My first bully, I’ll call Jeff. In the fourth grade he was merely bigger than me. By the time we reached high school he had been replaced by other tormentors, but the logical fruition of his early menace appears in a baseball team photo in my senior yearbook: A hulking knuckle-dragger with a scuzzball moustache and a gape-mouthed expression of dumb contempt. In my fourth-grade class, the preferred game for boys during recess was Kill the Guy With the Ball. Imaginatively, Jeff turned the rules on their head by grabbing the ball and killing me instead. Long after graduation, I learned he became a cop.
I still had a few friends in the fourth grade, and they began to call me names. When I asked them why, they shrugged. "It's your turn," they said. This, I took at face value. After all, weren't grown-ups always telling us we were supposed to take turns? So, in the spirit of friendship, I took my lumps and waited for someone else's turn to come. And kept waiting.
I was picked on for many of the same reasons other boys are: Underdeveloped, a little too bright, no athletic ability, emotions too close to the surface. Grown-ups called me sensitive (read: crybaby), a late bloomer, the euphemistic kiss of death. But there were other contributing factors that were less common.
Not long before Jeff began to bruise me silly, anatomy lessons started triggering in me mysterious, mortifying fits of terror. I’d be overcome with panic and nausea, and in a cold sweat I’d flee the classroom. Anxiety attacks were not part of the public consciousness at the time, and even though I was otherwise well behaved, my outbursts were misinterpreted as a class-dodging scam by my teachers and digested as comedy by my classmates. I felt singled out as freakish and weak.
Well into my adult life, I finally traced my anxiety attacks to the first grade and the death of my best friend and classmate, Hal, of a disease. He was my age and his body had simply failed him. Anatomy lessons were a graphic reminder that mine could, too, and at that age I lacked the emotional resources to process it. That was one reason I didn't fight back against my abusers: I was afraid of receiving an injury I couldn't recover from.
I was an easy mark. The more I was denied acceptance, the more I craved it, and the fewer social skills I developed, which seemed to validate the scorn aimed at me. I became awkward, a nerd. The cycle perpetuated itself. I imagine this is typical.
A few individual bullies came and went after Jeff, but more often the abuse was a group effort. I felt like a community resource, the go-to victim for any phys-ed tough or cool kid after a quick hit of social currency. Occasionally I was threatened, shoved or struck. More painful was the routine derision and ridicule. I had a hard time making friends.
The abuse peaked for two weeks in the eighth grade, when for reasons that remain a mystery, every time I entered the gymnasium for morning attendance the class erupted with laughter at the sight of me. I'd quickly find a seat in the front of the bleachers and try to look invisible as my classmates jeered at my back. It didn't occur to the teachers to have me report for attendance somewhere I wouldn't be publicly humiliated, or to my parents to keep me home as I'd begged.
Inevitably I developed some issues. The experience in the gym seemed to confirm everything I’d come to privately fear about myself, that I was somehow less. I began to loathe myself. One hundred and twenty-five eighth-graders, I reasoned, couldn't be wrong.
In many ways my adult life has turned out well. I like who I’ve become. But the ways I’ve been disappointed I can trace to the parts of myself that grew as a response to being ostracized and bullied. I think about it not all the time, but more often than I care to admit. I’ve had enough time to get over it. I know I'm dwelling in the past when I recall these memories, that I'm the one keeping them alive. But our childhoods are the foundation on which the rest of our lives are built. We’d be kidding ourselves to pretend it doesn’t matter.
My feelings about the recent anti-bullying movement are mixed. Obviously I support the message, but one wonders whom it is meant to reach. Lets start with parents: It's been frequently noted that children who bully are often acting out from dysfunctional home environments. Their parents tend not to be the most attentive, or even necessarily compassionate. Even parents who would intervene can't be around all the time. The same goes for teachers, although they are more likely to have a front-row seat to the problem. They can respond to bullying if they see it, but do little to prevent it. As for kids...for them bullying is a daily reality. They hardly need their awareness raised. And by the time they're old enough to be part of the problem, they've already chosen, wittingly or not, which side of the issue they're on. They can be encouraged to change their minds, sure. But kids aren't stupid. They know when adults are trying to manipulate them, and -- especially the ones most likely to bully -- respond as any young adult working to establish an independent identity would.
A bully terrorizes the weak for personal validation and social status, the most coveted prizes in adolescence. He's unlikely to sacrifice them just because the teacher said so. Will he think twice about his behavior if he thinks his victim might commit suicide, as the latest anti-bullying campaign seems to suggest? He might. But he's far more likely to realize that such extreme reactions are rare, and reckon he has too much to lose by deferring to that remote possibility.
When we speak out against bullying, I wonder if we as a society really mean it. In the U.S., we believe in compassion, but we believe in self-determination more. America loves a winner, and it’s your own fault if you’re not on top. That’s fair, I guess. But we tend to leave it at that. We don’t help the weak as much as we might because on one level, we blame the victim. The bullied are typically bullied because they won’t fight back, and part of us is repelled by that passivity. We might identify with an underdog, but not a loser.
We won’t -- at least through official channels -- give the bullied the only viable guidance, which is to stand up for themselves and fight back, because it condones violence, is far from fail-safe and may get them hurt even worse. We don’t want to take responsibility if it goes badly. So we take the easy way out with feel-good, non-confrontational advice: Ignore the bullies, turn the other cheek, be yourself. Those don’t work, I tried.
If the anti-bullying movement prevents some schoolyard misery, provides some comfort to the bullied or stays even one victim from taking his own life, then it’s worthwhile. But it attempts to stamp out behavior deeply rooted in human nature, and it's hard to see how a handful of Youtube videos are going to do that. That's why this latest message, though necessary and long overdue, is difficult to take seriously as a tool for change.