Bullying

There will always be stories about “game changers.”  You know, those things that happen in one’s life that affect how they perceive a situation, how they turn out and, overall, who they become in life.  This story is along those same lines; although, there are some twists to it and it isn’t from the side one normally hears life stories from.  This story is from the side of the actual “bully.”

It was fall 1982 and the din from the hustle and bustle of children’s chatter, shuffling shoes, and rustling papers filled the hallways.   (Yes, this story takes place in school, as one would expect when you hear the word “bully.”  I mean, you wouldn’t expect the story to happen at work in one’s thirties.)  The halls were filled with the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of children.  Seasoned ninth graders as well as us new seventh graders beginning our first day of a new school year at John D. Pierce Junior High School [now known as Pierce Middle school] in Redford Township Michigan. 

I only lived three blocks away so I walked to school every day.  In 1982 we were allowed to walk miles to school if we had, or wanted, too.  There was one winter of my High School career that the busses wouldn’t start because of how cold it was outside.  We were told to walk to school, and we did.  Of course some kids got rides from their parents, but many of us walked.  I was over a mile away, had to cross one main road and a set of railroad tracks to get there.   (When I tell that story to my daughter it is, of course, uphill both ways in six inches of snow.  In actuality there were a few inches of snow and it was below freezing, but that’s just how it was done then.)

In 1985 kids were still “allowed” to smoke just outside the school grounds.  This group of children, known as the “Druggies,” gathered at the United Methodist Church on the corner of Beech Daly road and Orangelawn street.   These were the kids from the “wrong side of the tracks,” as my mom would say.  They wore jean jackets with patches of rock and speed metal bands, leather jackets that looked as if they had been through a war, ripped pants, and bandanas.  Their hair, typically, was long and ratty and you could see there were probably parental issues with most of them. 

Growing up in a drug free home I didn’t do drugs, but, somehow, I knew what pot smelled like.  It was perfect that we started school in the fall and it smelled like burning leaves every day when I walked past this little group of “overachievers.”  [My insult here is actually aimed back toward myself as I would eventually join this band of merry boys and girls – but that is another story for another time.]  On this day in particular I was in more fear of these kids because; although they were doing drugs and smoking pot, they appeared angry and as most of us do, I too feared the unknown. 

As I passed by all of the different cliques on the way to school, the overwhelming feeling for how small I actually was compared to this leviathan of never ending labyrinth hallways, lockers, rooms, and closed doors began to fill my gut as I looked up at the three stories of brick, mortar, and glass.  This school was larger than all of the Elementary schools in our district combined, for obvious reasons.  Of course this “new world” is intimidating and scary for most of us newcomers, but back then it seemed like I was the only one who was feeling out of place. 

As I mentioned, once inside, the hallways were loud.  We didn’t receive any type of orientation from Elementary school so I had never seen the inside of Pierce before the first day of classes so, once in, I had no idea where to go.   We had a schedule that listed the room numbers so finding “Homeroom” was the first task after I figured out where my locker was.  I missed the ease of Elementary school.

In Elementary school, I was at the top of the food chain.   I achieved that recognition through the game of Dodge ball.  Dodge ball can be a fantastic game, for those who are good at it, or a horrible symbol of torture for those who are not.  Jeff V. was the most powerful kid in school.  His throw caused welts on the weaker kids.  He knocked out more kids than the rats of the black plague in the 1300’s.  I don’t remember anyone who could catch the ball when he threw it…except for me. 

I always wanted to be on his team because he was a friend of mine and I had seen the devastation his throwing arm caused.  He was unstoppable.  Alas, one day I ended up on the opposite side.  I don’t recall who the two Captains were, that day but usually Peter M. and Dan K. were one of them if Jeff V. wasn’t.  Jeff V. was always called first.  Typically I ended up being called in the middle, but at least I wasn’t last. 

Being picked last was sheer torture.  Usually kids like Alan W. and Jeffrey F. were picked last.  Of course, in their defense, they were much more academic than the other kids.  Myself and many of the other boys were more physical.  At that age, we were always trying to prove ourselves to each other.

One way of proving oneself was by coming up with something no one else had.  I had a paper route and earned my own money and was able to buy things for myself that my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t.  I had found the perfect item.  It was a watch that played “Space Invaders.”  The watch was made by Nelsonic, a company long since out of business as far as I know.   It was an electronic marvel.

The watch played a simple game where a space ship flew over the top of a turret and you would point left or right to shoot the ship out of the sky.  When I bought the watch I, of course, took it to school to show it off.  The entire class gathered around to see the game.  Back then this was a huge deal.  I mean I had a video game on my wrist.  No one else had that.   I bought the watch sometime in 1981 just after it came out.  I don’t recall the exact amount but I believe it was somewhere between $35 and $50.  That was an incredible amount of money to pay for anything in that year, especially for a kid.

