On Bullying And Carrying Pain

This video has been making the rounds recently, to almost universal applause. But I’m not quite as in love with it.

Why don’t I like it? Well let me start out with some context: I was bullied as a kid. Since I’m not really sure how to quantify the extent of my bullying (do we have a Richter scale or something I could use?) I’ll just describe it.

I had no problems in elementary school. I had lots of friends and we all got along. But towards the end of 5th grade I remember things started to change. My friends  started to get really worried about middle school and making sure they were prepared for it. They all started listening to mainsteam music on the radio, watching Saturday Night Live or late-night talk shows, and caring about their clothes and their language. I had no interest in any of that. I’d heard that they still had dodgeball in middle school, and so I was satisfied that we’d all have a good time. I completely missed out on the sense that I was supposed to be studying hard for the next level of social challenges. I was like the kid who really has no clue how important and hard a final exam is, and doesn’t even really grasp how hard everyone else is studying for it. Before 5th grade was over, the changes were minor, but when middle school started it was like I was from the wrong planet.

Byrd Middle School, aka Hell. (But who *likes* middle school, right?)
Byrd Middle School, aka Hell. (But who *likes* middle school, right?)

All of my closest friends from elementary school successfully made the transition to becoming the cool kids in middle school. I didn’t even know there was a transition to be made. They didn’t want to sit with me in class, eat lunch with me, or be seen in public with me anymore, and I didn’t know why. Not understanding the jokes or what clothes to wear didn’t phase me, but suddenly finding myseld discarded by my friends hurt. I tried to catch up, but I never got it right. I put too much gel in my hair one day, trying to make something of it, and the teacher happened to call me up to the front of the room for some kind of spelling bee practice. For some reason she put her hand on my head and recoiled, “What’s in your hair?” she said loudly. I was mortified as the class erupted into laughter, but not as much as when I realized she actually expected an answer. What happened to my hair? I don’t know, I was trying to look like kids on TV but I had no one to ask about it. I tried to make up a story about the bottle breaking that morning, but she kept inquiring–laughing the whole time–if I got too much stuff in my hair why didn’t I just wipe it back off?

As if I had a good answer for that.

I was the second-shortest boy in middle school, and usually the second-smartest. That’s not a good place to be. The shortest kid, Thomas, was under the constant watchful protection of popular girls who thought he was adorable. No one messed with him. The smartest kids got teased a bit, but they had some ammunition for return fire. I had nothing.

I remember vividly how my eyes would flicker from the floor to the faces around me as I scurried through the halls–head down–trying to avoid being tripped. My constant vigilance meant that I would usually be able to hop over the attempts without even stopping, but not always. Then I would fall, it would hurt, and everyone would laugh. Sometimes people stole my stuff, other times they vandalized it. Once, while I was in gym class, someone pulled small bits of jeans through the air holes in the locker and then cut them off, so that when I got back and changed my pants were basically Swiss cheese. My parents complained to the administration about that one, but were told that only nice kids went to that school, so surely I must have done it myself for attention. Once, in an effort to try hard enough not to be noticed in gym, I dove for the volleyball. We were playing inside, and I missed and then slid a few feet before cracking my head into the wall. The gym teacher, sitting in a tall chair at the height of the net, pointed and led the class laughing at me, tossing in a few quips about “using your head” and such. I even had my own run-in with social services, much like what was described in the video, although thankfully I was never actually taken out of my home.

So how bad does that bullying compare? I don’t know. I figure it was pretty bad, but it’s not like I think about it on a daily basis. It didn’t determine the course of my life.

The Governor's School for Government and International Studies was in this building when I attended.
The Governor’s School for Government and International Studies was in this building when I attended.

Part of that is probably because when I found out that I could go to a magnet school for other nerds instead of going on to high school with the folks from my middle school, I leaped at the chance. I didn’t know anything about the magnet school other than that they only took a few kids from the middle school, but that was enought. By that point I would have done pretty much anything to escape from those kids. Luckily, the high school ended up being awesome. Most of the kids had been bullied, I think, and none of us had any interest in perpetuating that kind of social environment. As I remember it, there were no cliques and everyone was free to mingle with everyone else.

