The newspapers have been full of commentaries in the past couple of weeks after a teenage girl came to the media with her story of being bullied by a gang of girls at school. It started with name calling and ended with an assault on a school bus. Until she “outed” the school in the media, very little to nothing was done by the adults who are charged with ensuring her security and safety at school, including the bus driver.
This has launched a torrent of e-mail of similar stories about other schools and other bullies.
I can remember being bullied on about three occasions during my public school days in the 1950s. Yes, folks, bullying is not a new phenomenon. And you never forget these incidents.
The first one occurred in kindergarten, when a bigger boy with three or so accomplices targeted me after school and pushed me to ground every day. One day I decided to push back, thinking he would back off. But he didn’t. So the next day, I tried a new tactic. I went up to him in class and asked him why he always wanted to fight me and why not just be friends? To my surprise he said OK. And throughout the rest of the school year we were good friends.
The next one occurred in the second grade. A boy who was not in my class and with whom I had never had any previous contact came up to me and picked a fight by shoving me around, for no reason. He was no bigger than me and I did not feel fear. Also, he did not come at me with cohorts. So I fought back and we ended up rolling around on the ground. This attracted a crowd.
Interestingly, I don’t remember the crowd as being friends with either of us. They didn’t know my name or his. What they did was cheer on the guy in the long pants to beat up the guy in the shorts. I was the one in the shorts. The fight ended in a draw with both of us too winded to continue and the crowd dispersed.
But I remember feeling that long pants were associated with manliness and shorts with wimps. For years and years after that I refused to wear shorts, no matter how hot the weather.
The last one happened in the seventh grade when I was about 12 years of age.
On the weekends I used to walk through the school grounds on my way to visit a friend. There were always 20 or so boys about my age playing ball hockey on the paved area. A small group of these hockey players began to taunt me for no good reason. I just ignored them. As each Saturday rolled around and as I walked by, the name-calling increased. It was always started by one boy and then the others would jump in like a chorus.
Then one Saturday, the smallest one in the group actually stepped in front of me holding his hockey stick as if he were going to hit me and dared me to fight him. I wasn’t a big person, but this kid I could have squashed like a bug, hockey stick and all. His bravery was based on the gang who were backing him up and who I believed would join in on his side if I should get the upper hand. I told him I would have to go home and get my hockey stick and managed to extract myself from danger. But as I left the school yard,I remember thinking that this had to stop because it was just going to get worse.
One week later, I was on the field behind the school with a mob of boys playing a game we used to call “kick, catch and run”. Later, I learned it was really rugby. But, we played it without tackling.
Except, the boy who was the ringleader of the bullying group was playing on the other team and every time I got the ball and ran, he would try to trip me or knock me down. Again, I just ignored this.
When he saw that he was getting no reaction from me. He stayed back after a scrimmage and started to fight me. I just lost it and unloaded on him. I pounded him until he was helpless on the ground. He was bleeding from his nose and his mouth. At this point the other players came back to question the fight. I said nothing, having made my point, and just walked away from the field. I saw the others get him to his feet and help him get home.
The next weekend when I came through the school ground nobody taunted me. The little guy who had challenged me to a fight looked at me with new respect in his eyes. The ringleader never said another word to me the entire school year.
That is what taught me the lessons worth knowing in dealing with bullies. You have to fight back and you have to do it early in the game when you recognize a bullying pattern. You also have to go after the ringleader because that is the one who provides the courage to the others.
In fighting back you are conquering your fear and you will feel a lot better about yourself, even if you don’t win the fight.
I recall reading a James Michener novel in which one of the characters says that he knows when he gets into a fight that he may not win it, but he is going to make damn sure that the other guy knows he has been in a fight – he will not walk away without having shed some blood. I carried that idea in my head for many years and it always gave me courage to face down those who wanted to fight me.