An anti-bullying video’s been trending in the social media sphere this week, in which a teacher demonstrates to her class the effects of bullying on a student’s psyche. All courtesy of balled up, stomped on and unfolded yet crumpled pieces of paper. It’s a good, though incomplete description, because it doesn’t address the great feeling of superiority that those dispensing the verbal, physical and psychological abuse get from bullying their classmates.
Though I seldom have thought of myself as someone who was bullied, by today’s definition, that’s exactly what happened to me for the better part of five months of seventh grade, from November ’81 through February ’82 and late-May to early June ’82 (see my post “The Legend of Captain Zimbabwe” from May ’09 for much more). I guess I’d been called so many names by so many people in 7S so first few months — and, to be truthful, did the same in response to a fair number of classmates myself — that I didn’t think too much of it as November ’81 began.
About two weeks after my fight with Brandie (see “Adverbs and A-Holes” post from last month), I experienced a serious physical bullying altercation (there were one or two attempts by neighborhood kids while I went to Nathan Hale and Holmes Elementary, and a couple of attempts in high school). The best way to describe it is that I got jumped and then beat-down after the end of the school day on the first Friday in November ’81.
It wasn’t a random jumping or beat-down, and not one that involved Davis’ Black or Latino students, who were always described to us super-nerds as “dangerous.” No, the perps in this case were from what I euphemistically called the “Italian Club,” a full two years before we had an official Italian Club in high school. They’d been on me in 7S homeroom and in Italian class with nearly constant verbal abuse for the two weeks or so since my scuffle with Brandie. Apparently, my decision to ignore them didn’t work well enough.
The leader of this pack of uncouth Italian or White working-class preteen Humanities boys was “A,” who presented himself as between John Travolta’s character on Welcome Back, Kotter and Arthur Fonzerelli from Happy Days. A’s favorite move those Humanities middle school years was to walk into our homeroom and belt out The Police’s “Roxanne” refrain, as if he were Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours. The way his band of Italian or Italian-esque brothers hung around him, you would’ve thought he was a rock star, someone like his fave, Mr. “White Wedding” himself, Billy Idol.
Led by A, about ten 7S classmates attacked me after school as I was on my way out the school’s side door closest to the Humanities wing to walk home. They grabbed, punched, and kicked me, and called me everything but a child of God. A, of course, wasn’t actually involved in any of the dirty work of beating on me. Like a about half a dozen other 7S classmates, A watched as he directed his gang.
That was my third A Christmas Story moment. Except I’d been better off wearing the pink bunny suit over my kufi! Bullying is a funny thing, even when you’re one being bullied.
But unlike the piece of trampled, stomped, balled up paper, I wasn’t scarred in the sense that my self-esteem was shattered. Far from it, my self-absorption and delusions of academic grandeur shielded me, made it possible for me to iron out most of the wrinkles in my psyche from being jumped that day. It took my grades, a crush, and events that played out at home, at 616, to shatter my childhood.
Of course, being called a “dumb ass” as if it were my nickname, or “Captain Zimbabwe,” as a proxy for “Negro” or the N-word, wasn’t exactly besides the point. Nor was the idea that a bunch of White kids could decide that they could gang up on me essentially because I was an enigma to them. Like me being weird, uncool and smart was too much for their pubervescent heads to handle.
The best revenge, though, was going through puberty myself, to find myself growing ten inches in twenty months, between March ’82 and December ’83. That, and taking care of my body, mind and spirit over the past thirty years. Not that I have a dart board of my tormentors or anything, but I think it would be hilarious if any of them attempted to bully the 225-pound me today. Of course, I’d probably laugh so hard that they’d get a couple of licks in, at least before my sense of righteous rage would kick in.
The moral here, I guess, is to have a sense of how to deal with bullying if and when it does occur, to not shrug it off as “boys just being boys” or, for that matter, “cliquish girls being cliquish girls.” By middle school, though, it’s not just about reporting it to teachers or parents. It’s about other students stepping in, and students the subject of bullies’ discontent defending themselves. And that is what I’m instilling in my son. Of course, I’ll step in when necessary, too.