I witnessed something the other day that had a profound effect on me, and in very surprising ways. I was suddenly 8 years old again. I felt a queasiness in my stomach, a ringing in my ears and an adrenaline surge that my adult mind recognized as the fight or flight response.
I was walking my dog past the park and I saw a group of kids picking on, taunting and bullying another kid who was obviously by himself.
Back when I was 8, and 10 and pretty much all the way into high school, I was the neighborhood bullies’ favorite target. I was small. In fact, I was by far the smallest in my class. I was smart. So smart I skipped the fifth grade entirely, which made me even smaller compared to my classmates. I rarely hung around with school friends or even the neighborhood kids after school as I was at gymnastics academy four weekdays plus Saturdays and the local park district gymnastics program on the fifth weekday. By the time I was 11, I wore glasses. And I was absolutely forbidden to ever get in a fight. Doing so would mean that I wasn’t being nice to someone, because according to my mother, that would be the only reason someone would pick on, much less bully, another.
On the playground, I did my best to avoid my tormentors by joining whatever team game was being played. Thankfully, as a gymnast I was a natural at all the sports played at recess, except of course for basketball. I later learned I was pretty good at that, too, but because basketball players were all tall, I never even tried as a kid. This involvement in and skill at most team sports saved me because others wanted me to play, thus granting me a layer of protection from my tormentors.
When all else failed, I ran. Again because of years of gymnastics and ballet training, I was fast. Really fast. I was also unnaturally strong, particularly given my size, with the proof being the records I held in PE for sit-ups, chin-ups, rope-climbing and track, many of which stood for more than a decade.
The most astonishing part of all this is how long it took me to understand how that gymnastics and ballet training, all that strength and speed meant that if I were to get in a fight, it was fairly certain that I would not be hit, and if hit, I could certainly take a punch. Do a face plant into the vault at full speed a couple times, and you learn to deal with pain. In addition, I had an older brother with whom I wrestled, horsed around and generally fought with like cats and dogs, according to our mother. He had landed more than a few on me, and even though he was bigger than me and much stronger and they did sort of hurt, it never hurt enough to debilitate me enough to keep me from retaliating. I gave as good as I got.
One day, I was cornered and simply was not going to be able to run away. Actually, I was in front of my own house and I could have just gone inside, but I guess I had reached my breaking point. By then, I was well known as an easy target who would either run away or cry, but would often do both simultaneously. This reaction of mine was great fun for my tormentors, evidenced by how often they tried to provoke this response.
This girl who had been one of my most persistent tormentors for several years came up to me and told me she was going to punch me in the face. She informed me she was going to do this right there in front of my own house, and there was nothing I could say or do to stop her. I had been raking leaves, and as I turned toward her and dropped the rake, I simply said, “No, you’re not”.
I don’t know which of us was more surprised when she threw a punch and I simply caught her fist in my hand. We stood like that for a of couple seconds, blinking at each other, then I slowly twisted her fist and dropped her to her knees. While she frantically pulled as hard as she could to get me to release her fist, I calmly informed her that the next time she tried to hit me, I would beat her black and blue. The fact that she was on her knees when I delivered this threat got the message through, and it was a bit of time before she challenged me again.
Of course she eventually did, because even though I had never said a word to anyone about that encounter, she knew and I knew. That was a humiliation I guess she just wasn’t going to live with, so, when she had a few others with her for support, egging her on, she again challenged me to a fight. The scene was an almost identical replay of our last encounter. However, as this time there were witnesses, her reign of power over me was finally at an end.
I remember thinking several things that second time I had her on her knees … that I felt bad for her because I had always known I was much, much stronger than she was; that I really didn’t want to humiliate her and make her cry, as I knew what that felt like and really had no desire to inflict it on another; that it would only be a matter of time until someone else challenged me, because now someone had to prove they were stronger than me; how I could still honestly say I never hit anyone, didn’t actually get in a fight and only prevented someone else from hitting me. This last part was what I was hanging my hopes on as a defense for when my mother found out that I had been in a "fight."
All of this, all of these memories came back to me in a flash when I witnessed that group of kids tormenting one poor boy, who raced away on his bike with the laughter of the group surely ringing in his ears.
I wished I had been physically closer, had been able to catch up to the kid racing away with tears on his face. I wished I had words of wisdom or comfort, though from experience I know that all the kid would see was another witness to his shame and humiliation.
I wished for the right words to say to the brats who were still laughing, congratulating each other on bullying someone to the point of tears and flight, to make them stop and never do it again. What I wished for most was the ability to grab each one of them by the scruff of the neck and drag them home to their parents who would be appropriately shocked, dismayed and embarrassed by the behavior of their little monsters.
Then I realized that parents more often than not are the reason kids bully others. They teach their kids to do as they did and act as they still do towards others. Mocking, humiliating, shunning, making fun, being intolerant and just plain old being mean to others is how they live their lives. Of course, most of these parents will say they do no such thing and would be highly offended at such an outlandish and inaccurate accusation. And they will say this while they are on the phone driving down the street, while they cut in and out of traffic, swear at and curse out other drivers for being stupid and not getting out of their way, get in the ten item limit lane at the store with a cart full of groceries, show their irritation and impatience with the store clerks who are not moving fast enough…
Hopefully, you get the idea. Kids do what we do, and when we treat everyone else in the world as less important than we are how are kids supposed to learn empathy, tolerance and respect? From personal experience, I can say bullying is nothing new. When I was a kid, my mother and most adults I knew simply did not believe bullying was going on, as it offended their sense of civility and society. “Lord of the Flies” was a work of fiction, and no decent family would raise children that behaved that way, not in our neighborhood, not in our little corner of the world.
What is new is the society in which we are raising the current crop of bullies. The world is not so little anymore. Neighborhoods are not so isolated from the influences of the larger society. But most significantly, the bar of civility and acceptable behavior has been dramatically lowered, as evidenced by too many of the posters right here on the Patch.
All too often, people don’t disagree with each other’s ideas, they attack the other person for holding or expressing those ideas in the most vicious and insulting ways. There is a complete lack of civility and regard for another person’s feelings, which more often than not prompts more personal attacks, though I do distinguish between calling someone out for their bad behavior and a counter attack being justified by the ‘he started it’argument.
I want to be very clear that I see nothing wrong with directly, forcefully and even harshly addressing a mean, crude or inappropriate comment, post or behavior, even in public. In fact, that is what I believe is the right thing to do. I believe that it is good and right to shout down the bullies, publicly humiliate the trolls and in every way possible ostracize those who are just vicious and mean, if at all possible in full sight of their victim. Each of us are responsible and able to stand up and refuse to tolerate the disintegration of civility. I look at it as society’s last line of defense against the ever growing threat of the destruction of civility and a sane and safe world.
How I ended up responding to the group of kid bullies I encountered was to shout across the park, saying
“Hey! I saw what you did. I know who you are and where you live.”
Thankfully, all but one had the manners, the conscience and the obvious good upbringing to look embarrassed and ashamed. But, there is always one in a crowd, and this one responded
“So what? My mom won’t care!”
To which I answered, “How sad for you”.
That worked. The kid was shocked and frozen for a moment, just long enough for his buddies to scatter, leaving him standing there alone. I felt like crap, like I had just bullied a kid. I hope and pray that kid really did have a moment of understanding, at least a glimmer of comprehension that what he had done was wrong and he will never do it again. I also hoped he was just a cocky mouthed kid and his mom really would care.