Of course I didn’t want the watch ruined so I wouldn’t let anyone play with it on their wrist.  They could watch me play it or play it while it was on my wrist but I wouldn’t take it off, except when we went to Gym or Recess outside.  I would enclose it in my desk as we all exited the classroom.  Well, it appears that one child REALLY wanted to play with the watch.  Apparently he left recess and snuck back into the classroom, went into my desk, took the watch and played with it.  While he was playing with it he dropped it cracking the screen and breaking several connections to where the watch wouldn’t even turn on anymore.

I returned from recess and found the broken watch in my desk.  I have blocked out how upset I was but I’m pretty positive I cried.  I know that I was very angry but I couldn’t do anything about it because I had no idea who it was that did it.  Fortunately for that kid it was the end of the school year and I wouldn’t find out.  However, during summer break someone, I don’t recall who, told me that it was Jeffrey F.   They saw him or he mentioned it to them.  I’m not positive why they told me and he never did.

You remember Jeffrey F.  He is one of the kids who was always picked last.  He was annoying as a person and, to be honest, I didn’t really like him as it was.  This made me hate him…with a passion.  He didn’t apologize to me even though we had spoken before Elementary school let out and we graduated.  He didn’t offer to pay for the watch even though he was an only child who I am quite sure had much more money than I did.  Nothing!  He offered nothing!  I was pissed and I held that grudge until this first day of seventh grade.

I walked the hallways with my hands filled with the books for my classes.  I was following the numbers on the lockers to my eventual remuneration.  By this time I had begun to recognize several faces.  The school grouped us into sections of lockers by grade, which made sense.  I don’t know how it all started but another individual came up behind me and said: “Hey, there’s Jeffrey F.  Isn’t he the kid that stole your watch?”

I yelled to him.  “Hey jerk, you owe me a watch!”  I don’t recall exactly what our conversation was but I remembered his lack of taking responsibility for his actions several months before.  I had said something that eventually upset him to where he finally engaged.  My anger had grown very quickly and I could feel my ears turning red.  By this time our outbursts had already drawn a pretty good crowd.  It didn’t take much in those days.  Everyone wanted to see some type of altercation.  

No one really knew me in this school, but this ninth grader came out of nowhere.  He was towering over me and I recall he didn’t like one of my brothers (again that is another story for another time).  He looked at me standing there holding my stack of books and very calmly said “Can I hold your books for you?”  As I handed him my books I quickly looked around at all of the faces that had gathered around us.  I knew I had no choice now, I was definitely going to have to fight this kid. 

When I grew up I was always taught that fighting is bad, losing your temper is worse, and being out of control is unacceptable.  Unfortunately most of my heritage is Irish.  Some may know about the Irish temper, but let me just say the red hair on so many Irish heads is a genetic result of years of anger passed down through the generations.  We see red for so long that our children actually become red.  Now, I don’t have red hair making me a carrier of said anger gene.   For the most part, I’m always angry but I bury it.  My favorite line from a movie is “That’s my secret Captain, I’m always angry.”  But I only let it surface in extreme situations.

The brother I told you wasn’t liked by the ninth grader is my next oldest brother Eric.  He is one of the four brothers I have.  He is incredibly odd and had a very hard time growing up.  Jim M. was the ninth grader who was so kind to me but Jim M. was friends with several other kids who felt Eric was a strange bird.  One day when Eric and I got off the bus from Elementary school (I was in fourth grade, he was in sixth), four kids got off at our bus stop who didn’t normally get off there.  Brian C. was the instigator and he wanted to tear Eric apart.  Eric was a jerk and had mouthed off to several of these kids.

I was much smaller than all of them.  They started in on my brother.  It was winter.  Slippery.  Icy.  A man was at his house on that particular corner chipping the ice off of his sidewalk with a spade shovel.  As the boys were kicking and punching Eric I started crying.  The rest is a blur.  I turned around to the man, who was doing nothing to stop the fight, and I grabbed the shovel out of his hands.  I swung it up and over my head to bring down the sharpest part of the blade near Brian’s face but across his chest ripping his jacket.  Everyone stopped fighting immediately. 

Brian was, at this point, crying too.  Partly because I hurt him but I think mostly because I told him that I would kill him if he ever touched my brother again.   The raw anger I expressed was beyond my control at that time.  I was crying still for what they were doing to my brother but I was also crying because I was out of control. 

