November 16, 2008

Bully For Me


A recent Associated Press story about a new scientific study (apparently conducted by the National Institute for Obvious Conclusions) ran with the following headline: “Bullies May Enjoy Being Mean.”

            Think about that mind-blower for a second. In other words, bullies aren’t motivated by some deep-seated psychological pain of their own, but rather the simple joyful intoxication of inflicting pain on others.

            For those of us who came of age in the pre-sensitive era before anti-bullying legislation, this probably comes as no real surprise. Now with this new study in hand, it looks like all those shrinks the schools are being forced to hire are going to have to switch from sensitivity training to the Ludovico technique.

            Some thirty years ago, though, I had my own way of dealing with bullies.

            Like most everyone, I had to contend with my share of thuggish little bastards. In fact, I had different bullies in every school I ever attended, and a new one for virtually every grade. Each one used a different method to torment and harass me, and each required a different response.

            The first one I can remember was Doug Cohen, from Mrs. Ruggles’ first grade class. He was a chubby, red-lipped kid and quite possibly the only Jewish student in school. He also grew up in the local orphanage. Make of that what you will, but he was a little monster, throwing dead birds at girls and knocking kids down for no reason on the playground. I didn’t take it too personally when he came after me, though, as there didn’t seem to be anything personal in his attacks. Mostly I just tried to stay out of his way, not always successfully.

            My parents—kindhearted types that they were—suggested that I might be able to win him over if I invited him to my birthday party. Now, I had no interest whatsoever in winning him over, but still. So the invitation went out, and Doug showed up to the party. He was on his best behavior but looked terribly nervous all afternoon, as if he was expecting a set up of some kind.

            It did absolutely nothing in the long run. His behavior toward me (and everyone else) never changed after that. But it did represent one day’s respite at least, when I knew he wouldn’t be pushing me down.

            In third grade there was Mike Robinsky (I’m altering the names by the way—don’t need any of these little fuckers tracking me down again). He was a short, stocky kid with a thick neck, big head and narrow eyes who lived six or seven houses up the street from us. Over the years he kept switching back and forth from friend to bully and back again, but spent most of that time in bully mode—maybe because I insisted on calling him “Runty Robinsky, the Puny Polack.”

            Although he could’ve easily pummeled me senseless if he so chose, his usual method was to stand on the sidewalk outside his house and block my path when I was walking to or from school. He didn’t knock me down or punch me or anything—he just blocked my path and stared at me through those slitted eyes. This made me very uncomfortable, at times forcing me to walk around the block to avoid him. But then one day I learned that the best way to deal with him was to simply stare back, saying nothing. That’s what I started doing, and before long he got bored with the game and left me alone.

            In fourth grade—I was at Allouez School now, for those keeping track—there was Nick (I forget his last name). He was my friend Scott’s step-brother—another hefty kid who reminded me of Leave It to Beaver’s Larry Mondello, but with curly hair. Nick was one of those straightforward types, who would simply barrel across the playground and slam into you for no good reason. I was one of his favorite targets.

            My first trick with him was simple and humiliating, but effective. He’d come up behind me and punch me in the kidneys, kick my feet out from beneath me, or sock me in the back of the skull. Whatever he did, I’d drop to the ground, grab my head, and scream. That usually worked, but only momentarily. It also didn’t do much for my own standing on the playground.

            By that winter, everyone was pretty tired of the screaming routine, so I needed something new. I was playing on a small snow hill when I saw Nick coming for me fast. More by accident than anything else, I stepped aside at the last second and tripped him. He went down hard on his belly, and slid. This only enraged him further, of course, so he jumped to his feet and came at me again. Once again I stepped aside at the last second, stuck out my foot, and down he went.

            By this time a small crowd was gathering, and when Nick got to his feet and turned to come at me a third time, I saw his nose was bleeding.

            He charged once more, and I tripped him again. Even standing there in the moment, I couldn’t believe that the same thing had worked three times in a row. I actually started feeling sorry for him—he seemed more dumb animal than human. But after the third time even a dog will usually realize that you haven’t really thrown the ball.

            After I tripped him a fourth time Nick finally gave up and left, vowing a revenge that never came.

            That summer, the bully in my life was a stranger. I never learned his name, but he had tubes in his ears, the kind of nasal voice that comes with hearing impairment, and a perpetually dirty face. Once more, I had no idea why he’d selected me, given that I’d never had any interaction with him of any kind. But if I was playing in the backyard when he was walking up the sidewalk, he’d shout insults directed at either me or members of my family. For weeks I ignored him. It was clear that he had plenty of troubles of his own, and was just taking it out on me. Then one day I’d had enough. I stopped caring about his personal problems. When he walked by and yelled some shit about my mom, I dropped what I was doing, chased him up the sidewalk, grabbed him by the throat, and, deaf or not, threw him down. Then I turned around and walked back home.

            He stopped yelling things after that, but a few days later he saw my dad washing the car in the driveway. He stopped and told my dad that I’d made fun of his voice and the fact that he was poor (I hadn’t). My dad, fortunately, knew better than to believe him. I was just amazed this kid had the balls to tattle on me after all that.

            Fifth grade brought a smug bastard named Brent. He was actually a sixth grader, but had a thing for picking on kids younger than he was. He was a swaggering, smooth faced blond youngster from a wealthy family (his dad owned a car lot and appeared in his own TV commercials). He had a way—and I still don’t understand how he did this—of getting a bunch of us fifth graders to line up. Then he’d work his way down the line, insulting each one in turn. In my case, he usually made fun of the fact that my glasses were crooked.

            Well, I knew my glasses were crooked, so I couldn’t take it as much of an insult. More an observation. So in his case I’d stand in line with the rest, wait until he said his bit, then leave with a sigh.

            A year later we were best friends for some reason.

            There were too many bullies to count in junior high, so I’ll just ignore that whole period. In eleventh grade, though, my biggest nemesis was a kid named DeKay. Honest to god, his name was “DeKay,” and the name fit. A tall, gangly stoner with greasy hair, dead eyes, and a scraggly teenage mustache. He sat behind me in a few classes and was dumb as a post. As stupid as he was, he was still the most subtle and effective of all the bullies I’ve dealt with in my life.

            Along with kicking the back of my desk arrhythmically throughout every class, he’d whisper things.

            Not threats of any kind, which might’ve been expected from a bully. Instead of telling me he was going to beat me up after class, he whispered things that undermined me. He knew just where to go, too.

            In the middle of a test, for example, he’d whisper (low enough that no one else could hear him), “You’re not as smart as you think you are . . . You’re an idiot . . . A real idiot.”

            After several months of this, I just couldn’t take it anymore. It wasn’t like I could tell the teacher on him or anything. That wouldn’t do any good. Instead, one day in the middle of class with that voice hissing behind me, I spun around in my desk and took a clumsy, wild swing at him, missing completely. The whole class (including the teacher) saw it.

            DeKay just leaned back in his seat, arms folded, smiling at me. He didn’t say a word, knowing he’d won.

            The really weird thing is, I saw him outside of school a few times, and he was perfectly nice. Put him in a classroom, though, and he joined the pantheon of minor demons.

            He was hardly the last of them. I’m still dealing with bullies to this day—though certainly far fewer than when I was in school. Most of us still have bullies to deal with—bosses, neighbors, spouses.

            Thinking back on those early bullies, though, the thing that strikes me is how many of them became friends—even if only briefly. But as we get older, less flexible, more set in all our ways, that becomes less and less an issue. And the bullies—as they did way back then—rule the world.


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