My grandson is beginning the sixth grade. The past few years he has been practically overwhelmed by three school bullies. Jubila is intellectually gifted – from the perspective of a proud grandfather. He has exceptional language skills – that is to say that he has a strong vocabulary. His natural interest is probably centered around subjects related to engineering. When school began this year his parents and I talked about the problem of bullies at school. I naturally reflected on my own childhood experience – and realized that I was a grade school bully.
The problem with bullies is tremendous. Bullies disrupt the entire class of students. Even the observation by a child of someone else being bullied sends a message. Bullies affirm two erroneous short term life lessons – power works, and powerful people are to be feared. In the short term the bully gets to be the big shot. His friends admire him as a person of power – a person willing to go to any lengths to achieve superiority. The “victim” is seen as weak. And remember this, S**t runs downhill.”
All people, not just children, can smell blood – in the sense of the pack of wild wolves attacking prey. If a wild wolf is injured, and bleeds, his fate is doomed – the other wolves smell the blood and finish the dastardly job of annihilation. Many humans exhibit that primal behavior. I almost wrote “primal instinct” but changed my thought because I do not believe humans have a natural instinct for killing or hurting other humans. The headline news might not support my contention – terrorism seems to dominate the news of the day. But the terrorists are nothing less than bullies – seeking power and control over others. Civilized humanity recognizes the difference between being a bully and being civil.
But to my own story of childhood bullies. My family was lower middle class – or perhaps upper lower class (In economic terms). I remember degrading comments by other students about my clothes, and about my crude behaviors. I admit today that I was crude – we had few lessons in polite manners in my home. This is not to blame my parents – my father worked two jobs, my mother took care of seven children, and we lived in a four room house. The physical limitations of our home often dictated disorderly behavior. Meals were eat and run. There was no quiet place to sit and do homework. We were a crude bunch.
Now remember the quote from above: “S**t runs downhill.” I did have friends who were like minded. There was a red headed, freckle-faced girl named Patty. Patty also did not have fancy clothes. She was shy and kept to herself. One day while studying schoolyard biology on the playground during recess we learned about nasty parasites called ‘cooties.’ Cooties were tiny, contagious, and generally destroyed the self-esteem of anyone caught with them. Carriers of cooties were generally people who were seen as weak, vulnerable, without many friends, and available. I remember that several of us decided that Patty had cooties – and it was our duty to tell her. And we did. My friends and I had witnessed first hand the power of being a bully. We knew we could be winners if only we had someone to bully. Being a bully is an individual, team, and spectator sport. There are no referees. We did not think consciously of ourselves as bullies – but most bullies don’t.
Many years ago, as an adult, I was in a Walmart store, standing in the checkout line, when I noticed the checkout clerk was none other than Patty. Her red hair was as frizzy as ever and age had not diminished her freckles. She was about fifty years old and had not learned much about how to dress – or perhaps she continued her life in poverty and had limited choices in clothing stores. She was not wearing a wedding ring. I remember the feeling of guilt I felt when I saw her again after forty years. When Patty began checking my few items I spoke to her, I tried to be friendly. I said, “Aren’t you Patty Lastname?” Sheepishly she looked up and made eye contact for the first time. She said simply, “Yes.” I reintroduced myself, “Patty it is good to see you. I am Ohg Tone, we went to grade school together.” Patty just looked away, extended her hand to accept my money, and gave me the receipt. She said no more to me. I resolved that I would go back to that store. I would look for Patty’s line and would always have kind words for her. I returned to the store many times but never saw her again.
It has been well over fifty years since I teased Patty about having cooties. My guilt haunts me. But I cannot imagine how my behavior must haunt Patty. Most children probably never completely recover from being the victim of childhood bullies. I suspect Patty did not recover at all. She has lived a life of sad and miserable loneliness. While I am not the single cause of her despair, I know today that I contributed to her life of sorrow.
People who work with children have a tough job. Professionals such as teachers and volunteers such as Boy Scout leaders all observe the tragedy of the bully. We know today that when a child is bullied there are no winners. We know today that bullies act out of some perverted need to be in control. Their chaotic life often includes a single parent, poverty, abuse, and heaps of shame.
My daughter and I continue our discussion on her son and school bullies. We recognize the trauma the bully must suffer while away from school. But our priority is our boy. When forced to choose between protecting the bully or protecting our boy – well, you know how that goes.
My thought today is that we should not have to make a choice. The act of being a bully should send rockets of warnings to both the professionals and the volunteers who work with children. The priority is simple – first protect the victim. But when a bully is recognized we should have methods in place of helping that child feel some control in their life.
None of us is well served by having a child grow up in our society who believes that power is the answer to daily life problems. One bully in a class can teach many children that power works. The reality is that the exercise of power over others serves no one. Check out the headline news and see the results of the exercise of power.