The anger had taken over.  I couldn’t stop it.  I could easily have killed him with that shovel.  At some point the man who owned the shovel came up behind me and grabbed it with both of his hands.  He then told the other four boys to “Go home!” and he sent us home down the street without saying another word.

Jeffrey F. actually started the fight in the hallway that first day of school.  He came up quickly and punched me in the face.  Several times.  This was three years after the shovel incident.  By this time I had learned to control my tears, but the anger was still another story.  He went for my body.  Punching me in the stomach and then back to my face again.  I was frozen.  I was in awe at the audacity of this incident.  Why was he hitting me?  I didn’t steal and break his watch.  Furthermore, why couldn’t I feel it?  In any instance, all this did was infuriate me.

I smacked both of his arms down at the same time.  Then I punched him in his stomach and uppercut his jaw.  I must have come back with another hit to his face because he was bleeding.  Badly.  I pushed him into the lockers behind him several times and then I opened up a locker and began shoving him into it.  He tried to fight back but it was useless.  I pushed him deep into the locker and he cut his hand on the shelf above his head.  Then I slammed the door on him and the foot that remained outside of the locker.  Then the rage subsided.

I looked at this weak little boy shoved halfway inside the locker and all I could see was myself staring back.  What if someone had beat me up like that?  How could I explain that to my dad?  What would my dad say if I had to tell him that I did something to someone else and they obliterated me in front of a bunch of other kids at school and humiliated me by shoving me into a locker?  I felt bad for what I did but I just grabbed my books and walked away.  I never spoke to Jeffrey F. again but this incident changed my perspective on bullies because, apparently I had just become one. 

Most of kids in the school had no idea why I beat him up.  They just saw me kick his ass for what appeared to be no reason and then walk away.  I guess that was my “prison moment.”  It didn’t have to be the largest person.  It just needed to be someone and just brutal enough that other people would pass the word around about you.

The change in my attitude was one that denounced bullies though.  I wasn’t one!  I wasn’t taught to be one!  I would make sure that smaller kids weren’t picked on or bullied by someone like me!  That attitude was an eighties attitude though, as it turns out.  This stigmatic teaching was ingrained in most of our after school specials, movies of the time, and inspirational posters of the day.  We were all to stand up to someone bullying us.  My group of friends took it one step further.

The kids I hung out with in High School were the larger kids.  If anyone was being a bully it would have been someone in our group and we had all decided we weren’t going to be like that.  An example of our credo was when we heard of a smaller kid being picked on in one of the back hallways.  A good friend of mine, Jocko, and I went back to help him out.  We told him to sit with us during lunch and the word spread that we would wreck anyone who picked on him again.

We didn’t exert any force and we didn’t bully anyone, but we did make sure the smaller people were being taken care of.  The cool thing about this last part of this story is this last guy grew up and became one of the best martial art trainers in Michigan.  Now he teaches other people how not to be bullied through controlling their situation and not through aggression.  He teaches that strength used properly is true power but used improperly is true evil.

Although I still, to this day, feel bad about what happened in school that day I don’t condone fighting for any situation – regardless of the reason.  In every situation we should be able to resolve the circumstance without using our fists, or worse in today’s era – guns and knives.  There is too much anger in the world today.  We have consistent road rage here in Michigan.  Our political officials don’t give us any reason to be happy and much of what is on television is very dark in nature.  All I can say is hang in there.  It always gets better.

Finish What You Started

I want to tell you about a young man I once knew. His story takes place many years ago in November of 1986. His name isn’t important, but I have always referred to him as ‘Din’. That was his nickname on the streets where we grew up. It was a short derivative of the song “Din Daa Daa” by George Kranz. On one brisk Fall November morning ‘Din’ woke from his own bed.  Nothing strange about that except this was something he hadn’t done in 33 days. You see, he and Pollyanna, the young lady he had fallen madly in love with and just couldn’t stand to be apart from, had been living together at her parents house that whole time.  Well, just the day before her parents found out they hadn’t been going to school at all during that time and they promptly threw ‘Din’ out of their house. But, as he was getting ready to go back to High School on this specific morning, what he didn’t realize was, like Polly’s parents, the school would also throw him out that day.

This chain of events started when ‘Din’ graduated from Middle School to High School in 1984.  For him, this was starting all over. Bottom of the pile. Low man on the roster. A feeling many children experience.  New place. New faces. New surroundings. During this change, he didn’t know what group would accept him. So he tried to fit in anywhere and everywhere.  ‘Din’ tried all the different cliques. The “druggies”, the “jocks”, the “nerds”. Eventually he settled into a new group that formed – the “Breakdancers”.

