Monday, April 26, 2010


I've been reading with sadness the recent news stories of teens bullied into suicide. One tale in particular hit close to home, as it happened a couple hours north of where I live. A quirky, bright kid comes home from 8th grade one day, announcing to his dad "Well, today I learned that being smart isn't cool." A few years later the kid, showing no outward signs of depression, shoots himself with a shotgun. The officer responding to the scene recalled that he could hear the mother's screams from half a mile away, and came into the clearing to see her holding her son's corpse in her arms. Turns out the kid had never talked about it with his parents, but the psychological bullying and peer pressure built up and up inside, until he saw only one way out.

I normally don't even finish stories in which kids end up dead, because my fertile imagination always conveniently supplies Roslyn as the understudy. I imagine myself, coming into a clearing after hearing a shotgun blast, and seeing my beautiful daughter, a gaping hole where her face used to be. Or, she becomes the object of a kidnapping, held for ransom and then never given back, instead raped & tortured to death. I see these things unbidden, and knowing that I do, I generally flash back to the news Main Page, and try to turn my mind off.

I kept reading this particular story, though, because the kid in it was bullied, mostly because he was smart from the sound of it, and that resonated with me. I was bullied in school, not so much because I was a super-smart nerd, but more because I was small and innocent-looking and didn't care about being "macho." I was a good target for bullies, because it was obvious just by looking at me that I wouldn't fight back, and even if I tried, I didn't have the goods to back it up. That's classic bully-victimhood, right there: the inability to fight back. 'Cause, that's where most bullies come from, right? I mean, except for the exceedingly rare ones who are genuinely batshit crazy (and I knew that guy, too, in 8th grade), bullies by definition are the guys who pick on the guys who can't fight back.

I remember several from grade school, but mostly R. This guy R. had a last name that was pronounced one way, but looked another, and the way it looked was not too complimentary, and by my memory I called him that one day in retaliation for whatever slight brutality he'd visited on me. That was it, boy. From that day on, through the rest of the school year, he was gunnin' for me. When we finally ended up in the principal's office (a common destination for him, but one that scared the shit out of me), I was forced to admit what I'd called him. It was like coughing up your stomach, man: you probably could do it, but geez, it'd hurt!

I moved right at the beginning of junior high…a horrible time in almost everyone's life, made more difficult for me by our move to the redneck-y depths of the Thumb. There, it seemed like everyone who wasn't already a super-geek was some sort of athlete or else a rough-&-tumble thug. The bullying intensified for a few years between 7th and 10th grades, never coming to full-fledged fisticuffs (except for that time that A. stapled my upper lip to my braces…a different story altogether), but there was that genuinely crazy dude. His name was J., and he looked like a prototypical Stone Age throwback: tall, shaggy, with just enough brain mass to cause trouble. Serious trouble. The last I saw of J. was when he lit his locker on fire and the cops took him away in handcuffs.

Like most kids who get bullied, I was embarrassed that I couldn't handle it myself, and spoke little of it to my parents. I did have some coping mechanisms that really helped, though. The first thing I did was recognize that I got picked on because I was weak; my logic led me to 1) ask for a weight set, and 2) take some karate classes. The weights helped me put on some muscle, and while I certainly never became anybody's answer to Mac at the beach (you know, the comic book back-cover ad of the geek who gets sand kicked in his face), the toning helped my inner attitude immensely. So did the karate: I got through three promotions, and though I never once used what I'd learned in an actual "situation," like the weightlifting I felt more in control, as if I could use the karate to fight back. Sometimes, that's just enough: the confidence itself counterbalances the need to get physical.

I also had a keen mind for revenge fantasies. I was talking to Miss Tessmacher about this the other day, and she was pretty sure that such a mindset wasn't all that beneficial, but I'll tell ya: for me, it really did help. A lot fantasizing came from movies: underdog-gets-his-day things like Valley Girl, or out-&-out shooters like Death Wish…things where the premise required the protagonist to go so far beyond reality that I just ate it up. And I got to thinking: "Hey, B. has really been bothering me lately. Well…I know where he lives, maybe I'll just go and pour sugar in his gas tank some night. Or, fuck that: maybe I'll soak a rope in gasoline, put that in his tank, and light the bitch up. That'd show him who not to fuck with!" In a pre-Columbine era, this kind of thinking was tremendously empowering, because I realized: I still had control. Or, some modicum of control. And that's all I really needed: the awareness that I was not completely helpless, that if things got totally out of hand, I could just…fuck somebody's shit up.

