Now Or Never

Bullies drove him out of school. 40 years later, he's graduating

Brian Petersen was physically attacked and tormented with dead animals. But 40 years after bullies drove him out of school, he is set to graduate high school.

'Whatever you do, don't give up'

At 56 Brian Petersen is proud to finally be graduating with his high school diploma. (Supplied, Brian Petersen)

Brian Petersen wishes his parents were here to see him walk across the stage as he graduates from the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre. 

"I'm sure they're somewhere watching," said Petersen. In June 2019 he will finally getting a high school diploma — at 56 years old.

"I'm getting a punch in the arm from the old man."

Terrorized at school

Petersen quit school when he was just 16 because of relentless bullying that started years earlier.

"Being a smaller kid, I was an easy target," said Petersen, who was regularly punched and kicked. He had food smeared into his hair, and was locked in his locker at the end of the school day by other students. It was more than an hour before he was rescued by a janitor.

His parents and the principal tried to intervene, but Petersen says that their actions only made the bullying worse.

I didn't want to quit, because I liked school. I just couldn't take the bullying.- Brian Petersen

The final straw was the day he opened his locker and a dead pigeon with a noose around its neck swung out at him. As a crowd gathered around him and laughed, Petersen decided he'd had enough.

"You couldn't pay me enough to stay there," said Petersen. "I didn't want to quit, because I liked school. I just couldn't take the bullying."

Long term effects

Petersen got a job as a dance teacher when he was 19, and continues to teach competitive ballroom dance today. After he got married and had a son, he needed to supplement his income so he got a job as a courier, until four years ago when he was in a car accident.

Things began to unravel for Petersen after the accident. He lost his job as a courier, and struggled to find another without a high school diploma.

"My resume is very simple: career dance teacher," said Petersen. "You get a few doors slammed in your face, especially when you're getting older. It's hard."

This Happened To Me - Brian Petersen

2 years ago
This Happened To Me - Brian Petersen 6:50

He became homeless, had a mental breakdown, and attempted suicide.  After a four-month stay in a medical facility, his community mental health worker suggested he go back to school.

"I looked at her as if she had grown two heads," said Petersen. She convinced him it would be good for his mental health and help him get a better job. He was terrified, but registered for school in 2016.  

Back to school

"I didn't expect to last as long as I did. I was prepared to go for a month," said Petersen. "There were times when I thought 'Why am I here? Why am I bothering? I've got a serious case of the stupids.'"

Petersen was encouraged by teachers and fellow students to audition to be class valedictorian. He made it to the finals. (Bridget Forbes, CBC)

Despite his fears and insecurities, Petersen worked hard. He also made friends who helped him through long days and tough assignments, and repaired some of the damage done by the kids who tormented him when he was a teenager.

"Before I remember saying to myself I'm not worthy of friendship, I'm not worthy of love, I'm not worthy of any of this," said Petersen.  "But now if I miss school I'm getting constant texts, 'Brian where are you? Are you OK?'"

I feel different as a person- Brian Petersen

"I feel different as a person, which has allowed me to make friends, allowed me to see the world in a different way than I did before," said Petersen, who has done so well in school that his teachers have encouraged him to pursue university. He'll start an undergraduate degree at the University of Winnipeg in the fall.

"There's more to life than I thought there was," said Petersen.

"You're never too old. And whatever you do, don't give up."

Now or Never host Ify Chiwetelu was incredibly moved by Brian Petersen's story. Hear their special moment by clicking the audio above. (Bridget Forbes, CBC)