Bullying Then and Now
Once, in a counseling session thoughtfully provided by the company that was making me crazy, I was asked, of some incident or other that had come up, whether I had felt betrayed. Betrayed? I couldn’t get my head around it. Betrayed. I pondered. Well, I said, maybe what he did…maybe by taking all I had given him and using it against me…maybe that was betrayal. Is that betrayal? Yes, the counselor said. Oh. I hadn’t known. I just thought it was an ethics-challenged individual doing what ethics-challenged individuals do. I dealt with it and had let it go. And it had nothing to do, I thought, with the current situation. Eventually, I dealt with the company that was making me crazy by the simple tactic of quitting and leaving the pitifully maladjustment publisher, whose editor I was, to stew in his own unsavory juices. And so ended my need for counseling. I was no longer depressed. I was overjoyed. One is, when one gets one’s life back. *** This morning I opened classmates.com. I only ever open it when another charge shows up on my credit bill and I can’t figure out why. So I looked for a place to cancel (I’ve done this dance more than once), and found a message from a man who, as a boy, I scarcely knew in high school. But then, I scarcely knew anyone in high school. I was in the advanced academic classes, a small contingent of brainy kids who didn’t do football or smoke or “go all the way,” but rather prepared for university and escape from Long Island, New York, then a hinterland with none of the excitement of New York City despite proximity, and all the negatives a population striving to get into the middle class can exhibit. And even among those 30-odd (out of a class of 340), I was close to only a few. And I was bullied. I never thought of it that way until this morning. There’s so much in the news about bullying and kids killing themselves; something clicked. I would NEVER have killed myself; I figured I could hold on until I was 18 and able to leave the place forever. And I had my parents, who were usually supportive.
A short tale about victimization
Still, the bullying was, I suppose, intense. It began when I was 14, and was crazy about a boy named Jeffrey. I flirted with him on the school bus. It got nowhere. At 14, I was flat as a board and had all the sexual allure of a melting ice cream cone. Still, I didn’t need my neighbor to make cracks about my still unshapely physique to that boy, out loud, in public. It was so embarrassing, start to finish. It was my first crush. My neighbor was a fat girl. Always had been. And she had always made fun of my scrawniness. I did not return the favour. My parents had raised me better than that. But that day, the day she commented on my lack of “development,” I went off. And I said something I’ve never forgotten in all these years, and I said it loudly. “If you were half as smart as you are fat, you’d be Einstein.” Needless to say, that ended the so-called friendship, and brought down on my head the better part of four years of the girl threatening to pound me, having her friends threaten to pound me, laughing at me in the hallways, making fun of anything I did that became public knowledge…and since I was on that advanced academic track, there was a lot of that. Awards, participation in various swell events….but no football. Love of football–along with smoking, drinking and “going (almost) all the way”–were the tickets to acceptance in that hormone-laced society. Never mind that the tough guys on the football team lost almost every game they played in the four years I attended that school. (They weren’t even GOOD tough guys.) My parents could never understand why I didn’t make up with the girl. I understood. I had to claim my own being, to hell with her and her ignorant friends. It was hard. It was very hard. I think possibly many of my self-doubts and self-downing self-talk that I still wrestle with can be traced directly to that time in my life. But commit suicide? And give those ignorant jackasses what they wanted? NEVER.
Real people win, bullies never do
The person who wrote to me on classmates.com was not really one of those abusive kids, but perhaps closer to them than to me. He was not of the nerdy clique, mine, nor really of the smug, ultra-cool clique, as I recall. But in his note, he mentioned he wished he had done more studying in high school and less fooling around. Still, he did get the message in time, and it appears to me he has made a very fine life for himself and his family, enjoyed some foreign travel along the way. In short, he is now what we eggheads aspired to all those years ago, an intelligent, well-rounded, fully realized adult human with an admirable collection of life experiences. I salute him.
Is bullying different? Or is it the reporting?
But I wonder, has bullying gotten worse than what happened to me? Back then, they couldn’t post garbage on Facebook; there was no Facebook. There were not even IBM Selectric typewriters to make hate mail quicker, and no telephone answering machines at the time. Whatever they did, they had to do in person. Was that better? Or worse? For the victim, that is. I don’t know. I can imagine my parents, if I were a teen today, wondering why I would refuse to spend time on cybersocialization, as they wondered why I avoided the girl next door all of a sudden. But I can also imagine them supporting my decision not to engage with anything I felt was not in my best interests. As I said, they had raised me right, and neither they nor I had any doubt that when I was 14, I was well on the way to adulthood even if my body lagged behind a bit. Is that, then, the problem today? No one’s parents are raising them right? Are there more bullies, and fewer parents of the target kids are raising them with enough internal fortitude to bear up during the worst years of anyone’s life, teenhood?
Different faces of the same jerk?
Betrayal. Bullying. Possibly different facets of the same process. Certainly Skippy–the publisher–bullied me. He once put on my desk a photo of my derriere that he had taken surreptitiously. I dealt with it as I deal with most things. I read him the riot act and threw it away. Later, a lawyer friend said I should have kept it and sued the company; I’d be rich by now. Certainly, Skippy betrayed me. He told me over and over and over that he had hired me despite my light background in the subject of the magazine (agriculture). I apparently had impressed him with my ability to write English; indeed, I had been bailing out one of his other staffers for two years before he hired me because she knew agriculture but couldn’t write for beans. When I left, HR told me he had lied to me, that of the 250 applicants for that ag journalism plum, I had always been his first choice. He lied to keep me scared for my job. Skippy misjudged. Keeping me or anyone else unsettled for one’s own perceived gain is counter-productive. Either the target will sabotage you, or they will quit, or, if they are children, they will achieve just to show you how wrong you were. In some cases, I guess, they kill themselves because they feel so powerless. Or maybe not. Maybe today’s kids lack that element, the element of, as they used to so horribly say, stick-to-itiveness. Or, in plain English, perseverance. Maybe the parents are useless. Or maybe there is the same amount of bullying–with some making it through, some not–but more widespread and virtually instant reporting, especially of the few cases that end very badly indeed. I don’t know. I do know that I persevered. The boy from my high school persevered. The girl who tortured me? Not so much. I saw her years later (but now years ago), at my father’s funeral. And she displayed every bit of the same attitude she had tortured me with when we were teenagers. I was amazed. But I was polite. When I was a teenager, it was costly to me to be even passingly courteous to those who toyed with my social ineptitude for their own pleasure, but I had to do it. I KNEW I had to do it, to keep them from reaching their foul goal and destroying me. My parents, apparently, had taught me that. Perhaps they had taught it by no more than being true to what they believed (admittedly a basically liberal middle-class agenda, based mainly on kindness and fairness and almost not at all on god), and valuing me and my brother enough to teach us everything they knew about life. And they held us to standards, high ones, apparently, if the behaviour of all those class clowns is any indication of the standards in most homes at the time. As an adult, it cost me nothing to chat with the woman as if 20 years had not passed. I pitied her, frozen in her teenage persona; what else could I do but be kind at that moment? I didn’t any longer feel the slings of the bullying, or any sense of betrayal. I didn’t pursue the friendship again.