Country singer Billy Dawson will be in Chattanooga the week of Sept. 12-16, but not to perform hits like “Whatever Happens,” “Lance Corporal Austin,” and “Twenty Once, Too.” Instead of bringing his guitar, he’ll be bringing copies of his best-seller for kids, “You Never Know,” and speaking with students at ten local middle schools about bullying.
The country star could have called his week-long stay in Chattanooga Billy Dawson’s Forgiveness Tour. After being on both sides of the bullying equation, Dawson wants to encourage kids to forgive and forget the wrongs of the past, and learn to love and respect each other.
“I want to have an impact on young people,” Dawson said during a recent telephone interview with the Hamilton County Herald. “I want to use my platform to speak with the next generation, and see if I can help them out with some of the things I’ve seen and dealt with.”
A native of Sunray, Texas, Dawson and his friends were on the receiving end of a bully’s unwanted attention in sixth grade. But instead of resolving the problem in a nonviolent way, Dawson gave the boy a taste of his own medicine.
“He would choke my friends, and I didn’t know why, so one day, I hauled across the gym and hit him,” Dawson said. “He fell down and his books spilled across the floor. He cried, and everyone laughed at him.”
Instead of feeling vindicated, Dawson felt bad. Later in life, he learned the kid was being beaten at home, and was taking his anger out on someone smaller than him. The news hit Dawson hard. “It changed my thinking,” he said.
Dawson was bullied again in high school for being different. Instead of signing up for sports, he wanted to focus on music, and took a lot of hurtful ribbing from the coaches. But Dawson stayed the course, and in time, one of those men attended a show he played at Texas State University.
“He went up to my mom crying and told her he’d treated me terribly,” Dawson said. “My mom said I didn’t remember it, but I did.”
Dawson had already let the past go, though. “Forgiveness is a wonderful thing,” he said.
As Dawson’s career took off, he held on to the lessons of understanding and forgiveness he had learned early in life. Then, on a particularly bad day, he slipped.
Dawson’s plane home from California had been delayed for five hours, and he was hungry, which made it a bad day to have packed his credit card in his luggage. When he finally arrived in Nashville, he had progressed from hungry to starving, and was not in the best mood. So when Dawson pulled up to a drive-thru speaker to order his favorite burger (one with onions, cheese, ketchup, pickles, and mustard, but no mayonnaise), and the voice on other end was abbrasive and loud, he shot back.
“We all turn into cavemen when we’re hungry,” Dawson said. “I repeated my order using the same tone he was giving me.”
After the two had shouted more words at each other, Dawson peeled out of the drive-thru and took off, his appetite forgotten. About two miles down the road, the lesson he’d learned about the bully who was being beaten at home popped into his head, and he started to ask himself questions: What if his wife had left him? What if he’d found out he had cancer? What if he was at his second job?
You can never know, he thought.
Compassion overcame Dawson, and he drove back to the restaurant and apologized to the man through the speaker. “He started to cry through the intercom, and said he was having one of the worst days he’d had in a long time,” Dawson said. “He couldn’t believe I had turned around to say I was sorry.”
As Dawson said, forgiveness is a wonderful thing.
Dawson didn’t get a burger that day, but he was inspired to write “You Never Know,” the first publication in a series of children’s books centered on bullying, racism, and other issues kids face.
“My grandmother always told me to write down my experiences,” Dawson said. “The experience at the drive-thru, as well as other events in my life, led me to write the book. You can never know what someone is going through, so it’s important to always be kind.”
When Lynda Hood, executive director of the Chattanooga Bar Association (CBA) and a friend of Dawson’s, learned about “You Never Know,” she urged Dawson to partner with the association and Hamilton County’s middle schools to bring his anti-bullying message to local students.
“We’re hearing more and more about bullying,” Hood said. “It’s a national concern.”
In a press release about Dawson’s upcoming visit, the CBA said bullying includes more than throwing punches or pushing a child down; it can also include name-calling, spreading rumors, or mocking a person’s differences, either in person, behind a child’s back, or through the Internet or cell phones.
“Bullying does more than make life unpleasant for the picked-on students. It can damage their self-esteem, cause depression, distract them from school, hurt academic performance, and cause them to be afraid to go to school. In some cases, the effects reach into adulthood, or worse, lead to death. Research has indicated that bullying victims are more likely to attempt or complete suicide,” the CBA said.
The National Education Association reports that six out of 10 American teenagers witness bullying in school every day, and an estimated 160,000 students stay home each day out of fear of being bullied. In addition, about 71 percent of students report bullying as an ongoing problem.
To help reverse the national trend in Hamilton County, Dawson will visit ten schools, including Tyner Middle Academy, Hunter Middle School, Hixson Middle School, Center for Creative Arts, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, Sale Creek Middle/High School, Soddy Daisy Middle School, Ooltewah Middle School, and Brown Middle School.
Chances are, Dawson will bring his guitar, too. It’s what he does. But he’s primarily coming to urge kids to make good choices, and to understand they can never know what another person is going through, so they should always be kind. Like Dawson writes in his book, “Life is like a work of art. You get to paint it the way you want, but you get only one canvas, so choose wisely how you brush.”
Dawson was recently named Artist of the Year, Best Country Male Vocalist, and Best Country Live Performer at the Nashville Independent Music Awards. Learn more and listen to his music at www.billydawsonmusic.com.