By Jill Smolowe
October 18, 2010 12:00 PM

The teasing began in fifth grade, after Daniel Harrison and a neighborhood pal had a growth spurt and Courtney Kondor did not. “We were taller and just naturally started making fun of her,” says Daniel, now 15 and a sophomore at Mattawan High School, near Kalamazoo, Mich. “When she didn’t do anything about it, we drove in more and more. Like I would see her in the school hallways and shout, ‘Hey, shorty!'” By seventh grade, on the school bus, “I used to mess up Courtney’s hair,” Daniel says, while his pal continued to provide the laugh track. “It felt cool to not be made fun of and to be the one making the fun.” At no point did he think of himself as a “mean bully,” he says. “I thought of myself as a playful bully: I bullied with a smile on my face.”

One morning in December 2007 Daniel ramped up the bus “fun” by snatching a hat from Courtney’s head. Daniel tossed it to his sidekick, who passed it to another girl the two boys liked to tease, who in turn threw it back to Daniel. “I put the hat down my pants,” he says, then clarifies, “Uh, the front. It wasn’t under my boxers.” As he got off the bus, Daniel says he noticed that “Courtney was devastated” and realized that he’d gone “definitely a little too far.” The next morning he was summoned by his middle school dean to talk with-and apologize to-Courtney. He was also told to report to detention the following day. None of that made much of an impression on Daniel. “I was worried about getting grounded,” he says. “I wasn’t worried about hurting Courtney’s feelings.”

Then his parents received a phone call from the dean. Until that moment, the worst his mom, Yvette Harrison, a juvenile probation officer, and dad, Stanley, an electrician, had heard about the younger of their two sons was that he was a “class clown” and a charmer. “I was furious with Daniel,” his mom recalls. “I was embarrassed. Where did I go wrong in raising him?” She grounded Daniel from playing his beloved video games for two weeks and insisted they go over to the Kondors’ house to apologize. “Daniel was very nervous,” she says, “but he didn’t fight me on it.”

There, Daniel came face-to-face with not only Courtney but her mother, Kim Kondor, whom Daniel had known for years. “As soon as Courtney’s mother came to the door, we could see the anger on her face,” Daniel’s mom says. Kondor accepted Daniel’s apology, then described how Courtney had returned from school the previous day “crying so bad she couldn’t hardly get the story out.” And that wasn’t the only day Courtney had come home upset. “It was really shocking,” says Daniel. “I thought it was, like, hurting her feelings that day and then moving on.”

In detention the next day, Daniel chanced upon Ben Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear. “It was just perfect timing to read that book,” he says of the story about an angry teen who torments a white bear. The following school year, assigned by his language-arts teacher Laurie Hogan-McLean to send a letter to an author describing how a particular book had proved inspiring, Daniel wrote to Mikaelsen that, while reading Bear, “I realized who I was, and I hated it.” A few months later his letter took top state honors in the national Letters About Literature contest. “Daniel opened a door to help kids reflect,” says Hogan-McLean.

Today Daniel is a leader in his school’s chapter of Peace-Jam, a nationwide student organization that studies the deeds of Nobel Peace Prize laureates. With Courtney, 15, Daniel says, he gave her “the power” to choose what would become of their relationship. “If she wanted to kick me out of her life, so be it.” Her choice: to resume their friendship. And he has become a champion of those in need. “I always end up befriending the people being bullied,” he says. “It’s satisfying to help people out.”