When I entered seventh grade, the final stage was set for my parents’ divorce. I had known it was coming. I listened to their heated arguments every night when our father came home from work (a much longer, detailed explanation at another time).
Seventh grade was not a good year for me. With the turmoil going on at home, and the adjustment of our class being in the same halls with the other students in grades 8-12, I struggled with uncertainty of how to find my place and how to interact with those older than me.
My total lack of self-esteem showed on my face and how I carried myself. Basically, this put a target on my back, making me easy prey for the older kids who liked to bully smaller ones.
When I tell college students in the Strategies for Success courses that I was bullied as a teenager, it’s often followed by a snicker. One student told me that he could never picture me being bullied in school, but he saw me after twenty years of lifting weights in the gym. In seventh grade, I might have weighed 140 pounds. As a college professor, I was 250 pounds and quite intimidating to some students when they first sit in my classes. But then, I was a skinny, frightened kid with no confidence. Perhaps this is why I began weight lifting and gaining muscle.
I wanted to play football and had been on the sixth grade team. Since the fall team football tryouts were taking place, I stayed after school. I vividly remember wearing a shirt that I loved when I picked it out at the store. On the front was this wicked lizard-man standing at the edge of the swamp with MONSTER written above it. It reminded me of the television show, ‘The Night Stalker’, and I had looked forward to wearing it to school. Unfortunately, it would be the only time I ever wore the shirt.
While standing around with other students waiting on the coach, three students in the tenth grade had stayed after school to watch the tryouts. They weren’t football players. They noticed my T-shirt and started calling me monster. At the time, I had severe acne, which I was self-conscious about. Had they only called me that once or twice, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me. But it became a way for them to torment me every time they saw me in the halls.
I never wore the shirt again. In fact, I threw the shirt in the garbage when I got home without my mother noticing. But they continued as the bully trio and sang lines from the song, ‘Monster Mash’, each time they saw me. It might seem humorous now, but then, it made me not want to go to school. It furthered my depressive state because of our uncertain home life.
I told my father about it, that there were three of them, and he offered some advice. But a few weeks later, he moved out. I never felt more vulnerable and alone than I did then in my family. I hated the thought of seeing these three guys. I loved school, but I hated having to change classes. I dreaded it. They identified my fear and lack of confidence and they hammered me with their constant teasing. It came to a point that when I tried to veer out of their line of sight in the crowded hallway, the three of them would block me from getting away. They’d stand over me, trying to intimidate me, almost daring me to fight my way past them. It became too much for me to handle and none of my friends stood with me. It wasn’t their place to, but I knew three against one wasn’t something in my favor. Those odds aren’t good for anyone. I was thin and weak and afraid of fighting. More daunting, I was afraid of being suspended or being expelled for fighting.
After several more weeks, I got the courage to go talk to Mr. Everett, our principal. He was a good sized guy and I thought if I told him, he might call the three to the office and make them stop. I stepped into his office and he sat down at his desk. The one thing about Mr. Everett that intimidated me was that every time you asked him a direct question, his response was, “What!” The loud tone he used usually made me forget what I needed to say.
So when he asked what was going on, I told him the three students’ names (I still remember them) and that they kept bullying and taunting me. He asked, “What would your father tell you to do.”
I said, “He’d tell me to tear into them.” And basically, that had been his advice.
Mr. Everett stared at me for a few seconds and then he said, “Well, I hate to say it, but sometimes that’s what you have to do.”
I left his office dumbfounded. He wasn’t going to confront them, or tell them to leave me alone, and he seemed to have given me permission to stand up for myself. You’d never see this in schools today.
I left his office and entered the hallway, terrified. I didn’t know how to fight. I didn’t want to fight. There was no way I could fight all three at once, either. They always seemed to be together.
Knowing I probably wasn’t going to get into trouble if I fought to defend myself, I no longer worried about the consequences of being sent to the office. A day or so later, as I walked the hallway, I noticed one of the three by himself and he entered the restroom. I waited about a minute and then entered as he was on his way back out. He gave me an odd grin, trying to intimidate me, but since he was alone, I glared at him and made fists. Without his buddies, he suddenly looked frightened. He nodded and hurried past me.
My heart hammered in my chest, but it had felt great to stand up to him. I’m not sure why, but my confidence increased. I did the same to one of the other two in the hallway. When he was by himself, he wasn’t bold or threatening, either. In fact, he seemed as fearful to fight as what I had when all three of them cornered me. But, the key difference between him and I was that I was pissed and fed up with how they were treating me. Both of them looked at me differently and maybe they realized they had carried it too far. However, neither of them was the leader.
The final confrontation came between me and the leader, who, by the way, was the shortest of the three. I’ve never understood that. In most of these little bully groups the shortest kid is always the leader. It’s laughable in a way, but it’s the truth. This guy was shorter than I.
So it happened during break. I was on my way out of the hall to go to the outside recess area where the school buses and old gym used to be. Coming down the hallway directly in my path was the leader. He came right at me and I never tried to step out of his way. I was done with it. We walked straight up to one another and he shoved me. When he did, I shoved him back, hard. My action confused him. He didn’t expect it. He shoved me again and I shoved back. I was no longer afraid of him, and he knew it.
He stepped into a classroom where a bunch of his friends were standing around. He said, “Come in here, if you want to fight.”
“I’m not going in there where your friends are. If you want to fight, let’s take it outside,” I said. I couldn’t believe I’d said those words, but I did. I didn’t have any fear.
He kept waving me to come into the room to fight.
A kid from my class noticed and asked, “Are you really going to fight him?”
I replied, “If he comes outside of school, I’ll fight him.” I told the bully that one more time, but he refused to step outside of the room.
Not one of those three ever bothered me again. Never said a word to me. I never had to throw a punch. I simply stood my ground.
About eight years after my graduation and three years after weight training in the gym, I went into a general store near my mother’s house. Stepping up to the counter beside me was the leader of those three bullies. I glanced over and down at him. He was still the same height as he was in high school and skinny. I was about six inches taller, broader, and much stronger. He glanced at me and remembered who I was, but he never said anything. He didn’t even make eye contact. I grinned, paid for my stuff, and walked out.
Other things about me had changed since my confrontation with those three. I had gained self-esteem and was bolder. I held my chin up and carried myself with confidence, but not in arrogance. Most people think others judge you by what you wear or what you drive. Actually, people judge you by your actions, how you carry yourself, and by your confidence. The whole reason these three picked on me was because my low self-esteem was evident. They knew I was an easy target, at least for a while. And I learned from the experience that most bullies stop bullying when someone stands up to them.
Until next time ….