As I went through high school, the bullying lessened. It helped that I was a metalhead, as were most of the tough guys, so they couldn't pick on me for that. And I was smart enough to basically get along with all the Brains, of which the girls at least were pretty popular. My guy friends were basically the class-clown lot, which is a safety net all on its own: nobody really beats the shit out of the funny guys. At a basic level, though, I was friends with a few key people I could really look up to. M. was a few years older than me, but because we were in band together we became friends. He was tough in that country-redneck way, but also a good guy, and he took some steam off of me from the older bullies. C., the first friend I made when I moved to town, took some shit from people but never relinquished his own sense of pride, continuously browbeating the bullies back with intelligence (to this day, he refers to these kinds of people as "oxygen thieves"). But really, my savior was J., who was just a little bit psycho. Also a band buddy, J. was the kind of guy who regularly dressed in brown boat shoes, camo pants, and a pink oxford shirt. He wasn't built, but he was totally unafraid of the bullies. I remember a time behind the drugstore, some guys started calling shit to us, and J. calmly walked up, grabbed one of the guys around the neck, brought him to his knees, and smashed his head 4 or 5 times into the guy's car door. He did that whole macho thing while the dude was laying on the ground groaning, beating his chest and bellowing "Anybody else want some?!?" I got pretty much left alone after that. And while the adult me would never condone that kind of violence…the teenage bully-victim me thrilled inside to see such an awesome display of power and fearlessness. Alas, J.'s psychosis ran a little bit deeper than I realized at the time, as he had some legitimate mental troubles just a few years later…

I don't know how much schools need to try curtailing bullies. Schools, parents…they can only do so much, can only see so much. That's why teenagerhood is such a suck-fest: people are at their chest-thumping cruelest, and too often kids are left to sink or swim on their own. I only hope that I have enough parenting skill to teach Roslyn to swim before she gets thrown into the deep end.


Blogger Tess said...

To me, bullying is a sign of weakness. Sure, a weakness in the individual doing the bullying. But more importantly a weakness in what's being taught at home. I realize that all parents do "the best that they can." But one family's "best" sometimes produces some of the ugliest behavior humans can commit.

The sad thing is that the general society actually condones this behavior. Bullying to a lot of people is just "kids being kids." It's a sign of "strength" or of the "competitive spirit" to put other kids down. And isn't that just the kind of spirit that founded this country? Well, in my opinion, the country has been founded. We're here and fairly established by now. Perhaps it's time we start learning how to work with others (countries included)?

Kids mimic adults- that's what they're programmed to do. And what happens when a kid sees an adult physically or verbally abuse another human being? You got it! Plant a potato- get a potato. So, while I understand that you, Scott, were able to boost your confidence by building muscle and artificial "Revenge" (though the revenge was only in your imagination), I do think that method is simply...sad. One clinically proven insane behavior (the bully's) is then the result of another kid's equally insane response (yours).

In an evolved society in which human beings actually truly interact with and respect each other, this cat/mouse dance would not even need to happen. But there I go being idealistic again.

The saddest part about the stories of kids committing suicide largely due to bullying is that I'm not certain that the bullies are going to learn anything. We are a country that celebrates the "survival of the fittest" theory. The bullies continue to survive (what would our television and movie industry DO without them?!). Those on the receiving end of the bullying go on to develop their own coping mechanisms (like Scott's "I need to look/act bigger/stronger/tougher") and to teach the next generation.

So, what's the answer? No idea. I have little faith in the majority of families scrapping the "survival of the fittest" model and actually taking charge of their kids after school and teaching them to value and respect all individuals- the "weaker"-looking ones included. Sounds bleak, I know, but it feels so true. I've seen too many "Eat, F*$%@, Kill" bumper stickers in our neck of the woods to have much hope.

11:24 PM  

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