We hear all the time now about how schools are cracking down on bullying. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that’s not really true.
Bullies learn early that if they get in good with the authorities, if they make the right connections who will vouch for them, they get a reusable Get Out of Trouble Free card that’s darn near impossible to revoke. They learn how to provoke their victims in ways that won’t be seen, and if the victim ever reacts and “stands up”, they make it look like the victim is the real problem. Other students always know the score, but administrators never care to learn the truth. If they ask anyone, they’ll usually ask the students they know, who are often part of the problem. And this is why bullying continues to happen. If anything escalates beyond the school level and cops get involved, when real interviews happen and there’s no coach’s-pet buddy system in play, we always find out the truth pretty darn quick.
It’s pretty sad to see this goes on in pro football, though. If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that Richie Incognito of the Miami Dolphins is a douchebag. But he was also part of his team’s leadership, and had supposedly also been asked by one or more of the coaches to help “toughen up” Jonathan Martin, who took this abuse to such a degree that he up and quit.
Martin’s not an idiot. He knew if he complained it would go through channels, and those channels would lead right through the very people he was complaining about: who would make his situation worse. Incognito isn’t an idiot either. Bullies always have a good idea just how much they can get away with. The only shocking thing about this situation, other than that it happened between grown adults, is that Incognito actually got called out on it in the public eye.
Some people have said that Martin should have stood up to his bully anyway, but this is a fallacy. Standing up usually gets you in more trouble, because as I said, the bully has figured out how to rig the system. It doesn’t stop anything, usually. I learned in school that whenever I tried to do anything about this crap, I’d get into trouble too. It’s not right that the victim gets blamed for something they didn’t instigate, when they just wanted to be left alone. But kids can’t properly verbalize these things, either, and so it just goes on. And I guess adults can get trapped in the same pattern, too.
I did stand up once, and got something to stop. But it’s the exception, not the rule, and I knew that even when I did it.
When I was in 4th grade, there was some stupid rule on our bus about having assigned seats. I never understood this, nor liked it, because it put me next to a little dickweed named Michael. He wasn’t appreciably bigger than me. As bullies went I think he was actually a piker; he was just looking for someone he could put below him in the pecking order. Every freaking morning—I only recall him being next to me in the mornings—he’d take pot shots, smacking me in the shoulder or elbowing me in the side. He was a big fan of the elbow, and used it a lot. It wasn’t hard, it was just enough to be a constant annoyance and to prove that he could get away with it, while I’d lean against the window and just wait for the ride to end.
This went on a long while. Months. Again, kids don’t verbalize this stuff; I’m sure I must have tried to talk to someone about the problem, but no one was listening. One morning, I reached my threshold. He laid into me again a few times on the ride, and I just had it. The bus stopped when we got to school, and the usual jostling to get out began, but he took his time getting out, and that little bastard gave me an opening. Since he liked the elbow so much, I gave him mine: Without any warning, I rammed my own elbow into his stomach, as hard as I could. I pushed past him and walked off the bus without a word, as if nothing had happened.
The next day, he wasn’t seated next to me. It was somebody else, someone who didn’t bother me nor I him. Nobody ever said a word to me about it. And this was the most unexpected thing of all. I fully expected I’d be the one to get into trouble. I had been thinking of what I would say when the time came to face the music, how I’d have to convince somebody that the crap this kid put me through was real and enough was enough, and this was just belated but thoroughly justified self-defense. Because I knew well by that point that was how the system worked: The bully seeks out the people he’s courted favor with, and the victim gets in trouble for it. Steeling myself for the consequences was part of my decision process leading up to what I did; the fact that the victim knows they’ll get in trouble is one reason they let themselves continue to be cowed day after day, but I decided in this case it was worth it. Yet nothing like that ever happened, and the fact that I hurt this tool and that he never bothered me again remains one of the proudest moments of my life.
I drew a few lessons from this.
- Violence solves problems. I already knew this was true, but I’d never been on the delivery end before. It’s a poor solution for many problems and it’s best avoided, but there is a time and a place for violence and boy howdy was this ever it. If someone is using violence against you, reporting it usually doesn’t work.
- If they’re sneaky, be sneakier. Michael got away with his crap for as long as he did because no one knew about it. He made sure to get in his digs where he wouldn’t be seen. I finally decided I’d have to do the same. It was my only way to get in a hit, anyway. I didn’t know how to handle myself, so if I was going to meet him on his terms I had to do it in a way he wouldn’t see coming.
- If violence is the answer, fight dirty. I threw everything I had into that elbow because I knew if I didn’t, the message wouldn’t get across. I didn’t want to just get in a weak blow and make him angry, making the problem worse. He would’ve stepped up his attacks and he would’ve known to defend himself the next time. Heck, a weak hit would’ve escalated right then and there. The response had to be over the top and completely unexpected for him to get the message. Disproportionate response (though cumulatively, it was far shy of that) was the only way to go.
I wish I’d learned those lessons so much sooner. Elementary school might have worked out a lot better for me up tot hat point if I had, because then maybe I could have used what I learned to handle the jerks who really knew what they were doing. Like I said, Michael was a piker; he was a junior leaguer at this stuff. I doubt he had the connections among school faculty to properly throw any blame my way; he only had just enough pull to do what I could not: get a new seat. I won because it was the closest thing I ever had to a fair fight, but I’d like to think if I had internalized those lessons earlier, I’d have been a lot better off in the unfair fights.
My anger toward Michael has pretty well dissipated. I dealt with him. I can’t even remember his last name anymore. But Lord, is it hard not to hold a grudge against so many others. The ones who really knew what they were doing: It’s hard to forgive them. It goes beyond school. If the power were ever in my hands to properly retaliate, though, I wouldn’t; not for events that happened years ago, some more recent than others. That’s forgiveness I can muster, and I’m proud of that too; because some days, that’s hard enough to maintain.