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Dan Rizzo, Nashua High School South, Wednesday, June 1, 2011.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bullying victim wants to be counselor

EDITOR’S NOTE: Every year The Telegraph profiles a graduating senior from various high schools in our coverage area. This is one in a series of such profiles being published in recent weeks.

NASHUA – Daniel Rizzo has been different from his peers for much of his life.

In one way, the difference is physical. When he was younger, Rizzo was diagnosed with epithelioid sarcoma, a rare tumor often occurring in the upper extremities of young people. As a result, he lost the ring finger on his right hand.

Rizzo, now a senior at Nashua High School South, was teased incessantly. He was called a “four-fingered freak.”

“One kid told me I wasn’t human anymore,” Rizzo recalled. “That was kind of like a sucker punch.”

Rizzo is also gay. Although he has been open about his sexuality in high school without much negative response from classmates, it was during his middle school years at a private school where he said he faced the brunt of the tortuous bullying that nearly cost him his life.

“No one should have to go through what I went through,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo wants to do what he can to make sure no one does.

After graduating from South, Rizzo wants to study to become a school counselor. He plans on attending Nashua Community College for a year, then transferring to Keene State College.

“I want to be the person at school who can help kids,” he said.

It was only a few years ago when Rizzo was in a black hole of depression that many kids find themselves in after being subject to taunting and ridicule.

“Kids are narcissistic by nature,” he said. “They don’t understand the concept that people can be hurt by words.”

Rizzo started to cut himself. It became an addiction.

“It felt like I was buried under a pile of rocks,” he said. “It felt like I was drowning.”

Family members tried to help, but Rizzo was severely depressed. He stopped going to school and stopped caring about things. Then he tried to commit suicide.

“Luckily, I didn’t succeed,” Rizzo said.

Going back to his cancer diagnosis, Rizzo said he remembers feeling his stomach drop when the doctors gave his family the news. He remembers there was a lot of crying.

“My grandfather died of lung cancer, so my only experience with it was that it could kill you,” he said.

Over the past year, Rizzo has turned himself around, with the help of school staff and the support of his friends. And he’s become more comfortable with who he is. Rizzo spoke recently at a schoolwide symposium aimed at curbing bullying. It was organized by one of Rizzo’s friends and classmates, Jon Thyne. Sitting on the stage at the auditorium, Rizzo told hundreds of students what he had gone through.

Rizzo said if he could send a message to students going through what he went through, it would be to seek help and to see your way through it.

“It gets so much better,” he said.

Principal Jennifer Seusing said she has been blown away by the way Rizzo has turned himself around. One of the perks of her job, Seusing said, is being able to follow a student’s path to graduation.

“I’ve had the pleasure of watching Dan grow and mature over the past four years,” she said. “I’ve watched him deal with some real personal struggles and be able to come out on the other side.”

Rizzo said being openly gay has never been a big issue at South, which is a sign of progress. It’s become more commonplace for students to accept one another’s sexuality, he said. That being said, schools need to enact stronger, “zero-tolerance” policies when it comes to bullying, he said. Taking a lenient approach only subjects the victims to harsher bullying, he said.

“Kids will cool it for a while, but when they come back, it’s worse,” he said.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.