I didn’t realize this at first, so when I first started I  stuck with the kids who played Magic: The Gathering. Gradually I started playing ultimate frisbee every day during lunch instead and met a new group of friends, but I still viewed the better-dressed kids with suspicion and fear. Eventually the negative reinforcement training from middle school faded, however, and I realized that they were just kids, too. By the time I was a senior I was completely at ease talking to kids who wore kilts or khakis.

As I learned to talk and relate to everyone, I came to learn that although bullying hurts so do a lot of other things in life. Kids get cancer, their parents get divorced, they regret losing their virginity, they have eating disorders, they become alcoholics, their girlfriends have sex with their best friends, they get raped, they are forced to have abortions they don’t want, their parents kill themselves, they go into withdrawal trying to quit cocaine cold-turkey. None of those examples are  made up. I saw them all, and a lot of them more than once. I know at least three girls who were raped, for example. I had a friend who used to keep a razor blade in his mouth for self-protection in his neighborhood and a friend who lived out of her car while working full-time and going to high school to try and pay the  mortgage for a house she was too busy to ever live in.

One of my close friends–a guy who’d endured a lot of similar bullying with me all the way back to our  middle school days–hung himself in his closet a couple of weeks before his birthday. I remember my last conversation with him vividly. We were on the bus on the way home, and we were debating (as we often did) and I was happy because he had seemed so depressed for such a long time, and he seemed his usual, animated self that day. At least he did until the end of the conversation.

I don’t remember how we got there, but I remember that I felt like I had some kind of insight into what had changed i him over the months and years. “The thing about you,” I said, “Is that it’s not that you lack passion for things. It’s that the only thing you’re passionate about is nothing.” He stopped laughing then, and paused before he responded. Then he told me that I was right. It was a low note, and I was a little worried, but the bus had arrived at the local high school. We got off and went to the individual buses that would take us home and I didn’t think much more of it until I got a call later that evening that he had committed suicide. As far as I know, I was the last person to talk to him. I went to school the next day thinking I’d be OK, but when they announced it in my first class I lost control and started sobbing. There were kids just huddled together in the halls all day, and I can’t tell you how  many new prescriptions for anti-depressants my friends got over the next few months.

Bullying hurts, but so does a lot of life. Somewhere along the way I stopped thinking that getting tripped in the halls was such a bad thing. I’m not saying that that is all bullying ever is, of course, and I’m not claiming to have suffered worse bullying than anyone else. I’m just saying that I don’t really like the idea of defining yourself around it. Does  bullying scar kids for life? It probably does. So do a lot of things. While we’re at it–and this won’t make me a lot of friends–I think that the kids who do the bullying are doing it because they, too, hurt. Everyone hurts. Not just sometimes, but most of the time. What’s worse, a lot of the time we don’t know why it is that we’re in pain. Loss, disappointment, loneliness, fatigue, fear… all the varieties of pain are compounded by confusion.

If you were bullied as a kid and it hurt: I’m sorry. That sucks. But don’t go around thinking that your life is miserable and everyone else is carefree and happy. For as long as I let them, a lot of the kids in my high school seemed to want to confide in me. My parents would often hand me the phone (before there were cell phones) with a weary, “Another patient is on the line.” Finally I sort of stopped making myself available because it was more than I could take, but as long as I was willing to listen the one constant thing was this: everyone has a tragedy. No exceptions.

I don’t want kids who are bullied to think that what is happening to them makes their lives somehow surprisingly worse than others. It reminds me of the importance in not showing fear when a little child comes to you with a playground injury. Part of your job, in comforting them, is to remain calm. If they see the adult freak out at the sight of blood, then of course they will be terrified. I’m worried that turning bullying into some national cause is going to end up doing the same thing. I don’t want the pain and hurt of being bullied compounded by confusion or some terrible myth that people who aren’t bullied lead happy, carefree lives. They don’t. Some folks have it worse and some have it better, but getting bullied really has nothing to do with how bad your life is. There are so many other things that cause people to suffer. Bullying is just one variety, and it’s not anything special.

