My bullying success story.

Through the usual maze of the Internet, I wound up at a post on the Beyond School blog in which Clay Burell proposes a new internet meme. Not many people read this blog, so I’m sure I’m a memetic dead end as it were, but the idea was relevant enough for me that I thought I might respond anyway. In response to a reader who heard Clay’s podcast about bullying survival stories and wrote to say that Clay’s survival story helped him deal with the bullying he’s facing, Clay wrote:

I’ve already thanked Jack, but I want to thank him again. He confirms that for him, at least, “Stop Bullying” messages may be nice and all, but they don’t do much to comfort those trying to cope with being bullied.

I’m not saying anti-anything messages have no positive value. I’m just saying they often fail to help the victims of the thing being opposed. Telling bullies not to bully may be worth the effort, though it’s apparently predicated on the dubious belief that it’s effective to appeal to the compassionate side of bullies, who in my experience have almost always been a pretty heartless bunch. Bullies enjoy psycho-social benefits from bullying – profits, in a sense – in the same way arms dealers do from selling weapons. Appeals to delicate instincts require delicate audiences, and delicacy is a thing usually absent from these hardened types.

But as Jack testifies, just hearing Bullied Success Stories – that survival is worth it and life gets better? That’s a speech-act worth performing.

So the Meme: Share Your “Bullied Then, Successful Now” Stories

In light of that, I thought that I might share my own experiences with bullying.

It began in grade 7 for me. I was an overweight, shy, nerdy kid with a sense of fashion that might charitably have been called “out of step”, so you can imagine the world of hurt that I was in for. It began right then and there, first day of school, in a new class with new people: I was a target. It ranged from social isolation to active attacks, but it always hurt. I was called names, I was pushed around, I was made to feel incredibly stupid. It lasted for almost the entirety of my time at that school, from the beginning of Grade 7 until the middle of Grade 9.

Worse, it had a face, and an embarassing one at that. It was a tiny, scrawny kid whom I’ll just call D. for now. I’m convinced, looking back now with the long lens of hindsight, that he chose me as a target simply because he didn’t want to be one himself, but at the time it didn’t matter. He did everything he could to rally the class against me (and for some reason, he ended up in my class all three years). At one point, I walked into our Language Arts class before our teacher got there, and he had the entire class throw pencils, chalks, even books at me. The teacher found me cowering and crying outside the room and her subsequent punishment of D. and the other ringleaders did little to curry favour with the class for me.

It wasn’t just D., of course. I was picked on by just about every “cool” kid in the grade, and ignored by the rest. In fact, I was occasionally the target of a beast of a kid who later went on to be a local rapist who’s still in jail, as far as I know. But D.’s torment was the worst, and at the time it drove me even to thoughts of suicide. I doubt I would ever have gone through with it, but the fact that I was even thinking of it is enough.

It all came to a head about halfway through Grade 9. For reasons that to this day still escape me, D. had been agitating for a fight between us for some time; the notion was ludicrous to me, because he was certainly as unskilled at fighting as I was, and my 2:1 weight advantage was sure to be a crippling handicap for him. Yet he pushed, and pushed, and finally (to my shame), I gave in. One afternoon, we moved off school property and at the urging of a crowd of people we started fighting. It was a fairly uninspiring affair to watch, I’m sure. We both flailed about for a bit, and then I landed a couple of blows. His face was bleeding a little – from a split lip, I think – and I came off unscathed. Considering it a victory, I walked away.

Things started to get a little better after that. My “victory” had bought me enough respect that the active persecution lapsed into a cone of silence around me, especially after D. demanded a rematch about a week later, which he summarily lost again. I spent most of high school isolated as well, since I was completely socially inept by now (and having to change schools three quarters of the way through grade 10 didn’t help either), but I was generally left alone to get on with my life.

Gradually, my life just started improving. In the last year of high school, I met a new group of friends which included my future wife. Heading to university was a massive change for me which opened new horizons and led me to finally start taking control of my life and make my own decisions. I moved from computer science to take photography (which I was unfortunately rubbish at!), after which I took some time off to just try things out and see what life would bring for me. Discovering that “real” life wasn’t for me, I returned to school and banged through my B.A. and M.Sc in short order (while taking a year to explore Europe as well). I recently got married and began my Ph.D, and I’m actually really happy. As I think of it now, I’ve been generally happy for years now.

This isn’t so much a “survival” story in a classic sense, with a catastrophic event and a heroic stand against all odds. My bullying story is more about the promise of the future: I provide anecdotal evidence that things will probably just get better. The fight I had with D. was a watershed, but it really just provides a focus for my memory and a hook for the story; I’m convinced that even if it had never happened, things would have proceeded largely the same (except, perhaps, for the second half of Grade 9).

