Bullies and Other Broken People

A friend of mine suggested that my life would make a great story. To be honest, I’m not so sure that’s true, but I’ve been writing down a lot of memories lately as a way of getting a grip on why I do the things I do. When I started writing about my childhood, I also started doing research on bullies and their effect on their victims, themselves, and the people around them.

I wasn’t intending to do this but I’ve decided to take a leap and post some of my story and also the interesting things I’ve discovered about bullying. This is the first entry in this series and is intended to lay the groundwork for that research and observations on how bullying can effect an entire lifetime.

From kindergarten through 8th grade in my life I was a walking target for bullies. Sometimes I felt like I was walking around with a sign on my back that read, “Please Abuse Me” that could only be seen by the predators in childhood society. I was born a little different and so maybe that’s why the attacks started. I was born with a clef palate (though no clef lip, thankfully), and after repair surgery at about three years old I required weekly meetings with the school speech pathologist from kindergarten through 5th grade. In addition to this, I was kind of a sickly kid. Always in and out of the hospital with pneumonia, ear infections that required tubes to be placed in my ear drums, kidney infections, anemia, and of course any and every virus that floated through my home town of Sacramento, California.

I was also very smart. Despite missing so many days of school due to illness, I never fell behind my classmates and often sprinted ahead of them in things like reading, writing, English, history and for a while, even math. It was kind of a one-two punch. I was a skinny little nerd who was sick all the time and couldn’t speak like all the other kids. All I needed was coke-bottle glasses and an inhaler and the picture would have been complete. The trouble started literally in the first week of kindergarten when the teacher recommended that I be moved up to first grade. I had learned to read at 3 years old and could already add simple sums. My parents wisely decided that I needed the social integration of kindergarten as well as the orientation to a school environment.

The teacher, a very sweet lady, was really into praising kids for their accomplishments and so every time I did something good it seemed like she would tell everyone; my parents, the principal, and worst of all, my classmates. The thing about being a kid and being in school is that no one is supposed to stick out. It seems to be human instinct to point out the perceived flaws of others in order to take the focus off of ourselves and my differences made an irresistible target for the most insecure members of my classes.

ImageFor the most part, these acts of aggression towards me were mostly verbal for the first five years of school. My name would be used derogatorily, I’d find cruel notes on my seat when I had been away from it for awhile, all anonymous of course; I would never be picked for the kickball or softball teams during P.E. and so the teacher would stick me on whatever team had the fewest students and they’d all let out a collective groan as I walked over to the unfortunate group. These were daily things punctuated by small events of outright hostility and physical violence. It was behavior that all of the teachers chocked up as merely “kids being kids.” Back in the ‘70’s, it wasn’t an issue that made headlines and no focus groups were ever convened that I know of to find ways to address the problem. You just took it. It’s a lot like the eroding force of water on a stone, really. Year after year the torrent of abuse washes over this small stone until its integrity is stolen away and it becomes merely sand at the bottom of the river.

By the time I reached 4th grade I had begun to operate in what I call “survival mode.” My response to this ridicule was to dial down my ability to experience the emotion associated with the event. Consequently, this also affected my ability to experience good emotions as well. Things like love, joy, laughter and the like were blunted and muffled. I woke up each morning and the first order of business was to devise my plan to survive the day.

  • Could I get out of going to school? Nope. All systems were functioning normally.
  • What had the teacher said were our tasks on the schedule for the day?
  • What would be my strategy for staying anonymous during these activities?
  • What was the best time to go to the bathroom in order to avoid the predators?
  • Where would I sit at lunch?
  • Was I wearing something non-descript and did it help me be invisible?
  • Had I done my homework carefully so that I wouldn’t appear too smart?

It was exhausting. There were days I would come home from school, flop onto my bed and sleep like the dead. Oddly enough, this exhaustion showed itself more on the days I’d been successful at avoiding attention than when I had actually failed at my quest for invisibility.

More and more I developed a deep and vibrant internal life that took place in my imagination. There, I was beautiful; I spoke as well as my teachers did and could come up with witty, off-the-cuff comments that sent others into peals of laughter, I could be as smart as I wanted to be; I could be the hero to all of the other kids like me and beat every one of those predators to a pulp. It was only in this internal life that I knew the exact right thing to say that would either reduce the bully to a quivering mass of goo or turn them into a life-long friend and champion for my cause. This internal life, for me, was just as valid and real as what most of us know as reality.

By the fourth grade I’d become adept at avoiding the right people and for the most part managed to keep their abuse to a minimum. However, on the first day of the fourth grade my little world collided head on with a new tormentor. Her name was Sharon and she was cute and petite with perfect straight teeth, golden blonde hair and could even do a perfect cartwheel and a real flip-flop! At first I was rather in awe of her, but by the end of the first day she already had a pack to run with and they had more than filled her in on the who’s who of the school. During the last 20 minutes of class I found myself watching her in admiration as she easily conversed and entertained her new entourage. My mistake. She caught me “staring” at her and her response to this was withering. To this day I remember every word.

“There she sits, broken hearted.

