We hear a lot about bullying these days. It’s trending in the news and the media and the Millennials act as if they’ve just discovered it. The truth is, bullying has been around for a very long time. As a kid, I was bullied in school just about every day. I had two perennial bullies who were the bane of my school years, but there were others who came and went— predators who recognized weakness when they saw it and who took gleeful pleasure in causing pain in those they knew wouldn’t or couldn’t fight back.
Most of them were little boys my age who didn’t look particularly terrifying to any adults, who wouldn’t have recognized them as bullies. In the world of kids and grown-ups, they were the Eddie Haskells of our world – the unctuous troublemaker teen on TV’s “Leave It toBeaver” who would always say “yes sir” and “you look lovely today, Mrs. Cleaver” to the parents, never hinting at his true nature. I say most: some were girls and they could be just as cruel as the boys. Worse, back then we were taught never to hit a girl – that would be a cardinal sin, so girls had carte blanche to bully as much as they wanted without fear of any consequences.
I was thinking about my grade school classmate Joseph Marchetti today. I wish I could call him a friend, but in truth, I didn’t really have many friends growing up. I didn’t hang out with other kids, I didn’t go to parties with them, I didn’t go to their houses after school, I didn’t do the things friends do, so when I met Joseph I really didn’t know how to be a friend. But I was always pleasant to him and I even looked up to him. He was one of the Italian boys at our school and back then that meant he was a decent kid who came from a family steeped in strong morals and values. It also meant he knew how to take care of himself, if he had to, in a fight. I, on the other hand, was an avowed pacifist. I was against the ongoing Vietnam War and all wars in general. I thought fighting was wrong and rational people should be able to solve their differences peacefully. That made me a wimp in the eyes of many, with a target painted on my back.
One day, Joseph observed a boy bullying me. He told me at lunchtime, the next time the bully did that, I should tell him “Joseph said that if you do it again, you’re dead meat.” I had no idea what “dead meat” was, but to my 12-year-old ears it sounded awesome. Later, in the schoolyard, the bully approached me and I relayed Joseph’s message to him, word for word. He looked up, glanced across the yard, and saw Joseph nodding at him. I think Joseph even smacked his fist into his palm one time. The bully released my shirt collar and slowly backed away. That particular bully never bothered me again.
I don’t recall if I ever thanked Joseph. I probably did, but if not, I’m doing it now, 45 years late. I’m sure Joseph doesn’t remember that day, and probably doesn’t even remember me, but I never forgot him or his act of kindness. He didn’t have to fight the bully or even say a single word to him, yet he made a difference, eloquently and powerfully. When I wrote The Adventures of Mackenzie Mortimer coming-of-age trilogy, one of its defining precepts was “If you have the power to make a difference when no one else can, then you have a moral obligation to do so.” It’s one of the most important things I’ve ever written. A 12-year-old boy named Joseph understood this; if we can teach this to other kids and maybe even to their parents, we can make the world a better place, beginning by eliminating bullying.