6 thoughts on “On Bullying And Carrying Pain”

  1. I’ve always believed the kids who get affected the most by bullying are the adults that get affected the most by stresses in life. Really emotional people. This is why you find some adults who seemed fine growing up until thy are out in a really emotionally compromising situation and break. Why some kids can be bullied really badly and shrug it off while some can’t. Why some kids can go through horrible abuse and end up being normal and good parents while others can’t. Why some kids can take corporeal punishment and some get scarred by it.

    I wonder if there is a way to identify this in people at a young age.

  2. This is beautiful, Nathaniel. As the mother of a child who was bullied for several years–and is still the “odd kid” in any mix–I feel you’ve said what I’ve been trying to tell him for so long. Suffering has so many varieties, and while handling our own, we need to be cognizant of how others’ hurts manifest themselves. Similarly, we need to see that the “happy, carefree lives” they seem to lead often have holes we aren’t aware of. We have to learn to hold on to who we are and take charge where and when we can. We can use what hurts us to learn compassion and empathy and mercy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Reason’s Nick Gillespie had a good article in the WSJ on this subject: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303404704577311664105746848.html

    I never felt bullied in school, though I never felt confident due to my size. Unfortunately, I was a bully to some, mainly kids in my ward. I hated Mormon kids (with the exception of those who would get into trouble with me). But as you said, those who aren’t bullied don’t necessarily lead “happy, carefree lives” either. I still vividly remember the way a girl I had grown up with described me to a relatively new one in the ward (this was in high school): “He used to be really nice. Then his sister died and he’s pretty much been mean ever since.” This does not justify my behavior, but it does show that there is often more going on below the surface of the whole bullying/bullied dichotomy.

    It also seems that the outrage over bullying is selective. I’ll hear about gays or “nerdy” kids with glasses being bullied. But rarely do I hear about the most bullied ethnic group in America–Asians: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5ieIKEf6GvJAwc1iBJZ1itH-HGbyA?docId=CNG.1732b21b28ee34447047f9aa12dd08c5.b31

  4. Great post, Nathaniel. As I mentioned a while back, I have learned a lot about bullies and victims since having kids, and I agree with your thoughts here.

    Thanks for sharing your story about our old high school friend. I still think about him sometimes, wonder how his life would be today if he had lived. I felt a lot of guilt over him in high school — He was such a great friend to me. He visited me almost every day when I had knee surgery the summer before his death, and then he called me regularly just to talk for hours. I know he wanted more than friendship, and that’s not something I wanted, but we did remain great friends until he spiraled down into deep depression. He swore to me in better times that he could never kill himself. I didn’t know how to handle that kind of darkness, and I remember getting off the phone with him for the last time — thinking I couldn’t be his friend anymore, because the darkness would overtake me if I kept going down that road. And so I feel like I abandoned him, and our conversations mostly stopped.

    I also saw him at the end of the day before he died. I ran into him alone in the hallway and, like your experience, was pleasantly surprised to see him so happy, acting like his old self. He said goodbye to me. I remember going home happy about his change and feeling confident that things would be better for him now. I know now that he had already decided his own fate. It is not uncommon for suicidal individuals to feel the weight of their burdens disappear and therefore feel happy and peaceful once they have an exit plan in place. Like you, I didn’t recognize the signs of suicide, a sudden lift out of a deep depression. I don’t carry the burden of guilt anymore. I realize now that I was only sixteen years old, and I was in a situation much deeper than I could handle or even recognize.

  5. If anyone wants a great bullying resource, a very experienced and talented private-practice LCSW in my family gave me resources from the program Bullies2Buddies. I found it to be highly effective. This program works well, I think, because the creator understands human nature. We see a lot of ineffective bullying programs out there, so maybe this will help someone. I didn’t use the website much, since I had lots of materials from my family member, but I know you can find relevant materials here. http://bullies2buddies.com/

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