Today, my six year-old son, John, got in a spot of trouble at school. It was nothing major, but it resulted in three days of “lunchtime detention.” What happened was that right now my son has a couple of crusty cold sore/fever blisters on his bottom lip. This kid decided he was going to make some sport of him for it. John has been taught to use his words, and ask others to stop their errant behavior in situations like that. So he asked the kid to stop making fun of him. Eventually, the kid apparently did. John, however, was still mad, so he punched the other kid in the chest anyway. My wife called me at work to tell me about it, and I could not find it in myself to be mad at him for defending himself. He has also been taught that the bible teaches us to be kind, and to turn the other cheek when things like this happen. We teach the boys they should treat others how they’d like to be treated. So now, we’re going to talk to him about the incident tonight. We’ll explain to him about appropriate behavior. We’ll tell him he should always go to the teacher first.
Also, I want to talk to him about what bullying is, and what he should do if he encounters it. I do not believe today’s incident does, but kids being the jerks they sometimes are, he may come into contact with it eventually. Or perhaps even be the bully, and I really hope that never happens. There’s been a lot said and written about bullying—both cyber and otherwise—over the past few months and 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. Or expressing their frustration and pain through taking out on their tormentors, or sometimes just people who happened to be there the day they decided they could not take it anymore.
While I do not believe violence is ever the first choice in a situation, I do believe sometimes it is the only choice. If either of my boys were being physically mistreated in some way–by anyone–I would tell them to first inform someone in authority, like a parent or teacher. If the kid stops, fine and move on. If the kid does not stop, and they feel threatened or are themselves protecting a person being mistreated, I would tell them to defend themselves appropriate to the situation. I believe there are bullies who only respond to like treatment. I would rather see my sons strike another person than to be mishandled to such a degree they are seriously harmed. In other words, I believe sometimes it is appropriate to defend one’s self. I wish someone had shown me how, and when, to defend myself. My dad didn’t, and all my older brother showed me was how to be a bully myself.
Not long ago, there was a young girl who was twelve, I think, who leapt from a silo to her death over a situation with some other kids at her middle school that began over a boy two of the girls liked and escalated through a series of social media posts and text messages more or less inviting the girl to die.
There’s some legal situation now, where a teen boy was so set upon by his boss at a fast food restaurant that he ended up shooting himself in front of his family, I believe it was. Or in front of their house. Something like that.
Or how about the young 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.
Cruel behavior amongst children is rampant these days, and it’s terrifying. They are awful to each other, for all manner of things–sometimes for no reason at all.
Fat kids are bullied (I could tell a few personal stories about that one). 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. Kids with birthmarks, or pockmarks, or scars. Sometimes–maybe even a lot of times–kids bully other kids out of jealousy for something the bullied kid has, or can do.
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, or kids with some imperfection or maybe just a character trait or even an accent that can be spotlighted.
I think that stuff (bullying) starts at home. By that I do not mean that a parent or sibling is the source of what’s going on, or that he or she being bullied has brought it on themselves. But home is where how they learn about why things are. We parents have the solemn duty to explain. If I thought it were productive, I could tell lots of stories to my kids about my childhood about how hard things sometimes were at home and with other kids. Except I don’t believe that would help anyone. Sure, transparency is always held in high regard, but only if it edifies, or if the boys can take something helpful away from it.
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 and fight, or play football (because even at that age, I was very large). Football, of all things. So what if I didn’t want to play football? Varsity and JV both stunk anyway. And in regard to not sticking up for myself, it wasn’t necessarily that I was afraid to–I’d just never learned how. I just gritted my teeth and bore it as best I could.
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. Also worth mentioning, it was about this age that I did begin to develop a defense mechanism that would stay with me for most of my adult life–self deprecation. If I ragged on myself hard enough, there would not be anything left for them to say. I actually became pretty adept at it, and honed into a rather quick and occasionally wicked sense of humor. I felt like it helped me then, and perhaps it did, to an extent.
Except I eventually realized it made me a bully in my own way–making fun of other kids without the ability to effectively banter and talk smack. It was so easy to do, and it took the attention off me. All I had to do was give the same crap to others I had gotten for so long myself. I should also add that one of my chief regrets as a teen is that I never did anything about that thing those two idiots did with the projector and the tape, or do anything afterward. I knew it was wrong, and I don’t know why I dragged my feet and did nothing. What I wanted most was to get away from those two kids–to find something that would make sense, because nothing else did. I never really like the school and the classes I was made to attend did, either.
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.
What I did realize was that in time, things really 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. They did it by simply being there. Sometimes with words, and other times with nothing but the quiet fellowship of other people who knew exactly what you were going through. 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. God made you the way you are, and God doesn’t make mistakes.
So what I want to do today is explain to my son a little more about Jesus as the one who heals. As the one who grants patience, and balm to a pained and weary soul.
Let me say just a few more words about my experience. 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 ourselves. It worked. We were protected, but I’d be lying if I said I never had any fantasies about facilitating some real justice against my two Geography class foes. I wanted them to hurt, and to suffer like I did. I felt like I’d be ok with that–even happy. 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 hope for the comeuppance 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.
You don’t have to beat up that kid on the playground for things to get better. Letting God do the hard work helps a lot more. Yet even then, there may come a time when it is appropriate to defend yourself. It’s ok to know how to do it in practice, and in actuality. Though there are consequences for like behavior in that way–sometimes long-lasting ones. If we choose that route, we have to be ready to face them. I can’t find it within myself to tell my kids they should never defend themselves. Sometimes they should.
All I know is my kids need to know the difference between defending themselves and others, and the behavior of a bully, who hurts because he can. Today was probably the first instance where my little guy had someone actively show him meanness at school. I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last. I hope he learns more about forgiveness than violence, and that’s on me.
With all that said, I will also teach him what merits a strong defense and what does not.
This is not exactly the right song to close with, but close enough….