Back in the 1980’s the average suburban neighborhoods were being consumed by the new Rap culture.  ‘Din’ grew up the youngest of five children in one such neighborhood. He was raised Christian.  Two parents, dinner at 6:00 p.m, and Church on the weekends. A good part of the whole American dream. 

According to several of his friends I interviewed for this story, he was smart.  Book smart and street smart.  When he was in 6th Grade he was able to perform 9th Grade level mathematical equations but had never been taught how to do them.  His street knowledge was better than average too. Once when confronted by 9 other children on the streets of Detroit, while he was delivering flyers for Amico’s Pizza, the local pizza place, he almost got his butt kicked.  He noticed the kids following him from a house where he had just delivered a flyer.  Inside the house someone had yelled at him to get off of their porch. He put the flyer in the door and left immediately. 

They followed him down the street quietly behind him. He heard the whispers and glanced around to see all of them standing there, but before they could jump him, and without speaking any words, he pulled out a pair of nunchucks hidden in his bag of flyers and began working them.  He swung them around his neck, back and forth in front of himself. Flipping them up and around frantically so all one could hear was the sound of them breaking the wind. After he was finished, he turned around and simply walked away without saying a word. One of the kids yelled to him, “Next time you come to Detroit, don’t bring those!”  

Even growing up in a fairly good environment ‘Din’ still made choices that would take him to bad places.  His breakdancer friends were a wild group of kids. Much like the Hippies of the 1960’s they had their own wants and desires.  Some of which were gang related, based on how the Rap culture was represented. True, the genre participated, but was in no way to blame for the finite event that would unfold at school in the morning that Fall day in 1986.

Now, the Breakdancers were a tight group of friends who hung out all the time.  From 1984 through 1986 they had developed an equal amount of influence on each others lives.  Sometimes good. Sometimes bad. In the 1980’s there were plenty of places for teenagers to spend time.  They had the mall, local recreation centers, and clubs designed for young adults. Unfortunately getting into trouble of various kinds was something this group appeared to have a proclivity for.  And many times they preferred trouble to recreational activities.

In total, two incidents happened.  Both in 1986. One during the spring and the other during the summer.  Each event involved stolen articles. Now what actually happened isn’t important because, in ‘Din’s’ words, he was “innocent, for the most part.”  The actual records say different though; and that’s what matters. In short, ‘Din’ was caught and put on two years probation, with provisions. The first: he had to live at his parents’ house.  The second: he had to stay in and finish high school.

Now having been in trouble, ‘Din’s’ perception was that everyone looked at him differently.  Mainly those in positions of authority like his parents and teachers. It was because of this inner feeling that his attitude toward everything changed.  He became bored with school and stopped going to church. All he wanted to do was hang-out with his friends and party.

Even after school started up for his Senior year, ‘Din’s’ group of friends continued to do a lot of partying.  They caused an immense amount of trouble at school too. This drew the attention of the Assistant Principal, who, too ‘Din’, appeared to hate him for all of the trouble caused, and possibly a few other reasons that were actually justified like drinking at school and destroying school property.  

Now outside of school the one thing the Breakdancers loved to do, was dance.  They would go to local clubs and burn off their destructive energy.  One club in particular was the Grande Ballroom in Westland. This is where ‘Din’ and Pollyanna met, not long after the two incidents.

To ‘Din’, Pollyanna was an Aztec goddess.  She stood 5 feet 4 inches tall and had a perfect athletically slender build.  She had the most amazing raven curly hair cresting over her extremely beautiful face.  Her eyes were the lightest brown with a small fleck of green in them. Her skin was as soft as silk with the most angelic golden hue to it.  On a scale of 1 to 10, she was probably only an 8; although, not in ‘Din’s’ eyes. To him everything about her was as melodic and beautiful to behold as any Mozart composure.  She was the most perfect girl in the world.

And, outside of that she could move her body! This girl could dance, which was huge back in those days! 

‘Din’ and Pollyanna became exclusive and they spent an unprecedented amount of time together.  They were inseparable. Pollyanna had a car so they drove everywhere and did everything they could think of, or afford, to do. They were doing what every kid their age was supposed to be doing.  They went on dates, hung out at parties, and went to dance clubs. There were no issues until…well, let’s just say they began to spend too much time together and had trouble keeping their hands off of each other.

Overall, they were just two kids who had fallen in lust with each other.  But, yes, they loved each other too. The problem was, the only things they thought about were dancing and having sex.  Those two things became problematic.

