There’s been a lot said and written about bullying—both cyber and otherwise—over the past few years, and much of that was in regard to young people experiencing it in such a way that they ended up taking their own lives.
There was the Rutgers student who leapt from a bridge in New York after he was cruelly “outed” over the internet by his roommate. Also the Irish girl who was so piled on by other students in her high school here in the U.S. that she sought out a rope.
I don’t want to take anything away from either of these situations, because both were horrible. Yet I feel it would be remiss not to mention it is not just gays and high school students who dated the wrong boy who are bullied.
Fat kids are bullied, too. And skinny kids. Poor kids, or kids who wear the wrong clothes. Kids who are from the “wrong” side of town, whose house might not be as nicely made as other, more well-to-do students.
Nothing is so cruel as a teenager who for some reason thinks the only way he or she can reach the proper level of popularity is to prey on weaker kids.
I saw some of that when I was just starting high school, but in one respect I was a lot luckier than some of the other kids going through the same sort of thing.
I had an older brother who was probably worse than any of them would ever be. Who taught me about what real cruelty was, and did so much to destroy my self-image that nothing these 9th grade amateurs could come up with could even make a dent in my already trashed psyche.
I learned how to be a victim from the best.
I had a cast on my left arm nearly to my shoulder for most of my freshman year. Usually, most kids left me alone, but for the first week or so after it happened, it offered me some small measure of celebrity because I was able to relate the story of the break over and over again. It made a sound like a large carrot stick snapping, and I got to where I could describe it pretty well. Soon, though, I was just another poor and overweight kid who wanted desperately to disappear into the swirl of activity that high school was.
But I remember there was this one kid in my 9th grade Geography class who sat directly behind me and thought it was great fun to kick or punch me in the small of my back. I suppose he wanted to get a response from me, but he never did. I didn’t tell on him, but I never made a sound to acknowledge the blows, either.
The teacher was this tiny old German Jewish lady—a sweet little grandma—that knew a lot about the world, and probably much of cruelty. This same guy that liked to pick on me, along with a “friend,” one day cut a small swastika from masking tape and stuck it on the lens of the classroom projector, so that when Mrs Kohls turned on the projector at the back of the class, a large swastika was displayed on the movie screen at the front.
I don’t remember what she did after that, but when I walked out of the class that morning the swastika guy accosted me just outside the door. I didn’t say anything to him, but just shoved him against the wall and walked away, directly to the counselor’s office.
I didn’t do anything to speak up for the teacher, or even for myself, really. I didn’t have any fantasies of coming back to school strapped and exacting my revenge on my tormentors. I just wanted to get away from them. So I made up some dumb reason, asked for a transfer to another class, and got it.
I was sick of hearing about how my clothes looked cheap, and how I should be going to a different school. I was sick of hearing that my hair was too long, or too shaggy, or that I was a pussy because I didn’t stick up for myself. It wasn’t necessarily that I was afraid to–I’d just never learned how.
I often wondered what he and others got out of mistreating me and other kids that weren’t cool enough, or weren’t something enough to be offered the same respect and freedom from cruelty that the majority of the other kids received.
I never found out. And thinking about Mrs Kohls now, I really regret I didn’t do anything in the class when those two shitheads did that thing with the projector, or do anything afterward.
What I did find was drama class, and a room full of other kids who didn’t fit in anywhere, either. It was a big, really diverse group, and more importantly to me, none of the “cool” kids were in it. I had never been so happy to be anywhere in my life.
It was that class which helped me to realize that I was not alone. There were other kids who were poor, or funny looking, or had scars. I didn’t know any gay people at the time, but I would guess there may have been one or two of them there, too.
I realized that it did get better, and I never ended up on a rooftop with a rifle or thought seriously about ending my own life. I was lucky in that regard because I am well aware now of the cost of feeling that way—like you’re alone, and there is no hope at all.
There is hope.
I didn’t know Christ then, but I had a small circle of friends that through their presence in my life lifted me up above the nonsense I was going through, and the careless cruelty of other teenagers. It was enough.
Again, I was very lucky.
If anyone at all is reading this, maybe you’re like that, too. Maybe there’s someone who likes to try and make you feel like you’re nothing, and you never will be. Maybe they hurt you physically, and maybe it’s just words. Either way, the pain is all too real, and sometimes feels like it’s more than you can take.
I am fully aware how hard it is, but I promise you it will not endure forever. There is an end, and things do—really do—get better. Talk to someone. A friend, a family member. A pastor, a teacher. Just talk to someone before you take any steps you cannot come back from.
You are here because God wants you to be. You matter, and are loved.
Let me say just a few more words in the way of an epilogue. After I got out of that class, I never experienced any more bullying. I huddled with the other “drama geeks” and we circled our wagons to protect us. It worked.
I did have one more interaction with the geography guy and his buddy, though. Now, I don’t believe in Karma, but I do believe we absolutely reap what we sow. It certainly happened in this case.
About 5 or 6 years after graduation, I saw the back kicker’s buddy bicycling around El Cajon on a little boy’s BMX bike, with his t-shirt tucked into his back pocket. He looked like what we then called a “sketch monkey.” That would be a tweaker today. We didn’t speak, and all I could muster up in the way of feeling was a weak “too bad for him.”
Shortly after that, I was in the Santee Vons picking up a few groceries, and saw the back kicker himself bagging groceries in my line. He didn’t look as bad as the other guy, but he had quite a few miles on his odometer. When I got up to the front of the line, as he slipped my things into a bag, he looked at me and gave me an almost-robotic sounding “How you doing?”
I couldn’t tell if he recognized me or not, but I recognized him. I looked in his eyes and responded “I’m doing fine.”
I realize that I should probably not have found any satisfaction in how those boys were doing when I saw them after high school, but the part of me that had been hurt very much did, and wanted to say not only “I’m fine,” but also “that’s what you get.”
When I think about it now, I realize that rejoicing in another’s misery–no matter how seemingly justified–is never the right thing to do. I was wrong to be glad at the lots of those two young men who had made my life so difficult. Sometimes I wonder what happened to them.
I wish I had a tidy epilogue to wrap things up, but all I can really say is that I am not now who I was then, though that person still lives within me.
I hope anyone who reads this that’s been picked on, belittled, hurt or abused in any way just hangs on for a little while longer. And then longer still. Change takes time, for everyone. And you’re stronger than you know.
One thought on “Of Bullies and Drama”
You are an awesome writer Tom. Wonderful post!