We all have things in our lives that we are embarrassed about that we would best like to be forgotten. As such, I almost didn’t write this. It’s been nibbling at my mind every time I’d hear a story about it in the news…. it would be like a cheese grater across a scab in my core. “That was a long time ago,” I’d tell myself. Usually the news stories were about kids that lashed out. With some kids, that’s what they do. Fortunately, for society, it is more of an aberration than the norm. However, what I didn’t know, and what moved me to write this, was reading about 12-year-old Tom Trosvik, a 12 year old boy who killed himself on February 8, 2006 over it. Or 12-year-old Jared High who did the same thing after calling his father at work to say goodbye on September 29, 1998. Or Ryan Patrick Halligan who died on October 7, 2003. They are not alone. Every year, the cause of their despair and hopelessness-bullying, affects 3.2 MILLION students, which makes it the most common form of violence in our society. Children as young as six talk about suicide because of bullying.
I was 11 when I first started being bullied. I still remember what happened. One time I had gotten into a schoolyard fight- I was in the ‘right’ and the other kid was a ‘bad’ kid. My father always taught me that it took a bigger man to walk away from a fight, but that I could defend myself if the other person violated my principles or me.
My belief system up to that point in my life was that good always triumphed over evil; I saw myself as the “guy in the white hat”, “defender of the weak” and “pure of heart” who stood for justice, honesty and all things good in the world. And in 30 seconds all that changed and would define who I was for the remainder of my school years and affect me the rest of my life.
I still remember how I lost that fight…I put my head down in order to take the kid down and he hit me with a number of uppercuts. I remember a lot about that day…his name, the name of the street I was on, etc. But most of all I remember the shame I felt, going home and explaining why my nose was bloody. The worst part was, if good always triumphed over evil then why did I lose? Unless I wasn’t good. And that’s when the die was cast.
Kids intuitively know when another kid lacks confidence in themselves. Some take advantage of it. “Heffley lost to Hickok”, was the buzz going around school. And over the next 6 years I found myself being bullied. Fortunately for me, I inherited my father’s genetics, which meant I was very strong. Any of the fights I couldn’t avoid getting into afterwards, I won. But my self-perception didn’t change.
Moving to a new school didn’t help. After obtaining some measure of respect by beating a notoriously ‘bad’ bully who forced my hand, my parents decided to move. I had to start all over.
Most kids, by definition, are weaker than their tormentors and the ‘school yard code’ of not telling an adult prevails. Regardless of the specifics, bullying is a serious problem in our society. So what, if anything is being done ? While bullying is starting to get some exposure in the media, over two-thirds of students believe schools respond poorly to bullying problems and worse yet, 25% of teachers see nothing wrong with bullying or putdowns. Demi Lovato (if you don’t know who that is, ask your ‘tweenager’) is the spokeperson for PACER (Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights) Center and has talked publicly about being bullied.
It’s been 35 years since that schoolyard fight where I lost a part of myself. No amount of success- retiring at age 40 for three years, bench pressing over 400 pounds, being a paid published columnist, meeting Congressmen and Governors, being well-respected by my peers-can erase my need to prove myself, over and over. When I read about Tom, Jared or Patrick it quite literally brings me to tears. Because for me, it’s just something unpleasant in my life which has not allowed me to fully enjoy my successes; for them and those that loved them, there won’t be any successes to enjoy, because they succumbed to the despair, feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem, fear and shame that I know all too well. And it didn’t have to happen that way.
If you suspect your child is being bullied OR bullying others, there are steps you can take. Many states have laws against bullying. Talk to the principal. Talk to the teachers. But most of all, talk to your child and let them know bullying is NOT appropriate in any way shape or form and to come to you if they see it happening. Some resources: