On Oct 5, Elliot London and Ronnie Kroell set out on a 921-mile, 37-day journey from Chicago to New York City to celebrate friendship. Their walk was inspired by and dedicated to Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who committed suicide three years ago after being recorded kissing a male friend on his roommate’s webcam.
On Nov. 7, they stopped at the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University. London, who is Jewish, and Kroell spoke with students about the Friend Movement, which filmmaker Kroell and activist and actor London created to inspire people “to prevent bullying by enabling them to be a better friend.”
Princeton junior Anna Rubin, who helped organize the lunch, said, “Bullying is a terrible thing, and I’ve seen it done to so many people, and it’s so hurtful.”
Leora Friedman, a senior, talked about how the culture at CJL stands in stark contrast to bullying. At the center, she said, “people are so warm and friendly to every person who walks in the building. I wish that people of all ages would treat people the way I feel like people treat people here.”
Both men remember being bullied as youngsters.
London’s family came to America from New Zealand, and he grew up in a small Midwestern town. “I was so scared of being open about being Jewish, and I’m still a little uncomfortable about being Jewish,” he said. “We have to keep working so people in small towns are not ashamed of being who they are.”
London had other difficulties as a child. “For me it was on the school bus. A kid named Sean would call me ‘faggot’ every day. One day he spit on me in front of everyone; I was mortified and had no idea what to do,” he said. But he felt he couldn’t tell his parents. “They would open a door I wasn’t ready for,” he said.
Kroell described having his pants pulled down in grade school by bullies and being ridiculed by the whole school. Luckily his parents were supportive, he said, and made his home a safe place.
“I understand firsthand how the scarring of being bullied as a child can affect you as an adult,” said Kroell, who also emphasized the need for self-empowerment and, particularly as a gay person, feeling comfortable in one’s own skin: “At the end of the day, when you look in the mirror, you have to be able to say, ‘ I love you,’ to yourself.”
After lunch, the students joined Kroell and London in affixing purple ribbons to a tree outside the center, as the two men had been doing every mile of their walk — with each ribbon commemorating a person who had committed suicide as a result of bullying.
On Nov. 10, on the last leg of their journey, the two men were joined by Clementi’s mother, Jane, and his brother, James, crossing the George Washington Bridge, their first time there since Tyler jumped to his death from the span.
The long walk has given Kroell an element of optimism despite the difficult stories he heard along the way. “One thing I learned is that there is a lot of pain, hurt, suffering in the community, but also a lot of hope — because people want to make a difference and see this problem solved, but don’t know quite how just yet.”