Monday, July 9, 2012

Musing on Bullying

Submitted By Heather

Heather is an attached, SAHM of three little girls and a writer who blogs at Musing Mommy in between working on novels, nursing, chatting with friends and trying to lead her children to be happy, positive leaders some day.


Bullying. It's a loaded word and a hot topic across the globe in the last decade or so. A common theme in old television sitcoms and a major subplot in my favorite Christmas classic movie. Who among us didn't cheer, at least a little inside, when Ralph started whaling on his bully? TV has confronted this seriously, humorously and a little bit of everything in between.

The girl bully is typically portrayed humorously and leaves the main character in a bind. The male protagonist cannot admit that he is being bullied by a girl, lest he be seen as weak. He cannot fight her back, because he has been taught that 'there is no right way to hit a [girl].' This is the primary method of defense taught: fighting back. Does it work? Well, that depends entirely on the bully, but it is certainly not ideal.
Contrary to popular belief, not all bullies are cowards wagging their dominance for the playground to see. Some are children who are hit at home and do not know how to interact without violence. Some are simply very aggressive personalities that found the playground their own personal Skinner Box--only instead of hitting a button for a treat, they hit the other children to get their way. The classic examples, of course, also exist.

I wasn't the model of a bully, nor was I the model of someone to be bullied. I was typically pretty self-confident. I had a high IQ (a couple points shy of genius). I was incredibly social and outgoing. I was empathetic and optimistic. I was willing to befriend anyone, regardless of social status (this was actually to be to my detriment) and saw the value in all people.

I displayed some of the stereotypes: I was a tomboy. My home life was troubled and I fell into the category of not knowing how to interact without violence as well as having a strong, dominant personality. In my early years, that wasn't much of a problem. I did okay fitting in; I wasn't particularly violent in peer interactions and my biggest problem in school was talkativeness, especially when I was done with work and bored.
When I was six, I was sitting on the playground, on some surface or outcropping that had me higher than the kids walking by. I saw a little boy around my age with brown hair walking in a path that would take him in front of me, a big smile on his face. I smiled to see him smiling, he looked so happy. Then a bigger boy, whom I didn't have a clear view of because I was busy watching the younger, stuck out his leg and kicked the smaller boy's legs out from under him. I cried. I didn't understand why the older boy would want to take away the little boy's smile and I cried because he wasn't smiling anymore. He wasn't happy; he was hurt.
I was transferred to another school the next year due to my talkativeness and a (correct) diagnosis of ADHD. My mother had no idea that the school had no right to transfer me, so she did what was recommended, thinking it would be the best for me. I was taken out of mainstream classes and put in a 'B.D.' (behavioral disorder) class. Somehow, this was obvious to the other children (perhaps because I was not in any of their classes) and I was targeted.
One day, a large group encircled me and began chanting, "B.D. kid! B.D. kid!" I was angry, trapped and embarrassed. Then one of them picked up a rock. After it struck me, more flew. I flinched away, protecting myself for a moment before the anger took over and I started picking up their projectiles and throwing them back. I have dangerous aim and soon, I was in the principal's office--the other children being touted the victims.
Injustice was something I abhorred from a young age. Logic was important to me and when I realized that I would be punished regardless if I was the victim or the aggressor, I followed my own rules. My behaviors degraded as I imitated the children I was put in class with (who were primarily there for aggressive acts, not for talking, as I was). I started watching the playground for bullies. Many set their sights on me and I prided myself on my refusal to be baited. "I never throw the first punch, but I always finish it." That was my motto.
I started standing up for other kids being picked on. I knew the bullies would get to me eventually anyway, so I decided to cut them off. I became my own version of Batman. I would verbally confront the attacker or physically stand in their way of harming the other child. At almost any given time, I had a black eye or a fat lip. I was punished over and over and no one thanked me that I remember, but that didn't matter. What mattered was keeping the other kids from being hurt and giving back to the bullies what they dished out.

Eventually, I was transferred to a specialized school for children with behavioral issues. I was the only girl in the school. It became clear very quickly that it was not acceptable for me to be a girl and my tomboy nature grew even stronger. I pushed around my friends, controlling our friendships with rewards and negative consequences (if you don't do what I say/want, I won't do what you want--it usually wasn't through violence, but it was still bullying, as that was the only leadership form that I knew--respect of the strongest, most dominant in the group). As a girl, I had to fight even harder to prove myself hard as nails and the most dominant.
I was in fights on a near daily basis;I was assaulted physically and later, the threat and attempt of sexual assault from an older boy attempting to dominate me led to me being expelled when I fought back and seriously hurt the aggressor (for which I later broke his nose). I was volatile and full of rage (largely due to being severely overmedicated) and flew into fits very easily.
I was no longer only provoked for the purpose of defense of the weak, but by any small thing. The other children became intensely attached to me to the point that one of the younger ones went home and told his parents that he "only listen[ed] to [me], now." The bullying had turned around and now I was the bully. I hurt other kids (and my teachers, who hurt me as well) and had trouble sleeping at night over it, but it was the only way I knew.
I eventually was returned to mainstream schooling: a failure. I was so damaged at this point that I barely knew how to behave in socially appropriate ways. I had spent so long being told how bad I was that it became my identity. I counted detentions like merit badges. Suspensions were trophies. My best friend was a girl who felt similarly (her brother had been a classmate of mine in the B.D. school) and she died that year. A boy called her an inappropriate word at a table nearby at lunch after and I hauled him from his seat, threw him to the ground, then lifted him and pitched him in a garbage can.

