Just a bully

“You’re just a bully, and that’s all you’ll ever be.”

I think those are the words I spoke to Shawn, a boy who spent several weeks of 7th grade getting behind me on the way up the main stairway of Conway Middle School, getting as close as he could, and then pulling my legs out from under me. Every couple of days – just when I thought the ordeal was over – there he’d be, pulling my feet out from under me and sending me face-first into the edge of the stairs. I still have all my teeth, but it was, needless to say, a pretty rough couple of weeks. I don’t remember exactly what brought it on, other than a standard-issue classroom disagreement in which he’d called me a name and I retorted with something smart. I wasn’t always one to physically fight back, but I’ve never met an argument that I didn’t at least entertain engaging in. And that set him off well enough, I suppose. How dare I respond to his high-and-mighty proclamation that I was ___. And you can fill in the blank – ugly, fat, too tall, stupid, too smart, whatever tickles you. I’ve heard them all.

Every time Shawn had a chance, he’d be right there, hands grabbing angrily at my heels. I must’ve been covered from shin to thigh in bruises. I don’t remember exactly what his “punishment” was (detention or something of that nature), probably because it wasn’t worth remembering. Believe me…if it had fit the crime, I would’ve filed it away in my “Humanity Really Is Worth Holding Out Hope For!” box. Mr. Bryant, our lecherous Assistant Principal, couldn’t be bothered to actually give a punishment that would seem logical or fair to most normal folks. There was a librarian that he was somewhat more interested in, if I remember correctly.

A few weeks before Russ was born, I was indulging in one of my favorite mid-Monday guilty pleasures – perusing the online arrest reports of my hometown newspaper, The Sun News (Myrtle Beach). It was an activity that saved time by satisfying two goals – keeping me abreast of the latest legal happening back home, and also serving as a quick and easy way for me to get updated on how a lot of old classmates were doing. So I couldn’t help but do a double take when I saw Shawn’s picture. Larceny, breaking and entering…yep, definitely the same guy. His face hadn’t changed much since 7th grade, except for the roughed-up scratches near his eyes and the obvious sanitizing spray-down he’d received during booking at J. Reuben Long Detention Center.

This is probably the point where a better person than I would’ve said something along the lines of “It was then that I realized that Shawn wasn’t that bad of a person after all, and I began to feel bad for him for all his misfortune/misguidance/bad childhood/etc.” But I’m sorry, I just can’t. The thing that really went through my mind?

I told ya so. Jerk.

See, all of this has come flooding back to me as I watch and then rewatch the video of Casey Heynes, an Australian school-age kid who has been bullied all his life – and the moment, the very instance, in which Casey snaps. I’ve been in Casey’s shoes, and watching that moment (the way hundreds of thousands of people have at this point) is something that is difficult to describe. It’s going to sound bad, but when I watch the little lightweight pipsqueak bully who smacks Casey a few times, punches him a couple more, and dances around him like some sort of annoying horsefly…well, I can’t help but silently cheer Casey on when he picks up the little brat, finally having had enough, and body slams him to the ground.

And yeah, the schools can talk about a “zero tolerance” policy on fighting all day long. They’ll never get it. They’re so convoluted and full of their own importance that they don’t see that Casey’s action IS the zero tolerance policy. Because for the rest of his sad, unimpressive little life, that bully that caught Casey on the wrong day will never attempt to punch somebody without at least thinking of what the consequences might be. Until the day he dies, I can promise you that – before initiating any kind of physical altercation – Casey’s face (and a loud thud on a concrete floor) will be the last thing that flashes in that kid’s mind before he starts bullying someone. There’s your zero tolerance policy, people. Write it down.

And so here we are, my obligatory post about bullying. Or maybe I’ve had more than one post about it, I can’t remember. It’s an issue near and dear to my heart, you could say. Actually, I think it’s pretty amusing that in the year 2011, people have the nerve to act like bullying is some sort of new problem. Really, guys? Really? There was a day and time when people thought nothing of duking out their differences in a good ol’ fashioned fist fight. There’s a winner, there’s a loser, and there’s a pretty clear takeaway.

The only differences between the bully of old and the new, bigger, more technologically adept bully is that bullying is now on a 24/7 cycle, and consequences are in short supply. Think of it the way you would CNN. Twenty years ago, there was a lag between the actual event and the report. That’s not the case anymore. Remember something awful happening on Friday and getting that two days of rest before you had to return to school and face it all? Yeah, kids today don’t have that. A bully can access them anywhere – in person, of course. But then there’s email, text, Facebook, those ridiculously huge cellphone data plans. Not a month ago, I had to calm my poor niece, who was being harassed over text by a bunch of tools she goes to school with. Seems all these boys had gotten together and decided that she was going to be the entertainment for the night, even if she wasn’t physically in attendance. So they texted her and called her, hurling words like “slut” and “whore” at her – even though she’s 13 and has never done anything to deserve anything even approaching those awful words. It angered me so much that I had to be thankful that I wasn’t there. It was just the kind of thing that sets me off. Kids today are living in a war zone when it comes to bullying. It’s never-ending, and I am not afraid to tell you that if my teenage years had been experienced on such a level…well, I don’t know where I’d have ended up in some cases.

Parents books and magazines often instruct parents to have “the bullying talk” with their kids in a fashion that, to me, is almost like the “birds and bees” chat that usually occurs around the same age. Given the fact that teen pregnancy is still a real problem…do you think either approach is really working? Bueller? Bueller?

