Thursday, April 15, 2010

Evening up the score

Today I went to (virtually) visit my friend Amy over at her blog, 4th Frog, where I was unhappy to learn that some hooligan kids at her son Charlie's elementary school are bullying him. Amy's talked to the school counselor and both of them have talked to Charlie, so right now things are in a holding pattern to see if the behavior of the hooligans changes.

I myself am in favor of exploring the option of talking to the kids' parents and other civilized ways of dealing with urgent social problems like this one, but having been the target of bullying in both elementary and middle school, I think there's a lot to be said for tae kwon do or some other martial art that can make a person look really coordinated while kicking another person's teeth down his throat. *ahem*

My first instance of bullying happened my fifth grade year. I was one of those kids who walked home from school, which was a pleasant little journey as long as you weren't being terrorized. I was ganged-up-on by two boys, whose names were Mike and Todd. Those are their real names. I still know their last names too, you dig? Because it was a scarring experience and all.

Anyway, for some reason, Mike took a dislike to me. Todd, who was evidently a weakling of low character, followed along after Mike. Strangely enough, they were both fourth graders. But I was not a super-big kid as an elementary school student and they were two of the bigger boys in their fourth grade class and they were both bigger than I was. They harassed me for weeks on end as we all walked home to the same sunny neighborhood, pushing me down, pulling my hair, grabbing my books and throwing them. When they finally got tired of messing with me, they'd go on their merry way, and I, completely upset, would either cry the rest of the way home or find a convenient roadside shrub where I could vomit in privacy.

They told me not to tell, or they'd really "get me." I didn't know what that meant, but it sounded ominous.

Somehow, I ended up having the courage to tell my mother. She was a teacher in the same school system I attended, although in a different building, and she knew the principal of my school, having worked with him before.

Because I was just a kid, I don't know the ins and outs of the whole deal, but she went to the school and told the principal what was going on. The bullying stopped for a few days and Mike and Todd took a different route home. But just as I was beginning to breathe easier and not feel that clutch of pure terror when I'd glance over my shoulder and see them running to catch me, they caught me.

The two of them pushed me off the street and into the Patterson's yard - I remember hoping so much that Laura was home: Laura was a high school girl who sometimes babysat for me and Pat and I knew that she'd show them a thing or two about picking on a girl. But the Patterson's garage door was down and there were no cars in the driveway and their front door, which usually stood hospitably open behind the big screen door, was closed tight.

Mike and Todd spent a good bit of time that day pushing me down to the ground, yaking me back up by my arms, pushing me down again. I was crying so hard, but I remember REFUSING to beg them to stop. When I tried to defend myself, they pushed and hit harder. When they felt like they'd made their point, they left me sitting disheveled in the Patterson's yard, my school books scattered around me on the neatly trimmed grass. I clearly remember thinking how weird it was, sitting there in our nice neighborhood with the pretty houses and the big lawns and the flowers and all and being beat up by two boys in broad daylight.

There was no problem with telling my parents about that episode. See, there was a creek that flowed at the bottom of the Patterson's property, and Mike strongly hinted that they'd push me in and hold me under if I ever said anything about them to a grown up again. I was, at age ten (I was one of the youngest in my class) literally afraid they'd kill me. One of me, two of them, both of them bigger and stronger than I was -- my odds didn't seem good.

When I told my mother that night, crying, the only thing I can remember about the conversation is the look on her face. I can't remember if she said anything to me or not, but that look -- the narrowed, burning blue eyes, the white dents around her nostrils, the lips pressed together in a tight, thin line -- said IT WOULD BE A MISTAKE TO MESS WITH THIS WOMAN.

So anyway, she went in to talk to the principal again. And I think she may have talked to Mike's and Todd's parents. And I have the impression that she raised holy hell at the school because Mike and Todd and I were called into the principal's office the next day and they were forced to apologize and then they got spanked with the paddle by the principal while I watched.

It was glorious.