I went off the medication, stopped it cold turkey and went into a severe depression. My weight doubled over the next year, from underweight to average and continued the next year (in high school) until I was overweight. I had become socially isolated and teased mercilessly by my 'peers.' I tried very hard to fit in. I tried to imitate the way they dressed, talked, behaved... but it wasn't enough.
At lunch, in 8th grade, I sat entirely alone at two full-sized cafeteria tables. Chairs were taken from them to provide more seating at the other tables assigned to our class, so that no one had to sit with me. A girl sat with me one day when she was angry at her friends and she made fast friends with me. One day, she came up to me and told me, "I can't be your friend anymore because it's ruining my reputation." It broke my heart, though I feigned indifference.
Another boy sat at our table because of her and he left with her. However, the damage was done and she was ostracised for her association with me. Eventually, she returned to my table (the boy in tow) and I forgave her completely. (After all, the year before, I had done the same to my boyfriend--dumped him because I was tired of being teased.) She would go on to be my best friend to this day, despite our many fights and disloyalties to each other over the years. She never completely socially recovered from her association with me.

By the start of high school, I had given up on integrating. The bullying was intense and while I tried to join social groups, I was met with great resistance. One day, I met a girl who became infatuated with my poetry and was, in essence, my first fan (which was very meaningful to me). She told me that when she came in as a freshman, she was specifically warned to stay away from me. I found out from others that virtually all freshmen were given this warning.
I ceased trying to fit in and pretending to be like everyone else and flaunted my individuality. I enjoyed the friends I gained even more, but my social 'cup' was never being filled. I took everything that was thrown at me to heart. I was worthless, a stain and everyone would be better off if I was dead; so, I tried to oblige them. The bullying had come full circle: I was the target again.

I spent most of my teenage years suicidal. I can't count the number of times or ways that I tried. The bullying completely destroyed me, who I was; it broke me. Eventually (with prodding from a friend, when I was 18), that strong personality of mine said that they had no right and I began rebuilding myself--as a pacifist. I swore off everything that had been done to me and vowed to protect against it in any way that I could.

In Biology class, I discovered the root of the severe bullying. My lab partner, after a time, recognized me as friends with a girl she hated. She told me about the false rumors she spread about me simply because of my friendship with the other girl and admitted to being the Source. She apologized and I forgave her. She told me that she had no idea who I was and she regretted it. I did not tell her what she had done to me with her rumors and I think she believed it ended after we came to High School. Unfortunately, I think my severe clinical depression and natural ‘otherness’ (I am, after all, a geek at heart) fed the fire she had begun.

I still fight my inner bully at times; I probably always will. Bullying isn't always just physical intimidation and name-calling, though. It happens in small ways, especially amongst girls. It isn't just a fight after school on the playground that you can avoid by taking the bus home. It's day after day of being told you are wrong. You don't fit in. You are not welcome. In a social species such as ours, instinctively, that is death. For me, it almost was. For far, far too many children, it actually is.
I feel bullying must end at home before it will end anywhere else. Parents must be teachers, leaders and guidance counselors--not simply mete out punishment and rewards like I did to train my friends to behave in ways that were pleasing to me. If that behavior is not acceptable in an eleven year-old girl, then it cannot be acceptable in a family dynamic.
Most bullies are imitators, as I was. Children like this could be natural leaders. Many are--they are merely cultivated in productive ways and perhaps it is also a large matter of personality. We must abandon the "If not love, fear will do," mentality of leadership if bullying is to end. And it needs to end.


  1. Heather, your honesty is both brutal and warming. I think we can learn a lot from this. Not only in the way that parents do things thinking they are for the benefit of the child, and those "helpful" actions can cause great harm.
    I have long seen parents turn their emotionally troubled kids over to groups and institutions that claim to have all of the answers to fix what has been damaged in their child. Like they're a vcr that can simply be reprogrammed and this hospital, special class, group, etc. has the magic formula that will put them right again. I'm not saying that all children can be "fixed" with a good ole hug and pat on the back, but it is a good start. Kids don't intend to be "bad" or "malfunctioning" - none of them WANT to be that way and if more adults would stop and realize this, they may realize that a troubled child is in depserate need of affection, respect and to be reassured that they're not inherently defective.

    Thanks so much for sharing. Incidentally, I feel the same way about constantly fighting with my inner bully. When you're brought up in an atmosphere of needing to fight to survive, those instincts become sort of built in. It can be a lot of work to push through them.