I was six feet tall and 180 pounds in eighth grade. I was the first person in my middle school to get hairy legs. I had the physicality to be a really good bully. I only bullied one person in school, though. He was the only person lower on the bullying list than me, so I couldn’t help myself. It didn’t help that his last name rhymed with “trashcan”. It’s my particular karma that I needed his older brother to give me a ride home every day for a year. After a couple months where he made merciless fun of me, I stopped bullying his little brother. To this day, I can’t see a LeCar without remembering how I was trapped in that tiny back seat for a whole school year. I went to private school K-4, public school for 5th grade, Quaker school for 6th and 7th, catholic school for 8th and 9th, and Quaker school 10th through 12th grades. I’ve seen bullying in all its forms. I’m a connoisseur of educational despair.
Public school had the most physical bullies. My first mistake happened in gym class. I didn’t understand how the hierarchy of elementary school worked. I threw a football almost 40 yards, which impressed everyone. When I didn’t follow that up by beating another student, I became a porcelain trophy. I did something that no one else in the class could do, but I didn’t flaunt it or impose my strength on anyone, which made me a target. The golden goose for bullies is someone who is stronger than they are, but not willing to prove it in a fight. Once the other kids learned that I wouldn’t fight back, they slowly escalated their taunting until I found myself trapped in front of the locked gym door being beaten by another student. I don’t remember what happened after the beating started. My memory of the event stops when I reach that locked door with my tormentor only a step behind me. I don’t think he hurt me too badly because I don’t remember going to the hospital.
Catholic bullying was a more ethereal experience. Being picked last in gym class is an overused metaphor for bullying, but it’s a real thing. I would stand in the dwindling “out” crowd, wondering if it would be me or the sniffly nerd who would be left. The last man changed from week to week. I can only imagine that the nerd felt the same relief each time he got picked before I did. I certainly felt elated whenever it wasn’t me. We would stand there exchanging short glances while the teams debated which of us was the bigger burden to their team. Catholic bullying centered on exclusion and cliques more than physical bullying. I did get into one of the two fights I’ve been in at that school. In 8th grade, a student decided that running up to me and hitting me in the head was too funny to give up. He did it between every class and when there wasn’t a teacher in the room. After a couple months of noogies, I finally snapped. I remember that day quite well. My intention was to rip his arm off his body and beat him with it. I remember feeling surprised when it didn’t come off. I gave him a spiral fracture and spent the next month in detention. There was no explaining what had caused me to do it. The priest wasn’t interested in the previous year of bullying, or what the student might have done to deserve his cast. I don’t think he deserved a broken arm, but I didn’t deserve a permanent welt on top of my head, either. After that episode, I became a bullying target for everyone. Even the sniffly nerd got in on the action. It became institutionalized; the priests would join in the joking, some even tried to out do the students in finding my faults. Priests are unique bullies. They combine psychology with religious certitude in a way that makes them unassailable. There’s no comeback for a priest that calls you fat and dumb. “God hates whiners, James.” The ultimate irony were the lectures they gave me about bullying the kid with the broken arm.
Private school bullies combine physical and emotional bullying. There was always a tack on my chair waiting for me to sit on, and I was always picked last. I remember the name of my elementary school bully. I looked him up on Facebook once. It looks like he’s friendly with his grandmother and lives like anyone else. It’s hard to associate that adult face with the monster I knew. How can that smiling, normal looking guy spring from the shoving, name calling brat I remember? The teachers kept telling me that they would stop if I just fought back once. I was bigger and stronger than everyone, surely they would leave me alone if I gave it back once. That’s how I got into the first fight of my life. I was walking outside the school when one of my bullies called me a name. I grabbed his arm and twisted it until he was lying on the ground. I sprained his wrist and spent a week in detention. The teachers took the same approach to bullying as the priests. I got several lectures about the evils of bullying and was told in certain terms that I would be expelled if they ever found out that I’d bullied another student. My bully became a martyred hero when he came back to school in an arm sling and I tried my best to disappear for the rest of the year.
There were no bullies in Quaker school. There were people who made fun of me, but nothing compared to the years before. No one called me fat and stupid, no one beat me up every week. I went to school without the certainty that everyone was against me. It was a little surreal for me. I looked for a bully, sure that he was hiding out there somewhere, but never found anything but supportive teachers and normal teenagers. After spending elementary school at the bottom of the social pile, I had a two year reprieve before going to Catholic school. Going back to Quaker school after the tender mercy of the priests was a double shock. The worst thing I heard in 10th grade were snide remarks about my two year absence. That was as good as a real friend to me. In fact, I made my first friend in 10th grade, and I’m still in contact with him, 25 years later.
How can I describe what it’s like to grow up with bullies and their friends? Once I was tagged as a victim, there was no haven or safe place for me at school. It all stemmed from my passivity. I don’t want to say that I would grow up differently, looking back. What kind of person would I be if I was the bully for all those years? I know what kind of burden I carry because I was bullied, but I have no idea how heavy it would be to carry a bully’s guilt. Judging from that facebook page, they turn out happy and well adjusted, which makes me a little jealous, which makes me a little sad.