MONTVILLE, NJ - On May 14, Montville’s Lazar Middle School hosted 52 speakers for its Living Lessons experience. The event, held every other year, centers on the promotion of tolerance, compassion and understanding as the students attend six lectures from people who have faced, survived and grown against terrible odds.
“I learned a lot about forgiveness,” stated seventh grader Nick Billand.
“I like how we learned from stories that seemed unreal, like the man who got shot by people he thought were his friends, but then he forgave them,” stated seventh grader Phil Trovato.
TAPintoMontville was there for the event, and will be running a series on the speakers.
“It’s important for me to own up to my past and how far this journey has taken me,” Arno Michaelis told his audience of 25 seventh graders at his Living Lessons seminar. Michaelis was a “skinhead” for seven years, singing in a rock band that spread messages of hatred through its song lyrics.
Michaelis showed the students a video of one of his performances, warning them, “You’re going to hear some hateful language. It’s humiliating every time I hear myself saying it.
“How do you think I got to the point that I was so hateful I could scream that stuff?” Michaelis asked his audience.
“Practice,” stated one student.
“Exactly,” confirmed Michaelis. “When you practice, you get really good at it. You become familiar with violence. If that person is faced with love, how do you think it would make them feel?”
“They would push it away,” stated Cameron Roulier.
“Exactly – it would repulse you,” stated Michaelis.
Michaelis stated that his “practicing of violence” began when he was growing up in a suburb of Milwaukee.
“I had a normal childhood. I had a lot of positive affirmations from my parents. The doctors told my parents I was a ‘gifted genius,’ so they let me be wild,” Michaelis related.
Michaelis stated that his father was an alcoholic and his parents spent a lot of time fighting about it.
When he was young, he wanted to “bolt all the time. My mom would find me miles down the road. I distanced myself from my parents physically, emotionally and spiritually,” stated Michaelis.
“But ‘hurt’ people, hurt people,” stated Michaelis. “If someone is doing violence, it’s because they’re having a hard time. Suffering is a cycle -- people pass it on. I bullied kids on the school bus, and felt power from making the teachers and principal mad.”
In middle school he started breaking and entering houses and vandalizing them; by high school, he was taking drugs and drinking alcohol.
When Michaelis was 16, he attended a punk music concert and it gave him a thrill to hear the “white power skinhead music,” as Michaelis described it.
“The idea of white supremacy was very attractive to me,” said Michaelis. “It gave me a feeling of power.”
Michaelis joined a band called Centurion as their lead singer.
“I was working in a t-shirt printing store, and every Wednesday was payday, so I would treat myself to a Big Mac,” remembered Michaelis. “There was an elderly black lady working at the counter. She had a sunny smile for everybody. Her smile made me uncomfortable, because I couldn’t hate her.
“One Saturday night, I attended a party where there was a homemade tattoo machine. I got a swastika tat on my hand. The next time I went to McDonalds, I tried to hide the tat but that lady saw it.
“’I know who you are, and that’s not who you are,’ she told me. I’d like to say that that changed my life, but it took seven years,” stated Michaelis.
“That night I picked a fight with the first person I could. I hurt myself a lot and have post concussion syndrome now. I tried to put as much distance between that moment of humanity that I possibly could because it made me so uncomfortable.”
Michaelis said it was exhausting to maintain a life of hatred, because it was limiting. He couldn’t watch his favorite football team, because blacks and whites played on the team together and didn’t hate each other. So he would sneak away from friends to watch the games. He couldn’t videotape his girlfriend’s favorite TV show for her, because it was “Seinfeld,” which centered on Jewish people. So he taped it anyway but wrote “Amber’s 2nd Birthday Party” on the spine of the video.
“It was exhausting to hurt people with my bare hands because of their skin color. I was doing stupid things but I wasn’t unintelligent because I knew I was such a hypocrite. I knew in my heart it was the wrong thing to do.”
The moments that resulted in his leaving the skinhead movement forever, though, were his friend being shot and killed and becoming a single parent to his then-18-month-old daughter.
“She is 22 years old now, and everything that’s great about my life,” stated Michaelis. “But I also have that woman at McDonalds to thank. It isn’t easy to be nice to people who are being jerks, but what if you practice kindness? Your kindness can literally change someone’s life. I’ve spoken to about 20,000 in the course of the five years that I’ve been speaking, and that woman has changed their lives too. It’s not unreasonable to think that one act of kindness changed the world. Our kindness needs to be like the sun.”