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.