Friday, March 03, 2017

Bullies Will Be Bullying

Silver Spring was my elementary school in East Providence, Rhode Island

In a Facebook community group for Deming, the subject of bullying in the schools came up. Frustration was expressed over continuing abuses despite "anti-bullying" campaigns in the schools, varying responses from teachers and other parents, and so on. As people do, several came down to the old-fashioned approach, urging kids to take a boxing lesson and thump the bully. Then, surely, the bullies will slink away and all will be well.

That's movie logic. In movies, the little kid finally gives the bigger bully a taste of his own medicine, gives him a sock in the face (with a great loud sound effect), the other kids all cheer, the grownups wink in understanding, the music swells, and the bullying stops. Roll credits.

Maybe it works out that way sometimes, but never from what I witnessed. And I punched a bully myself.

For years, I went to the Silver Spring School in East Providence, the school depicted above (although Alan M. Feinstein wasn't putting his name on everything yet in the 1970s). I got bullied for most of those years. I was a bookish kid, spent a lot of time with grownups, and didn't fit in well with my peer group. I didn't like being teased and didn't respond well. Sometimes I shouted at my tormentors; sometimes I mocked them; I sought adult interventions which were frequently denied. Bullies would  mock, chase, hit, take things from me. One time they even loaded me into an empty metal trash barrel and rolled me down a little hill. Once, I was chased home and my mother sided with the boy chasing me since I must have said something to anger him. I tried remedies that grownups suggested: ignoring them, saying "you're right" and just accepting anything they said, trying not to run away when they menaced me physically (but eventually running away because they would in fact hit me), and I even tried the classic adult suggestion: hit the chief bully!

I remember the moment although I don't remember my age or grade at the time. We were both standing on a large mound in the playground (which was loaded with broken equipment - ah, the 1970s, a hairier time on public playgrounds). He was doing his thing. His name was Shawn, I think. Kids were watching. And I just clocked him. Oh, it was beautiful. Shawn had a glass jaw: he went straight down, eyes wide with surprise. Got a little cut on his face. Cried like a baby. I felt adrenaline and the thrill of attention (including girls' attention). For the first and only time, I was the big man on the playground - for about ten minutes.

But it was not a movie: it was real life, and life is messy. The school didn't see Shawn bullying me. What they did see was Shawn's cut face and his tears; and a playground full of children reported that indeed I was the one who had punched him. I did not deny it, nor did I feel ashamed about doing it. But I was the one held accountable. I was not suspended - they probably suspected what had been going on - but now I had a record for fighting.

After that incident, I learned another lesson: bullies often have friends. Shawn certainly did. There was little peace for me after that. Shawn got his come-uppance. I often had to walk through the neighborhood to run errands for my parents - they would send me to the "milk store" up on Pawtucket Avenue. I had several routes there based on who was in the streets. For a couple of weeks, when things were especially bad, I secretly carried a small knife from the kitchen though I never brandished it.

The thing about movie logic is that movies stop. Most stories simplify life in order to fit into a narrative, and the narrative ends and you don't keep following the characters. They also tend to simplify or obscure actual consequences. Fist fights in movies always go on for an absurdly long time augmented by larger than life sound effects created by punching slabs of meat near a microphone: BAM! BIFF! POW! KASPLAT! I've watched fist fights in movies that would result in fatalities or at least brain damage in the real world, but in the movies they barely muss their hair. The rules of movie world are easy to understand, the stakes are clear, the consequences are immediate, and are beautiful and simple; small wonder people would prefer the real world to resemble it. But it doesn't.

There isn't a single remedy for bullying, and the outcome of any one of them is not really predictable: least of all the "hit 'em back" approach. If you're going to give a kid that advice, you aren't doing him or her any favors unless you make them aware of the real-world risks. That's how you prepare them for life, not by pretending life works like a movie.

The lessons I learned from years of bullying is that bullying personalities will find ways to keep doing that. Transforming a bully is possible but rare - and slow. Anti-bullying programs at schools do help some, but the problem will persist. Bullies will be a-bullying and learning how to take care of ourselves and carry on is part of surviving childhood.

Now I have kids of my own and my wife and I are working hard to set them up as best we can, but their lessons will be messy, spontaneous, and rough at times. The playground where I hit that bully had lots of exposed nails, broken equipment, missing monkey bars, and other hazards. We learned to navigate them, and how to tend to our occasional wounds.  People are assholes, and we learned how to navigate them as well. Our lessons in life are not always clear or even safe, but life will carry on in any case. That's the real world. We can't protect the kids for long but we can prepare them to navigate a world in which there are bits of glass, broken sidewalks, strange people - and bullies.