One thing I need to make clear is that I am ashamed of how I handled things with D. I consider it a failure on my part, that I gave in to violence to solve my problems instead of finding another way to stand up for myself. My current self understands why my past self did it, but current self is still disappointed that it happened that way. Having said that, though, the lesson to be taken from that episode is that picking the right moment to stand up to your tormenter can have important effects. I just hope that anyone reading this who is in the same situation will find a better way to do it than I did.

And that’s it, really. It feels good to talk about this now and if it gives anyone else a moment’s hope, I’ll consider the time I spent writing it up to be well worth it. I welcome any comments you might have, and I urge you to head over to Clay’s blog to share your own stories or keep spreading his meme.

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6 Responses to My bullying success story.

  1. Clay Burell says:

    This is such a good thing to share. I love the tone of a clearly smart, talented writer looking back on a childhood marred by a few sociopathic types. A few good chuckles along the way, and not maudlin at all.

    Thank you for this.

    (I urge other readers to read the About page here to get a better sense of just how interesting this anonymous Canadian academic’s mind and life is.)

    Isn’t it interesting, in a disturbing and wholly politically incorrect way, that we both saw things get better after fighting one of these jerks? (I didn’t win mine, by the way, but didn’t lose it terribly either. Teachers in the cafeteria broke it up fairly quickly.)

    Like you, I can see how that can make matters worse, rather than better, for anybody going through these things now.

    But I’m curious what sort of alternatives to fighting back – literally – you see as better ways to “adapt” in this hostile environment.

    Thanks again for a good read.

  2. Winawer says:

    Clay, thanks for stopping by! You’re too kind. 🙂 I’m a big fan of your blog, and I think that you did a great thing to put this idea out there…

    In regards to your question: I’ve thought about possible alternatives a lot over the years, wondering what I could have done differently. The easy answer is that if I had been possessed of more self-confidence, I could probably have turned things around on him with some sharp words and a bit of fist-free wit. It’s certainly how I handle bullies *these* days.

    The problem with the easy answer is that if I had had the self-confidence required, I probably wouldn’t have been the victim of bullying to start with. It’s a vicious cycle – my self-image was shaky as it was, and the bullying just sent it further down the tubes. It might be that winding up in a fight was the shock I required to kick start myself, and that my disappointment in myself is unwarranted. But no matter how hard I try, I have trouble viewing my physical assault on a kid about as tall as my knee and as heavy as my leg with any sort of satisfaction, even if he did literally beg for it. It would have been a lot more heroic (albeit far more painful) if I’d been hopelessly outmatched and won my respect through *receiving* a beating rather than giving one.

    It’s unfortunate, but the options are limited in a situation like the one I faced. I’ve long since thought that the only way to handle a bully is to show them that they don’t scare you, even if they really do. Bullies usually pick on us by finding something about us that we’re ashamed of or don’t like about ourselves, and finding a way to deal with those sources of self-image disrepair is probably one of the hardest things we can ever do. Some people never manage it! I would certainly suggest that anyone in this position now try to find a way to be comfortable with themselves first and view violence as an undesirable (if sometimes seemingly unavoidable) outcome.

    Looking back now, I realize that one of the biggest changes over the years has been that I’ve just plain come to like myself more as time wound on. That’s partly due to the support of people around me, including my wife who taught me much about what it was to be proud of myself, partly due to my own growth, and partly due to changing circumstances; the junior high and high school levels are simply hard times full of pressures to conform and intolerant of difference. I guess that’s a part of what I meant when I said above that things will probably just get better, and perhaps the best tactic that I can offer to help alleviate the pain of bullying is to find a way to accelerate that process. That might mean finding a way to be at peace with what you don’t like about yourself (I’m still overweight, but my efforts to change that aren’t based on shame anymore) or coming to view it as a good thing (being a geek is actually a point of pride at parties now!), but either way it’s probably an important step. Easier words were never said, I know, but there you have it: my $0.02…

  3. Linda says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. You have already read mine. Reading all the posts that Clay has inspired us to share-I hope we can ease some of the despair of a child in the eye of the storm. Nice to meet you. ~Linda

  4. […]   My bullying success story. […]

  5. Jenny says:

    I understand what you’ve been through. I had a girl who bullied me, mostly because she had a nasty temper and she saw me as a target. Her nasty temper didn’t help her at all, since she ended up attending sessions to control her anger. However, one time I was innocently talking to her about something, and she actually is quite a nice person if she puts her mind to it. Still, what goes around comes around. And why do I say that? Because I saw her once in the streets looking a complete mess, whilst I’m at university studying BSc Psychology.

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