It started around Grade 2, maybe even earlier – the exclusion, the name calling: pork chop, fattie, nerd. Poet and writer Shane Koyczan was being raised by his grandparents, and when the kids at school found out, the taunting began.
"It started with a lot of kids saying, 'Your parents don't want you,' " says Koyczan, now 36, who survived hellish school experiences in Yellowknife and Penticton, B.C., thanks in large part to the tender attention of his grandmother.
"At the end of every day … she'd cook dinner and then she'd sit down and say, 'All right, tell me about it.' And we'd talk until I felt better about it, or at least my batteries were recharged enough so that I could go and face another day."
Late at night, he could hear her crying. To this day, Koyczan says, she doesn't like to talk about it. "I don't blame her. She's dealt with it, you know? She's earned her rest."
Koyczan is telling the story by phone from his hotel room in Long Beach, Calif., where on Thursday he will give a TED talk about bullying. You could call him an expert: Long bullied, he eventually became a bully. Unlike his grandmother, however, he is still talking about it – to the comfort of bullied people everywhere.
An animated video for Koyczan's powerful anti-bullying spoken word anthem To This Day officially launches on Feb. 27, Pink Shirt Day. Posted online last week, it has had more than 4.6 million views.
The video is a stunning piece of work, crowd-animated by 86 animators and motion artists, all volunteers. "It was done on a budget of love and compassion," says Koyczan, who went from spoken-word community hero to famous Olympic poet overnight with his performance of We Are More at the 2010 opening ceremony of the Vancouver Games.
Koyczan had done some pro bono voice work for Vancouver-based Giant Ant, on a project for the Dalai Lama Centre. Giant Ant, a storytelling studio that has done work for organizations ranging from the National Basketball Association to Vancouver Opera, offered to donate time to a project of Koyczan's. He wanted to create a video for To This Day, one of the tracks on his 2012 album Remembrance Year (with his band Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long).
They put out a public call for people to animate 20-second segments. Giant Ant received more than 400 submissions from around the world.
"Honestly everything I saw was so jaw-droppingly beautiful," says Koyczan, who left the decisions to Giant Ant.
The animation runs the gamut from a pink claymation karate-chopping pig to a shades-of-grey woman with a facial birth mark, but never do the transitions feel jarring.
"It was interesting … just the way they married everything together," Koyczan says. "You can tell the animators took a great deal of care with what they put forward. Ah, there was just so much tenderness that came out of it."
The result is raw and personal, oozing with sorrow, anger and hope.
"If you can't see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror. Look a little closer. Stare a little longer," Koyczan says, his voice rising into a raging, determined crescendo. "Because there's something inside you that made you keep trying despite everyone who told you to quit. You built a cast around your broken heart and signed it yourself. You signed it 'they were wrong.' "
The response has been overwhelming. "I feel the weight of it; how important it is, just based on the reaction," he says. "It meant that this could help somebody, even if it's just to get through a day."