It wasn’t that they didn’t like school.  School was where their friends were. That was ‘Din’s’ main reason to continue going.  It was ‘Din’s’ lack of enthusiasm with school that created issues. The teachers handed out their assignments.  He did them and handed them back the next day. On occasion he would work weeks ahead and wait until they finally caught up.  School became more of a social function to him and less of an educational one.

Eventually ‘Din’ just stopped doing his school work.  Part of this was due to boredom and another part because of his attitude change from the events of the summer of 1986.  He began to feel trapped.  He only wanted to invest his time in Pollyanna.  All they thought about was each other. So, together, they stopped going to school.  For 33 days straight they stayed at her parents’ home and did other things.  That is, until Pollyanna’s parents found out.  

Now, it wasn’t as if they just threw him out of their house and forbid them from seeing each other. No, they kicked ‘Din’ out of their daughters life.  Or to be more correct, they actually kicked her out of his.  Polly’s parents sent her to live with her grandmother in Texas.  There she would finish her High School career. He had no choice but to go on without her. Obviously he didn’t know it, but it would be decades before they would ever see each other again. 

In 1986, ‘Din’ slept in the basement of his parents’ house, in a room his dad built for him.  His bedroom was always dark and a little cold, much like his heart would quickly become after being separated from Pollyanna.  There was a light above his bed but he never turned it on. He would let his eyes slowly adjust to the tiny sliver of light he allowed to come through the window that looked out into the rest of the basement, which he covered with a blanket.  Thinking this Fall day would be like any other school day he previously experienced he eventually got up. He showered. He got dressed. And he headed off to his first day back to school where he would, once again, see his friends.

Stewart Hardcastle was the Assistant Principal.  Because of the previous trouble ‘Din’ was involved in he didn’t appear to want him in his school.  When he saw ‘Din’ coming up to the school doors he got up from his desk and raced to stop him from coming into the school altogether.  A conversation along these lines ensued: “Where do you think you’re going Mr. ‘Din’?” the Assistant Principal requested. “I’m going to class.” ‘Din’ replied.  “You haven’t attended this school for more than 30 days and are no longer welcome here.” ‘Din’ immediately took the offensive and started yelling at the Mr. Hardcastle.  ‘Din’ told him that he didn’t “need this school” and it would be “a cold day in hell” if he “ever came back to this dump”. A few other words were exchanged between them but eventually they both turned and walked away.

No girlfriend.  No school. Now no friends.  ‘Din’s’ senior year was over before midterms even started.  This boy thought he was bored when he was able to still go to school.  Well, take school away and all that he was left with was a lot of disappointment.  From every angle. Parent’s, teachers, and himself. Now he had nothing but time to think about everything that went wrong and how he got to this point in his life.

For nine months he sat around pondering what type of future a person without a High School diploma has.  Fortunately, he allowed his parents to influence him. A few of his friends that he still hung out with brought him around to see things the right way too.  During that time he spent out of school, he grew to understand what he was missing out on. He also figured out what he would miss out on had he continued down the path he was on.  During this time away from school his friends, like me and of course, his family helped make him understand that he needed school. 

Before Fall 1987 came, ‘Din’ registered for classes, again, at the same High School.  He had even began going back to church.  

I don’t have the specifics on the exact day, but on a drizzly Fall day in September 1987 ‘Din’ started back for the first day of his second Senior year.  On this approach to the school doors the Assistant Principal was, again, ready to greet him. This time, just inside the main lobby.  

This would be the second conversation in just under a year these two would have.  I was there and I recall it went something like: “Where do you think you’re going Mr. ‘Din’?” “I’m here to go to school Mr. Hardcastle.”  Hardcastle took a quick step to his left to block ‘Din’s’ continued entrance. ‘Din’ continued walking toward him and said, “It’s my right to be here Mr. Hardcastle.  And you can’t stop me from getting my education!” ‘Din’ began to circle around the Assistant Principal but at the same time Stewart Hardcastle moved back to his right and let him pass.  No other words were exchanged between the two.

For the most part, ‘Din’s’ Senior year was uneventful, which was a good thing.  ‘Din’ helped paint the Christmas Windows in Senior hall. He rode on the Senior float for the Homecoming game.  He even helped on the Entertainment committee with all of the school dances. No drinking. No drugs. No destruction of property.  No fights. No distractions. Just school.   

It appears after what had happened to ‘Din’, the whole Breakdancing group had settled down a bit.  ‘Din’ worked hard to stay focused and finish his senior year. He didn’t play any sports but he still earned a letter.  He lettered in academics. On graduation day, as ‘Din’ walked across the commencement stage, Mr. Hardcastle grabbed his hand, shook it, and said, in the most sincere and earnest way, “I knew you could do it.”  ‘Din’ smiled at him and continued on his path.