Monday, November 07, 2011

Bullies - Part I

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In a recent post I told about lying in the hospital with pneumonia, when I was in the seventh grade, and subjected to torment by a bullying roommate who was on leave from the local juvenile detention center.

I don't know how many kids my age struggled (or struggle) with bullies like I did, but they were a ubiquitous (and terrifying) part of my youth. From the time I was about 7, to the time I was about 14, I was plagued by them. (It probably didn't help that I was scrawny and bookish, with thick-lensed glasses.)

Even though I am not the type of person who enjoys (or would ever start) a fistfight, I actually have gotten pulled into two fistfights in my life. Both seemed completely necessary in order to deal with a serious bullying problem. In both cases, I considered the boys I fought to be friends at one time, but for one reason or another we ended up at odds.

One, a young man named Paul, was severely abused by his father. After we entered junior high together, a friend of his (and earlier friend of mine) turned him against me. At this other boy's urging he began challenging me to fight, a challenge which soon became a very public everyday occurrence at school. For months I steadfastly refused, but the challenges grew as others egged him on. Eventually he began to accompany his challenge by knocking my lunch from my hands and smashing it on the ground.

Finally the realization dawned, as things continued to grow worse, that things would only grow worse if I didn't take some sort of action. So one day I acquiesced. We took our quarrel behind the boys' locker room.

Surrounded by a loud and unruly crowd, we squared off. He threw the punches and I focused on blocking them, which actually seemed easier than I expected, until he surprised me by kicking me in the groin. Fortunately it missed the intended effect, but the metal buckle on his shoe did leave a nasty gash across my thigh.

I put myself on guard against further surprises and eventually started landing a few fisticuffs of my own. I was holding my own against Paul, when we were suddenly interrupted by one of the boys' PE teachers, a humorless fellow who dragged us both (by an ear) into the principal's office.

Back in those days, corporal punishment was legal, and the principle wielded a large oak paddle. After lecturing us he asked for a volunteer to go first. Paul was terrified, near tears, and silent. Knowing that his father frequently beat him I actually felt sorry for him. So I volunteered. I bent over, took the three whacks, and discovered that (like the fight itself) they really weren't so bad as I had thought. (I'm sure the principal was going a bit easy on my behind.) I knew better than to smile too broadly, but I felt a great deal of relief as I stood aside and waited for Paul to take his turn. He burst into tears before the first whack landed, and was reduced to sobs at the second, and wails by the third.

On our way out, as he was wiping his face with his shirt and trying to recover, in a pitiful voice he asked me never to tell any of his friends what I had witnessed. I looked him square in the eye: "Never challenge me or touch my lunch again ... and I won't say a word."

Paul's friend, Casey, however, continued to grow in his antagonism toward me, and soon after this he demanded his own match-up. Like before, I didn't want to fight; I didn't believe it accomplished much of anything (other than getting us both in trouble), and I told him so. But he just called me various names reserved for cowards, and continued to push and antagonize.

So one day I decided to share my dilemma with my dad. (I was closer to my mom, and trusted her implicitly, but in this matter I thought I should seek male guidance.)

"What do you think I should do?" I asked my dad, after explaining the situation.

"He wants a fight," my dad said, "and like Paul won't leave you alone until you show him what you're made of. Sometimes you just have to defend yourself against aggression."

Okay then. (I don't think my mom was very happy with my dad for giving me encouragement to use my fists ... but she grudgingly let it be.)

So the next time Casey hassled me, I agreed to a fight. This time we scheduled the match for my front yard, after school. A crowd once again gathered to watch, cheering us on. I was slightly taller and heavier than Casey, but he was fast and wiry. We sparred for awhile, but it didn't seem to me like we were getting much of anywhere, so I decided to use my size to my advantage. Without warning I lunged at Casey and toppled him to the ground, wrestler-style, and had soon pinned his flailing arms beneath my knees. That left me with my hands free, and his face, which was now staring up at me, in horror, realizing his dilemma, was within easy and indefensible reach.

"Finish him! Punch him in the face!" the monsters in my front yard shouted with glee. I raised one fist high and he cringed, preparing for the blow.

And then I lowered it. I leaned near his face and said in a low hiss: "Like I told you, I have no reason to want to hurt you. Now why don't you just go home?" I then stood up and drew back, letting Casey go free without bloodying his face.

He pulled himself to his feet and I could see he was shaking. I half expecting he might start in again. But instead, this time he whirled about on one heel and ran off, alone, his friends now standing silent in my yard. I brushed the grass off my pants and turned and walked into the house. Only then did I discover my mom had been watching from behind the curtains. But she just smiled at me and said, "Why don't you throw those dirty clothes in the hamper?" then walked away humming.

These weren't my first or last experiences with bullies (I'll share more later), but these early encounters served to reinforce in me a few key principles. One is if you put your mind to winning a battle, even against a more aggressive opponent, it can be done. I realized that bullies are, most of the time, 90% bluster, and frequently themselves are tired of being the one who gets beaten up on. I suspect they feel the only way to overcome their fear is to prove to themselves and the world that they are indeed someone to be afraid of.

I believe we are called to be a people of peace, never aggressors, and ones who would turn the other cheek. But there are also times when we must pluck up our courage and defend -- our families, our neighbors, our country, ourselves -- against bullies.

I've had four other experiences with bullies, all very different than these two. In the next blog or two I'll share more.

How have you dealt with the bullies in your life?

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