Were you ever bullied? Maybe as a child? Picked on, singled out for ridicule or abuse? Ganged up on, or chronically teased or belittled? Did you ever get beaten up? How did you handle it? What effect did it have on you? I cannot stand bullies, or bullying, or complacency when it happens right in front of me. Makes me physically ill. How about you?
I was once a skinny kid-- asthmatic, bespectacled, bookish and horribly unathletic. I was a good student, articulate, respectful to my teachers, nice to girls, and unfailingly polite, with very good manners. Prime bully bait, in other words. I went to a parochial school in The Bronx, New York (St. Margaret's of Cortona), where from 4th through 6th grades I sang in the choir and served as an altar boy. I was completely out of my element. My classmates (even my fellow altar boys!) used to call me "You little Jew bastard"-- the harshest insult they could muster. The irony was not lost on me, an Irish Catholic boy whose ancestors hailed from the West Cork village of Skibbereen. These were not gifted or clever children...
My best friend was a shy, quiet boy named Robert, who had some sort of "condition" for which he supplied, at the beginning of each school year, a note from his doctor to the the teacher, indicating that he must be allowed to consume a snack each day at a certain hour. (I have since theorized that Robert was Diabetic, or maybe Hypoglycemic. His blood sugar levels seemed to need attention.) At the appointed time each school day, the teacher would call his name, and Robert would get up, fetch his lunchbox and stand in the corner of the room where he slowly ate a banana and drank a cup of orange juice from a small thermos. Then he put the lunchbox away, sat down and continued his studies with the rest of us.
You just *KNOW* old Robert regularly got called a faggot and had his ass kicked around the schoolyard every week, right? I tried defending him and deflecting some of the abuse, but that meant that I became a target, too-- and I was not a good fighter. My attempts at intercession had steadily diminishing returns, and cost me a couple pairs of glasses and a myriad of split lips.
One day, the head bully-- a kid named Gary-- really went to town on Robert. Smashed his thermos, caved in his lunchbox, knocked Robert to the ground and bloodied his nose, broke a tooth, blew the knees out of his pants... the little thug was merciless. He was egged on and assisted by 2 or 3 other young beasts. I stupidly waded in to help Robert up, and got knocked down, myself, before one of the nuns came over and scared the hell out of everyone, breaking up the melee and rescuing me and poor, battered Robert.
Somehow the story got put around that *I* had called the nun, and I was suddenly labeled a "squealer"-- which was worse even than being a snack-eating faggot or a studious little Jew bastard, in those particular circles. I was informed that Gary and his pals were going to "get" me, after school. Well, imagine how stress-free my day was, until 3:00PM rolled around, can you?
I lived just over 3 blocks from the school. A straight line, walked down the very same street, got me from my apartment building to the front door of St. Margaret's in less than 10 minutes. I ran multiple, alternative routes home through my mind's eye all morning and afternoon, looking for some clever detour. I determined that if I cut through the vacant lot near the bus stop, I could go over one street and make my way through a small, wooded spot and past some rocks, up a hill, and climb over the fence into my apartment building's rear yard where our playground was.
Everything went to hell when I approached the bus stop. Four boys-- led by Gary-- were sitting on the bench, and stood up the moment I came into sight. "I'm going to get beaten up pretty badly. These guys are mad. Well, here we go." I remember saying to myself. I balled up my fists and tried to duck my head. I was surrounded and dragged into the vacant lot, where they shoved me back and forth, punching and kicking me. My glasses disappeared in the first seconds, and I was pretty much unable to tell what the hell was happening after that. I punched wildly, connecting a few times-- although how effectively they scored was hard to guess, as I couldn't see shit.
I'd get shoved at someone, that person would hold me, and someone else would punch or kick me, and then I'd be shoved away and held by someone else while a new guy teed off on me. I remember being punched in the face several times, and wondering "How long are they gonna do this before they get tired or think I've had enough?" One particularly hard blow finally knocked me down, and I remember a large rock looming clearly in my vision as I headed for the ground. Then-- just like in the movies-- everything faded to black.
This was a winter afternoon, and it was snowing. A lady waiting for a bus happened to glance into the vacant lot and realized that this particular lump of snow seemed to be slowly rising and falling...rising and falling...almost like it was breathing. She stepped closer to investigate and discovered... me, unconscious, bleeding and turning blue, beneath a couple inches of snow. I had a concussion and a skull fracture. I was whisked away by ambulance to Fordham Hospital where I spent the next week and a half recuperating. I learned to play poker while I was there, instructed by an older kid who spoke mostly Spanish. Our games were interesting. The Principal-- a nun we were all scared to death of--and the senior parish priest-- a gnarled, tough old guy who reeked of cigars--from St. Margaret's both came to visit me in the hospital during my stay.
I healed. My life changed drastically after that experience. I learned various ways to avoid bullies, and I learned how to use jokes and sarcasm as tools to keep some of them at bay. A wicked, cynical, off-kilter sense of humor has served me pretty well over the years. I developed emotional armor. The world, after this beating, became very black and white for me, and people fell easily into much sharper categories-- those who were kind and decent to me, and those whose demeanor revealed them as potential threats, to be avoided at all costs. I never trusted anyone easily or automatically since then. Innocence got beaten out of me.
My father gave me a few extremely valuable pieces of advice when I was young. They've served me well. I try and live by them as much as possible. They were:
1.) "Choose who you associate with very carefully.You're going to meet enough assholes in life as it is. Don't make it harder for yourself by going out of your way to attract any additional ones."
2.) "When you're right-- and you absolutely know you're right-- don't ever let anyone tell you you're wrong. Tell the truth, and expect it in return. Insist on it."
3.) "Don't give anybody any unwarranted shit. That's a weak and lousy thing to do. And don't, for God's sake, ever take any, from anybody! Stand up to 'em and sound off!"
4.) "Defend yourself against anybody who fucks with you. Nobody hurts you! If you're outmatched or outnumbered get yourself an equalizer. Pick up a rock or a stick or a bottle or a handful of sand; whatever you have, to even things up. You're nobody's goddam victim."
I learned to avoid assholes, to respect truth, not to allow myself to be mistreated, lied to or pushed around-- and always to stand up for my friends who received undeserved treatment. And yes-- I've been lumped up and scarred and knocked cold a few times since that day, too-- but I simply do not back down from a bully who tries to assert himself over me..
Psychotic little Gary wound up getting a juvenile delinquent record-- a rap sheet for assault-- and he and his asshole, bully-boy pals (who were, coincidentally, altar boys, too!) were prohibited from serving Mass for a couple of months. This made me the busiest little Jew bastard in my class, on the altar of St. Margaret's church during all of November and December, 1962! It did absolutely nothing at all to improve my popularity at that school.
The following year we moved away to rural Florida. I like to think this was just to continue molding my splendid and clear-thinking young character by keeping me entirely off balance and out of step with my peers. I became a complete freak as the kid from The Bronx who was suddenly thrust into a bunch of redneck rubes, and tries to comprehend and adjust to virulent racism. THAT didn't go so well, either-- a story for another time.
Drop me a note with any questions,
comments, criticism, cogent thoughts,
cease-and-desist orders, etc., etc...