            Tried to shit, but only farted!

            -What are YOU looking at weirdo?”

I turned away and tried to hide the huge red stain of embarrassment on my face. Thank God there were only 15 minutes left in class. Over the next three years I endured the ”wrath of Sharon” both verbally, socially, and physically. The climax of this sick drama occurred in the beginning of the 6th grade when, walking home from school alone one day, Sharon and her pack cornered me on the sidewalk; too far to run home and too far to get back to school; no where to hide. My skin stung with visibility as they followed along behind me, hurling insults and small rocks at my back. After about half a block of this, a small knot of anger and frustration welled up and I turned to confront them. “Leave me alone, you bitches!” I was surprised even as the words left my mouth! The response was immediate and frightening. I’d never seen kids run that fast! It seemed that in no more than two or three heartbeats they were on me, punching, shoving, kicking, spitting, and still managing to hurl insults. I finally fell down when Sharon yanked my books from my arms as I used them to block the blows. The five girls began to kick me violently.

Eventually they ran out of steam and trotted off when they heard an approaching car. I’m not sure how long I lay there. I do know I never cried. Eventually, the lady that owned the house that I was lying in front of, Mrs. Chappel, came home, got out of her car and ran to check on me. She got me up to a sitting position and that’s when I realized I couldn’t breathe very well and my right side and back hurt intensely. My nose was bloody and my lower lip had swelled to three times its normal size. I did manage to tell Mrs. Chappel my name and my phone number. She brought me into her house and called my mom, who showed up in minutes to collect me.

Another trip to the emergency room, only this time it wasn’t a germ or a virus that attacked me. The verdict on the damage done was two bruised ribs, a bruised kidney, stretched ligaments in my right hip, lacerations on my right eye and lower lip, and a mild concussion. After a few days at home in bed it was time to walk back into the meat grinder.

My parents were in shock. The next day they called the school and spoke to the principal. They’d even called the school district office to find out what could be done. On the ride home and over the next several days I was questioned by my parents, teachers, the principal, and even took a meeting with the school superintendent and a few other official-type folks. But I wasn’t talking. I knew better. I told them I didn’t know who had beaten me because I hid my face the whole time (an obvious lie given the state of my face at the time). Upon returning to class I could see the look of wary fear on Sharon and company’s faces, which gave me a very cold feeling of control. But once they realized they weren’t going to be hauled off to prison they returned to the regular routine with one exception. They never laid a hand on me again. Maybe they scared themselves with the level of violence they had unleashed. Guess I’ll never know.

By the time I “graduated” from 6th grade the school district had decided to split our neighborhood in half. All middle school students on the south side of my street and beyond up to the district line would attend Aerohaven Jr. High (now an elementary school) and everyone on the north side of my street would attend Foothill Jr. High. I lived on the North side. Somewhere about four or five blocks away on the South side lived my nemesis and most of her pack. I felt like I just won the lottery….

A Few Facts

According to the book Parent-Child Relations: Context, Research, and Application, bullying is defined as: “…repeated aggression in which one or more children harm or disturb another child physically, verbally, or psychologically. When children physically bully other children, they hit, kick, push, and/or take personal belongings; when they verbally bully other children, they use name calling and threatening; and when they psychologically bully other children, they exclude them or gossip about them.”

To a child who is just starting to build a social life outside of their family, children are already at a disadvantage. They haven’t yet learned how social groups operate in an institution and are more likely to imprint the actions of a bully onto their construct of society for the rest of their lives. Especially if the aggression continues over an extended period. In my own life, bullying drove me into an internal life that became a safe haven from any difficult or stressful situation. On the flip side of the coin, the bully also builds a skewed and distorted concept of society, which often creates a pattern of aggression which is displayed whenever stress or disappointment occurs in their life.

Thanks to the advent of the Internet and social sites such as Facebook and others, bullies now have 24/7 access to their victims. This new form of aggression has contributed to an increase in the suicide rate amongst school-aged children, especially teenagers. According to research listed on the site ImageBullyingstatistics.org, 160,000 students miss school on a daily basis as a means to avoid being bullied; a reported 2.7 million children are bullied every year with about 2.1 million kids doing the bullying. Many of the horrific school shootings that have occurred in the nation were perpetrated by children who were victims of extreme bullying.

While it is commendable that this issue is finally getting attention from the media, celebrities like Lady Gaga and others, and finally by the school system itself, the best prevention and cure for bullying lies with the parents of the victims. During a report by Ann Curry of the Today show on the suicide of Jamey Rodermeyer in September of 2011, Jamey’s parents urged other parents to “badger your kids” into talking about any situations in which their child is feeling bullied and harassed. Speaking from experience, yes, this may have helped me, but I truly was more afraid of the backlash that could have occurred. For a bullied child this can actually be worse than what was occurring before the abuse was  reported. It isn’t possible for a teacher, especially in the crowded classrooms of our schools today, to notice every small act of bullying that takes place in their classroom or more likely, on the playground.

(Next week: What can be and is being done as well as how bullying can affect a child throughout his or her life.)