Back in grade school if a guy “called you out,” it meant the gauntlet had been thrown. It meant you were to meet after school, in the crisp Fall air, and exchange punches on the playground. It was a proposition I got often, for no particular reason. Guys just wanted to fight. I spent many hours in the classroom figuring out how to get home at 3 o’clock as quickly as possible.
I was teased and mocked on a daily basis. Guys called me things like porky, fatboy, and pills (short for Pilllsbury Doughboy). I look back at pictures, and while I wasn’t a thin guy, I certainly wasn’t fat – just shorter and stockier than the average kid. I had no urge to fight anyone. As my father observed, I didn’t “have a mean bone in my body.” However, I did fantasize about retaliation: at night, lying in bed, romanticizing that perfect punch to the face of my menace, with the entire school watching. It was a moment that, in my mind, could have taken me from being an Easy Target to being a kid that deserved respect. But, it wasn’t something I wanted to actually do.
I clearly remember one guy who had it in for me bad. One day he flat out said, “I want to fight you.” I didn’t know why. We were standing in front of the school, waiting to be picked up by our parents. When I asked him for a reason he said, “because I do.” Then he walked away from me. I put my hand on his shoulder, pleading gently, “Wait…” I just wanted an explanation for why he hated me so much. In a flash, he turned, grabbed my backpack by the straps, and shook me violently. “Never touch me!” he yelled. “Never put your hands on me!” It shook me up. I was scared and embarrassed; the force with which he was able to shake my body made me feel powerless. By the time my mom was there to pick me up, I was in tears. He had been terrorizing me for over a year, and it continued on for some time after that. I hated going to school because of guys like him.
The worst part of it is that a lot of these guys started out as friends, or teammates. Some guys I played pee-wee football with. These were guys my father helped coach, who on the field never had a bad word to say to me. Anywhere else they made my steps cautious. Other guys were just bad seeds, with bad attitudes, living and acting in ways I didn’t understand – always in detention, drinking and using foul language at an age that should have been seasoned by much lighter things. Just being in a classroom with those guys made me uncomfortable. I was always on edge, always wary of what may happen. They teased me, belittled me, and made me feel as if I had no right to have a friend. It occurred in the hallways, at lunch and recess.
And in gym glass. One day we were running sprints from one end of the basketball court to the other. As I ran, a group of guys far heavier and bigger than me chanted, “BOOM-BABA! BOOM-BABA! BOOM-BABA!” (the movie Stand by Me was popular). After five rounds of sprinting to their chant, I lined up for the next run. I took my starting stance and dangled my arms, ready to take off. I looked over at those guys. They were smiling, waiting to tease me again. The whistle blew and I stood straight up. I didn’t move. Everyone else took off towards the other side of the gym. The guys teasing me laughed. Their chant faded as they reached the other side. The teacher blew the whistle and turned to me, angry. “Go get dressed,” he said. That meant I was being punished. I remember thinking that if a teacher couldn’t see the position I was in there was no hope. I felt alone. I was just trying to stand up for myself. I just wanted to show those guys that I could outsmart them. But, it didn’t matter.
My father had gone through similar things in his youth and decided to teach me to fight. He asked me if I knew how to throw a punch and showed me how to make a fist. He knelt down and told me to punch his open palm. I crumbled. I started crying. I hated it. I didn’t want to punch anyone. I wanted to go to school and have my friends and not worry about getting punched, or being belittled, or being afraid.
Sure, I existed in social strata of insignificance – save when assholes decided to make me the Toast of Ridicule, or when I was being pushed into a locker, tripped, or shoved. But, there were kids even further down the totem pole. Onto them I felt the urge to transfer aggression. Just like the kids who tortured me, I sought out false power by looming over those weaker than myself. It didn’t last long, of course, because with those kids I found common ground. We became friends. We found solace in our nerdy interests and avoided the cruelty from others as best we could. But, I remember how easy it was to want to hate someone for no reason – to have a scapegoat of my own, because I constantly felt like a victim. Realizing this, I started directing my aggression to those who deserved it. I began standing up to bullies – if only verbally. To date I have never been in a fight.
I wonder if the guys that terrorized me see the world different now. Maybe today they are teaching their sons that beating someone up, or torturing a smaller, weaker kid, isn’t what makes a man. Maybe they understand now that part of growing up is to be scared and wary of the world around you, and that making the world even scarier for other kids, doesn’t make it easier for anyone. I wonder if they feel ashamed for their unwarranted cruelty. I wonder if they look back with remorse.
I am stronger for those trials. In learning to move forward through unwanted conflict, and survive with my mind and heart intact, I am more equipped to deal with certain pains. I developed a smart mouth, and a smart mind. Wit became my ally. But, I cannot say I came out entirely unscathed. I find it hard to trust people, and often push away new friends without realizing it. I try to be mindful of this, but it is difficult. A lot of new friendships are short-lived.
By today’s standards of bullying my childhood seems like a fairytale. Some kids have it far worse. Beyond the warping of trust, some kids will have their spark diminished, or their ability to dream tainted and marred irreparably by fear. Yes, many kids survive the fire with minor scarring, but some, on the other side, find themselves feeling worthless and shattered.
Some kids don’t survive at all.
The Weinstein Company will be releasing a documentary on the subject titled “Bully.” The MPAA has given it an R rating. This means less kids will be able to see it. Sign this petition in an attempt to give it a PG-13 rating.
Here is the trailer:
Author's note: I haven't written this for my own good, but for kids today who have to endure the same powerlessness, embarrassment, and pain that comes from feeling as if you're hated just for being yourself.