No. These days, it seems like our society’s efforts at addressing the bullying problem are little more than a mixture of half-witted parental posturing and government/schools continuing an established pattern of not knowing how to handle the issue. Sure, people say they want to see the problem improve, they want to help. They’ll do anything they can, as long as anything isn’t too unpleasant or difficult or – God forbid – inconvenient.

But unpleasant was something I got pretty used to while I was in middle school (and don’t worry, it didn’t get much better in high school). Like the time this ridiculously terrifying girl named Kamesha thought it would be funny to ask me for money – cash she knew I wouldn’t give her – and then beat the living daylights out of me when I told her I didn’t have any money on me. Kamesha had intentionally shoved me in the hall at the beginning of a school year, and just kind of decided that I was going to be the target. I know a lot of people would wonder what I did to deserve it, but honest-to-God…I didn’t do anything. I was just there.

It was just one of those truly heinous situations where somebody saw something in someone else that they hated and wanted to stamp out. I have my suspicions about reasons why she hated me so much, but they’re really just theories. But anyhow, she got her ultimate thrill that day when she wiped the floor with me. The best part of it? It was 3 pm or so, right after school, with at least 20 students standing around and waiting for their parents to pick them up. They sat right there and watched, some cheering, while this girl yanked me up by my backpack, pushed my face into the nearby brick column, pushed me down, punched me a few times in the head, and kicked me a couple times more. Because I wouldn’t give her any money.

Kamesha made pretty quick work of me, and you can bet I wasn’t going to fight back against her at that point. When my mom showed up five minutes after the aggressor was gone, I was a mess. We called the police and went over to the school office, where charges were filed. Of course, Kamesha denied everything, and you had better believe nobody that witnessed it was going to back up what happened. Months later, after having to continue to attend school with Kamesha, I had the privilege of sitting through a hearing with the Juvenile Justice judge, who seemed pretty keen on giving Kamesha the benefit of the doubt. It was only her second or third offense, after all. Less than two years later, Horry County Schools was kind enough to put me in a P.E. class at the high school with Kamesha.

But by then, things had changed. I’d finally realized something that today’s world seems to fight harder and harder to keep kids from grasping. I’d realized that the only person who could protect me was myself. The day after the Kamesha incident, I had asked my dad to show me how to protect myself. We went over some basic moves that he’d taught fellow soldiers in hand-to-hand combat classes back in his Army days. I was no Million Dollar Baby, but I was legit enough to make me realize that I could potentially get through high school with all my teeth still in place. There was some hope there. I had a little moxie in me after all. So by the time that Kamesha and I were “rematched,” so to speak, the fun of threatening me had pretty much disappeared for her. Oh, she still called me every disgusting, racist epithet and sexual slur she could come up with – some of them so beyond my street cred level that I wish UrbanDictionary.com had been around back then. But she didn’t try to give me another concussion. So that was cool, right? There were weaker people to focus on, and she’d already watched me maul a guy who had purposely hit me in the head with a ball during class. It lost its fun for her at that point.

But Southern culture is a funny, fickle animal, especially when it comes to gender roles. After physically fighting back a few times early on in high school, I quickly grew a rep for having “issues.” I believe we call them “anger management” problems now a days? Funny, because I never heard that said about people who were just complete…oh, I dunno, abusive, sociopathic toolbags? Never heard it said about guys like Shawn. It seemed as if society has conveniently progressed far enough to expect a good Southern girl to act like a “lady,” even if that society didn’t necessarily treat her like one. Had I allowed myself to be further smacked around, I guess I could’ve had the small comfort of being “the bigger person,” even if that meant doing so with a cast and two black eyes. Comforting, right? At least, that’s how it was in that strange little town where I grew up. I asked the school administration to help me, God knows I begged. I was always met with a patronizing caress of the shoulder and a question as to what I could do to make the situation better. Again, the logic behind this was lost on me. I found myself in the same predicament I’d been in countless times in my very young life – what do you do when no direction is the right direction, but sitting still gets your ass kicked?

It’s a torturous thing to have to decide what you’re going to screw up in the process of trying to live your life, knowing that no decision will yield an overall positive result. But I knew that another couple of mental and physical injuries like the ones I’d sustained at the hands of my middle school counterparts would render me an even more weak and pitiful person than I already felt like just for having whatever defect made me an easy target in the first place. And I want you to read this very clearly, because this is something that every bullied kid probably thinks at some point. Read this a few times.

I know it’s that something is wrong with me.

And that’s such an integral part of the anguish that you go through when you can’t just get people to lay off you for a little while. You just want to breathe. But you know that there is something defective about you, that it’s ultimately your fault for not understanding how to play the game, how to hold your cards. And if you’re saying to yourself right now “Well NO, it’s not your fault,” you should know that I do agree with you…now. But it took me a long time to get to that place.

I will never be short of stories about people who made my life a living hell at one point or another. In a sick and twisted sort of way, I suppose each of those jerks secured a sort of legacy that would last them beyond high school – in many cases, the years of their lives that they would remember as the best, which I think is just beyond sad. And I don’t mind writing their names here – heck, there are at least 10 more that I can think of off the top of my head, but why dive into that sea of names? All they will ever be is a cautionary tale I tell to my kids. A laugh that passes through a wide smile as I hear of the latest ways that these bullies – who, for a brief time, seemed to have the upper hand – rose to the highest point of their lives at the tender ages of 12…15…17. Whatever the case, I realized a long time ago that those people were deserving of my pity more than my ire.

Just a bully. With a rap sheet and a record. With no talent and no character. With no courage and no depth. With a tragic story to tell, far more tragic than any tale you’ll get from me or kids like Casey Heynes.

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