And they never so much as looked at me again, until I met up with Todd years later. He'd gone into his family's business and married an acquaintance of mine from our mutual high school. We saw one another at the wrap party of a play my acquaintance/his wife and I had been in and she said, "Shelley, do you remember Todd from school?"

And I gave him a level look and a small smile and said, "Why, yes. I remember you very well, Todd."

Very well indeed.

The second instance of bullying I had to deal with was in the seventh grade, when I had to ride on a bus from my old elementary school to the junior high. There was some creepy, hoody girl, the kind who already reeked of cigarette smoke at the tender age of thirteen, who rode the same bus, and in the first weeks of school, she decided to make merry sport with me as the bus trundled back home in the afternoons.

It was the same kind of deal: she'd grab my books and scatter them across the floor of the bus, and then when I'd lean over to pick them up, she'd pull my hair, step on my fingers, put her foot on my back so that I couldn't stand up. It was awful. Some of the kids shot me looks of mute sympathy out of the corners of their eyes, but it was obvious that I was on my own. No one was going to stand up to Miss Smoky Breath 1976 and by the third time she decided to attack, I realized that the only one who could save me My mom wasn't on the bus and the bus driver looked like he was about a million years old and descended from a line of sea turtles. Neither of them could help me.

It was almighty hot on the school bus that day and I was sitting quietly in my seat, perspiring, hoping she wouldn't notice me. My seventh grade picture shows me looking shy and slightly hesitant, all eyes and teeth. It was an awkward stage in sooo many ways. I was kind of a timid and quiet girl -- yes! I know! SO MUCH HAS CHANGED! -- and I was willing to just live and let live, but she definitely wasn't.

So she knocked my books out of my arms, as usual. And I leaned down to pick them up, also as usual. But the first one I picked up was the thick and heavy math book from Mrs. McBride's fourth period class. I grabbed it in my sweaty, shaking hands and caught the hood off-guard as she was standing there braying like a donkey and smashed her in the face with it full-on, hard enough to send her flying awkwardly backwards, half on a seat and half on the floor, blood spraying out of her nose and mouth like a faucet.

I wish I could remember what happened next. I don't think it was anything dramatic, but I was running on so much adrenaline that a veil has been drawn over the rest of that ride back to Riley Elementary School, where I gathered my books and demurely exited the bus and walked home. Feeling different.

The nasty girl evidently totally understood my message delivered via textbook because she never touched me or so much as looked at me again. I think she ended up dropping out of school when we were tenth graders, which is kind of a shame because she missed my vote for "Most Likely to Spend Her Entire Adult Life in the Indiana Women's Prison" in the senior issue of the school newspaper.

So while I firmly believe that parents need to intervene in cases of school bullying -- and they need to keep on intervening until something changes for the better -- I also think there's a lot to be said for making sure your kid knows how to kick the living crap out of anybody who messes with him or her.

And you know? I am SO not talking about how to get your kid to sit down with a bully and say, "Now, Bruiser, I'm sure you don't really mean to articulate your dislike of me by punching my head out on the playground whenever Mrs. Beezus isn't looking, so let's discuss this using our words instead of our actions, okay, buddy?"

No, I mean literal pain-infliction, the kind that ends with the bully shedding tears and yelling "uncle!" or whatever relative he or she would like to call upon. You know, like in A Christmas Story, when Ralphie had finally HAD IT with Scott Farkus. The kind where other people stand around and watch in wide-eyed, silent respectfulness and a path clears when the bullied-one gets up, dusts of his/her hands and walks on home with head held high.

There's a message in that and most bullies hear it LOUD AND CLEAR.


Amy said...

Shelley -- I am over hearing cheering for you bashing that bully girl in the face! Mike pretty much told Charlie the same thing last night. Try to walk away. Tell the teacher. But if they keep starting it, you finish it.

Katie said...

Good for you! I got bullied (for being poor, oh noes) until I started punching people who messed with me in the face.

Kayte said...

We had lots of incidents of these kinds of things with Alex because he has always been so very small and with the big mouth of his, easy target. Always heartbreaking, never an easy answer. None of it fair. Drives me nuts.