letter, I couldn’t even look her in the eye.
I’d be lying if I told you that it was easy to change. Later that same day, in class with her, I felt the need to go after her again so that I could get the approval of the crew, but I fought that urge, and little by little, it became easier. I found myself slipping into the background, becoming quieter, more polite, maybe. But it was less isolating. Now, when I’d see people taunting others, I’d distance myself from the tormentors.
That might have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Three years later, in 10th grade, in the Facing History class, it all came back again. We were learning about the Holocaust. We read the book Night and we watched Schindler’s List. Our teachers asked us to write stories about our own experiences, if we had ever been oppressed or been a bystander when someone else had been oppressed. To write about whether we had ever been an upstander . A lot of people’s stories were how they were the bystander, a few told how they were the oppressed.
My story was different. It was about how easy it had been to become an oppressor. The story immediately attracted attention. My teachers saw the story as a way to teach people about how easy it is to become an oppressor, a bully. I understood then that [telling] the story … about what I had done, and [sharing] about how I learned , was, after all, what Facing History was about. It was about learning to recognize evil – and that’s the word I use for what I did – and taking responsibility for it. To stand up to it. Even when it means standing up to yourself. That’s what my story is about, and that’s what Facing History is about. I have heard that some people took the story to heart, and maybe it did change their lives, if only a little.
I’m sure you understand that it’s not easy for me to talk about this. It‘s never easy to talk about the bad things you’ve done but that’s not what makes this so difficult. What makes it difficult is that I’m not just telling my story. I’m also telling a piece of my victim’s story.
What gives me the right to do that?
You see, that girl was still in the same school as I was, she too was taking Facing History, and I’ve got to tell you that I was then, and still am, a little torn about it.
I’ve told you what the people at Facing History believe I brought to them. This story. I haven’t told you what Facing History gave to me. It gave me the language to examine the repercussions of the evil that I did, and to examine the repercussions of the good I could do as well.
I don’t know for sure if it was the right thing to do, to retell that story, to force this young woman to relive the pain I put her through. I told myself at the time, that she would have recognized the value in it. I still question that. But you know what? I think that’s good. Because like I said to you at the beginning, there are a lot of mysteries in the world, and the best that we can hope for, the best that a program like Facing History can offer us, is the ability to ask better questions of ourselves and to know that if the questions hurt, keep asking them.
Thank you and good night.