We live in a society where bullying has a very hot, bright spotlight shining on it. Back in the early 2000’s, anti-bullying initiatives started to take the world by storm and all sorts of different things, such as pink shirt day and anti-bullying day became a thing. Since then, heavy awareness has been brought against this pointless activity (the bullying, not the initiatives), even if it’s something that has always been around. This spotlight hasn’t done much to eliminate bullying, despite things like celebrity endorsement and attention, and the many valuable resources that have been allotted to it. And why is that?
I was bullied in my youth. And no, I don’t mean the typical, snowflake version of bullying that bothers most kids these days where someone has made fun of your clothing or appearance. Not to belittle their experiences, you understand. Every person’s threshold for bullying can be different, but I was bullied in such a way where I was often physically thrown into school showers, fully clothed. I was then forced to finish my day soaking wet with no way to get dry or obtain a change of clothes (sometimes in the depth of winter).
I had my lunch taken from me, numerous times. This doesn’t sound especially harmful, but when you happen to have Diabetes it can actually be detrimental to your health. There were days when I had to make my way home and forfeit the remainder of my school day, otherwise I’d suffer blood sugar issues that I knew my school was unprepared to deal with, as a result. I’ve had groups of four or five guys actually surround me and pound me to the ground until I prayed and wished to either black out or have a teacher come along to help. One never did.
“Courage Is Fire, And Bullying Is Smoke”– Benjamin Disraeli
I even remember the one day where, once class had let out, I walked out to the student parking lot to find my car firmly wedged between two trees on the grassy median between the student and teacher parking lots. I was incensed, and immediately went to the principal’s office where the police were promptly called to attend. Of course, nobody spoke up to identify who did it and it wasn’t the sort of crime where the cops would dust for prints and call in CSI, so the school custodian had to count down one of the trees to release my vehicle so I could drive away. I never found out who did it.
Now if you’re clever enough to do the math, the fact that I had a car at school meant that I was at least 16. I had been studying karate since I was about the age of 10. So, many of you may be asking the question, Why didn’t you do something? Oh, trust me! That day came soon enough… But until my breaking point, I had been studying martial arts with the purpose of improving my health and overall well-being. Despite the study of a fighting art, I had never used the skills I had learned in a genuine fight, as was not my way. I was not enthused at the prospect of harming another person, even if it was in defence of myself. That all came to a screaming halt, one fateful spring morning.
I walked into a late-morning language class, which ran right before lunch period. I was almost ten minutes early, as it was my custom to typically avoid recess and the crowds of people it involved. There were a couple of students in the class who had also arrived early. Three guys, whom I recognized as being some of my most frequent oppressors, walked into the classroom and immediately spotted me at the back.
The taunting started almost immediately, with all three crowding down the row and heading slowly towards me. Some of their typical tactics took place; my books were scattered to the floor, I was grabbed out of my seat and shoved hard against the wall. You know, typical bullying behaviour. The lead bully’s taunting took a different turn when, out of nowhere he pulled out a pocket knife.
Now, to prevent any thoughts that I’m exaggerating, I feel it’s necessary to describe this “knife”. It was a small, folding 1-inch blade; the kind with a small loop and chain on it meant to be used as a keychain. It was hardly a bowie knife or a short sword, and there was no thick Australian accent telling me that “this is a knife!” But even the smallest blade can be deadly, depending on the intent of the user.
The bully smiled devilishly and held the open blade at my stomach and not only questioned what I was going to do about it, but my ability to do anything. Although it came out sounding more like “Whut are ya gonna do? Nothin’! Because you can’t…” I didn’t hear anything of what he said next as my world turned red. This was my breaking point. I had been threatened, beaten, my personal property had been vandalized and my formative years that should have been pleasant and educational for me were some of the worst of my life. Like a pressure cooker with a ruptured seal that finally blew, years of bullying and abuse finally surfaced. And it was directed against this young offender who chose to make himself feel like a big man by belittling someone else.
“Just Pretend The Guy Is Like A Balloon. If You Pop ‘Em Hard, These Guys Just Go Away…”– Tommy Gunn, Rocky V
I moved. The movement was quick and semi-precise, and to this day I don’t recall EXACTLY what I did as I responded on instinct born from years of repetitive fight training. But when my red haze cleared, the boy was sprawled on the classroom floor with a couple of desks pushed aside. His wrist was broken and there were blood drops all over the floor. It took a moment for the adrenaline to die down enough for me to feel the sting against my flesh that made me realize that the blood was mine. I looked down and saw blood dripping from my wrist, where the blade had sliced. There was also a small cut in my pants, on the inner side of my knee, where the blade had apparently visited my leg as well. A physical shred of proof that shows that when bullying happens, EVERYONE gets hurt…
The other two guys backed away and checked on their friend, who was crying and cradling his arm. I sat quietly at my desk and didn’t move. The adrenaline dump and shock basically shut me down and all I could do was sit there. As luck would have it (my luck, at least), this was about the time the teacher walked in and saw all the chaos. My wounds were patched up. Visits to the principal’s office. Calls to the parents. A week’s suspension ensued. Not my shining moment…
Over the years when retelling this story, I’ve received a lot of mixed comments from people who believe I could have done many things differently. I could have implored my classmates for help, as there were a few people there. My response is usually that they saw the entire ordeal play out and stood by and did nothing. I’ve even had some people state that I shouldn’t have allowed myself to “suffer in silence” for so long and should have gotten faculty and parents involved. Trust me, I had done that a number of times by that point, which yielded negative results.
There are a number of reasons why people decided to bully others. And that’s the key factor; being a bully is a choice. Whether it’s for power or popularity, as a means of retaliation, seeking popularity or because one is venting the pain from being bullied themselves, none of the reasons are good. And eventually, an active step needs to be taken to make it stop. This is especially true in some of the extreme circumstances we’ve seen in recent decades where some kids have ended the pain through suicide.
I’m obviously not an advocate of violence. But the unfortunate reality is that sometimes, the only way to effectively stop the bully is to strike back. That’s the reality I faced over twenty years ago, and the same is true for many kids today. I plan on teaching my sons the same lesson that a friend of mine has taught his children. When someone does you wrong or bullies, always start by communicating with them. Ask them to stop. If that doesn’t work, the next step is to seek out a teacher or adult to help brings matters to an end. But if and when all those things fail, you still need to stand up for yourself and make the suffering stop. You should never be the first to throw a punch. But you should never accept to receive a second.
Psychology Today has a good article on the reasons behind bullying. It’s one of those things that has always been around. And unfortunately always will. Whether intentional or not, there will always be those who seek personal advantage at the suffering of others. The key is to protect oneself and in doing so, ensuring that one does not slip off the edge and become a bully themselves.
My experiences changed me. Decades later, I still have two physical scars of that encounter, and a number of emotional ones that have steered some of the decisions in my life. There have been a number of opportunities where I could have easily BECOME the bully. But bullying is a weakness, and it takes and creates more personal strength to be kind and understanding of others than it does to be a thug. ☯