John Faherty reports:
Doug Hennig knows the pain of being bullied, of feeling alone. He knows the awful march to school knowing the only people who might talk to him that day would be his teachers. He knows what it is like to be, in his own words, “the fat kid.”
Hennig is 22 years old now. He is neither fat, nor a kid. He has a degree in engineering from the University of Cincinnati and this spring he will earn his MBA. He is engaged to a pretty girl.
It would be easy, expected even, for Hennig to to walk away from a difficult youth. To pretend it never happened or to put it in a box in his mind and close the lid tight.
But Hennig never wanted to do that. His first thought, after he got healthy and lost weight, was not to move on. He was inspired , to try to help other kids.
So he worked with two authors and his story became a book, “The Fat Boy Chronicles,” and then a movie. Now the book and movie are used in schools to help stop bullying and to let kids know they are not alone and that they do matter. Hennig knows what it is like to feel invisible. That, he says, is the worst part.
- Photos: Doug Hennig then and now
“People didn’t give you a chance. Nobody would talk to me. Nobody,” Hennig said. “It makes you think your opinion isn’t worth anything. The next step, is ‘I’m not worth anything.’”
Between sixth grade and seventh, Hennig’s family moved from Pleasant Run Farms to Mason. For a boy that age, it may as well have been across the country.
Hennig was the new kid at Mason Middle School, and he was already chunky. Soon, he was more than that. “I wasn’t happy, so I ate, and I didn’t have friends, so I played video games to go to another world,” Hennig said. “Now I’m the new kid and the fat kid.”
For nearly two years, he suffered abuse. It was, he says, just run-of-the-mill meanness, as if there is such a thing. He means his treatment was consistent low-grade cruelty, a string of fat jokes and emotional cruelty, not actual torture. But the isolation was awful. “You feel really alone,” Hennig said.
In 8th grade, Hennig went to his doctor for his annual checkup. He had gained 20 years for two straight years. He was 5’5” tall and weighed 187 pounds. He was no longer chunky, he was obese. The doctor told him he was worried about him.
“He said you are on a bad track,” Hennig said of the conversation. The doctor’s tone he said was very calm and non-confrontational. “Then he said if you don’t change, you will have to live this way for the rest of your life.”
That struck a chord with Hennig. He was already looking forward to getting older. People always told him that his life would be easier when he grew up. That he would lose his baby fat and meet nicer people. Now his doctor was telling him that might not be true. Hennig can still hear Dr. Richard Heyman’s next words. Lose weight he said, or “you will have to live this way for the rest of your life.”
It was the right message at the right moment. “Something clicked. I would be excluded and rejected for the rest of my life. It was scary. I knew I could not live that way.”
That week Hennig started excercising with his father, who had recently bought a Total Gym — “You know, the one with Chuck Norris.” Hennig also started on Weight Watchers with his mother. The point system can drive a boy to madness or make him start eating better. Hennig started eating fruits and vegetables with nearly every meal and and drinking lots of water.
The next year he returned to Dr. Heyman, who first had to check that he had the right chart. This time Hennig had lost 20 pounds and grown a few inches. First the doctor made sure Hennig had lost the weight in a healthy way. He had. Then Dr. Heyman asked a simple question: “What did I say to you?”
The doctor said Hennig should share his story. People, he said, would benefit from it.
On the drive home that day, Hennig asked his parents how he could tell his story. He knew he wanted to help other kids like him. “Well,” his dad said, “you could write a book.”
Hennig’s father knew one writer, who eventully pointed him to Diane Lang and Michael Buchanan, two writers and former school teachers. They agreed that this was a good story. Eventually, they turned it into fiction, “The Fat Boy Chronicles”, with the words: “Inspired by a true story,” on the cover.
The story is about a 14 year-old boy named Jimmy Winterpock who is fat and bullied. Who feels alone and wishes that people would hear him or see him or treat him like he mattered. He is 5’5” tall and weighs 187 pounds. Winterpock is Hennig. The book then became a movie of the same title.
“It’s weird,” Hennig said. When he plays two-truths-and-a-lie, the game people play at meetings or school to break the ice, he always wins. “I tell people that my life story has already been turned into a book and a move, and nobody believes it.”
“The Fat Boy Chronicles” has two goals. The first it to help obese children try to get healthier. The second objective is to stop bullying.
Hennig believes kids are cruel because they are scared. They don’t want to be mocked or derided, so they do it to somebody else. “To make sure it doesn’t happen to them,” Hennig said.
He thinks too many kids let it happen for the same reason. That they laugh along because they are afraid to make a stand. It makes the bully crueler.
“I think it would be better to work on the bystanders,” Hennig said. “If that don’t laugh or go along, it puts the bully in an awkward position. That would stop it.”
When Hennig began his freshman year at Mason High School, he said many of the children from 8th grade didn’t recognize him. “I got a lot of funny looks when I said high to people, because nobody knew who I was,” he said. The ones who ignored him started talking to him.
“Honestly, it makes you feel good when someone who ignored you starts approaching you. But you know,” Hennig said. “I focused on the kids who were nice to me before. I had a few good friends.”
Most surreal moment of his life
Hennig was most gratified when “The Fat Boy Chronicles” became part of the curriculum in health classes for 8th graders and freshman at the Mason Middle School and Mason High School. It made him proud to be a Comet.
“A lot of schools don’t want to admit they have a problem,” Hennig said. “But all schools have a problem. That’s why we are so proud of Mason, they know students can benefit.”
Hennig is not sure which is more “surreal.” The fact that there is book based on his life, or the day when the book came out and Hennig went back to Mason Middle School to talk to students.
“Students were asking for my autograph in the same hallway where kids used to be mean to me,” Hennig said. He knew it was bizarre.
Today Hennig is 5’11” and weighs 175 pounds. Nobody would ever guess that he ever had a weight problem. But when he shows them photographs, they alls say, “Oh.”
Hennig has not made any real money from the book or the movie. A few small checks, he said. Barely worth noticing. But he knows it has helped. The book is required reading in school districts in North Carolina, Illinois, Georgia and Mason.
A boy in Georgia, Brandon Steiper, read his book. At the time, Steiper in his first year of middle school and weighed 400 pounds. He felt alone too. Then he read the book.
“It seemed like my life. When the Jimmy character said, “I want help, I’m done with this,” it seemed really real to me,” Stepier said. “I loved it, it changed my life.”
Steiper, like Hennig, started exercising and eating better. He began to believe in himself. Now he is 14 years old and weighs 249 pounds. “I’m still a really big person,” Steiper said. “But I feel a lot better.”
Hennig who has become facebook friends Steiper, is thrilled. “That is very humbling,” Hennig said. “It makes me so happy to think that maybe I helped him a little bit.”
Hennig will tell his story to anybody. He is not embarrassed by any of it, and thinks it can help others. He is certain that most everyone is carrying something around. His weight was just easy to see.
And now when he sees a boy or a girl that looks like he used to look, he always makes sure to slow down.
“I try to give them a good honest smile. If it seems like they want to talk, I will ask how they are doing,” Hennig said. “But really, just being acknowledged means so much.”
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