I talked about bullying in my previous blog post, but I didn’t really talk about bullies. Bullies are not big, tough, and powerful. Their strength comes from projecting an image that they are. And they do that by reaching out to those they perceive as weaker and defenseless. You never see a bully pick on the football quarterback, or the high school wrestler, or the toughest kid in the class. School really is a blackboard jungle and the rules of the jungle apply. When predators select their prey, they aren’t looking for a fight and they certainly aren’t looking for one they could lose. Coyotes don’t attack chickens because they want a fair fight; they select the prey that will offer the least resistance.
Those are the two things you need to know about bullies. Bullies are terrorists because their strength comes from instilling terror in their targeted victims. And bullies are cowards, because they only prey on those weaker than them. The way to beat a bully is to deprive him of his strength and actually turn it against him.
I was picked on all through grade school. In junior high, one bully went so far as to extort my lunch money from me for two weeks. Rather than get into a fight, I simply handed it over each day. But one day, in art class, he stabbed the papier-mâché elephant I had created multiple times with his pencil. This was different. He was attacking something I had created. Now that I’m a writer, creating with words instead of papier-mâché, I suppose it would have been equivalent to someone tossing my manuscript into the fireplace. I was livid and fought back. My mother got a phone call at 8 o’clock that morning to come pick me up from school because I’d been suspended for fighting. On the bright side, the bully never got another dime from me.
By the time I was in 10th grade, it was well known I was a pacifist. As a rule, I didn’t get into fights. I’d ignore the insults hurled at me; the shoving; the snide, hurtful remarks and nicknames, and the derisive laughter. In a few years, I’d be in college and maybe it would be different. Kids can be cruel but eventually we all have to grow up. All I had to do was wait it out. But, even at a new school I found a new bully who enjoyed taunting me, especially in PE. Each day, our physical education class began with us running a lap around the school track. The last three kids to finally complete the lap were always the same: a fat kid named Mike, a foreign kid named Frank, and me. We became friends for that one hour each day simply because we belonged to a special coterie – the physically inept losers that no one wanted on their team.
We would all line up and the team captains would take turns selecting from the lineup. The final three choices would, of course, be Mike, Frank, and me. It would always be a toss-up between Frank and me as to whom would be chosen first; the other captain would choose the other one of us, and then there would be a mutual groan from the other team because they would be stuck with the fat kid, Mike. Had Frank and Mike not existed, I would have become the most unpopular kid by default. (Ironically, Frank and Mike were two of the nicest kids I knew in high school but that was unfortunately probably one of the best-kept secrets).
But one day in PE changed everything and taught me all I ever needed to know about bullies… And about my classmates. The bully began taunting me on the basketball court while we were waiting for the coach to come out from the locker room. I ignored his taunts and the shoving until he said one thing. I won’t tell you what he said; I doubt he even realized its significance, but he was waving a red flag at a bull. There was probably nothing worse he could have said to me. In seconds, I was on top of him. He was on his back on the asphalt and my fists were flying. He didn’t even try to fight back; he was in too much shock. It had never occurred to him that the kid he had been picking on all year would ever fight back. Like I said, bullies are cowards; they don’t pick on people they think will fight back.
The other kids on the basketball court crowded around us in a circle. No one tried to break up the fight. They were probably just as astonished as the bully. They were stunned that the loser, the perennial victim, the wimp was fighting back. And they were absolutely gobsmacked that I was winning. I was whaling the tar out of the bully and he was just lying there taking it. The coach finally came out and pulled me off him. Then it was time to select teams. That’s when something truly amazing happened. The school’s top athlete picked me for his team… First. I still couldn’t run fast, catch a baseball, or make a basket… But he chose me for his team ahead of all the other kids. I guess I had earned his respect. Then all the other kids got chosen, and eventually Frank and Mike were selected. One boy remained standing on the basketball court. The very last boy to be chosen was the bully. By standing up to him, I had taken away his strength – he could no longer instill terror in me or anyone else ever again – and I had revealed him for what he was.
For the next couple of weeks, people in school treated me differently. I got nods in the hallway and hellos when they passed. It didn’t last, of course. I had mixed feelings. By fighting, I had betrayed my own pacifist beliefs. It took me years to reconcile that. I still believe reasonable men should solve their disagreements without resorting to violence; however, I now accept that bullies and terrorists are not reasonable men. I enjoyed, however briefly, having the respect of my classmates but that wasn’t how I wanted to earn it. And it made me question what their values were, that they could only respect me as an equal now and not for the kind of person that I, or Mike, or Frank had always been.