On Sunday, August 17th, 2014, kids showing up for the Tigers game vs the Mariners will be greeted with a “Strike Out Bullying” wristband. I love the cause. But are they going to know what it all means? Perhaps I can share my own experiences with bullying. And in case that’s not enough, I’ll share my son’s experiences as well.
Because at some point in our youth, most of us have been bullied. Yes, most of us. Whether it’s a simple punch in the arm, or a few harsh words, we have all had our share of lumps and bad words. Words that most of us would find offensive in our normal vernacular today. I say that, because I used to use such words. Mostly because I didn’t know what they meant.
See, when I was in elementary school, I got pushed around. I got called names. Bad names. To preface:
I attended St. Lawrence Elementary school in Utica, MI for grades 1-5. It was a parochial school, for us practicing Catholics, to learn and pray all in one fell swoop. Except for me, it wasn’t that way. I have always had a hard time making friends, and when I finally made one, all hell kind of broke loose.
I befriended a kid who was different. Well, he was different in a rather juvenile way. He wasn’t black, he wasn’t red, blue… whatever. He, like, me, was another white suburban kid. Except his tag was, he farted a lot.
Wait… you can’t be serious! So he was gassy? We all were gassy! Which is probably true. But the problem is, when you’re a kid trying to fit in wherever you can fit in, having gas is a major problem. And trust me, the friend of that gassy person had the same problem. Mostly because we were different despite having the same interests as any other idiot on the playground.
He farts a lot, he’s a faggot!
You stink, you’re both retarded!
Here’s two words that, during grades 1-5, or, ages 6 through freaking 10, were used very commonplace because you were different. Not because you may have been gay or had a mental disability, but because they were not only strong words, but they sounded funny.
The worst part: we were both called “niggers”, too. Not bad for a couple of suburban Detroit white kids, right?
It never got the best of us, though. But it was because we didn’t know we were using slurs. Therefore we didn’t know what they meant. For me, today, that’s more of a problem than it was for when we were in grade school. Either way, the kids (and us, for that matter) were using words that we didn’t know the meanings of, therefore we didn’t think it was an issue.
Except, it is an issue. A HUGE issue.
I’m a child of the 80’s. I will turn 39 years old next week. What the hell did our parents miss here? Especially mine, as both of my parents grew up in Detroit? Was white Detroit still prominent in the mid-60’s, before the riots, that is… and is it still a problem today?
Of course it is… but sadly, that’s not the point of the story here…
Growing up in 80’s suburban Detroit was pretty nice. Nice being, you could use racial slurs and no one would bat an eye. Because if you were white, you didn’t live in Detroit, so calling someone a nigger in my neighborhood would be funny.
But we didn’t really know why.
The problem is, when I finally figured out what all that meant, I started to hate myself.
I hated myself because after trying to fit in and run off the same slurs that were run against me, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I wasn’t any better than any other bully out there. So now, I’m the asshole.
Hating yourself is never healthy. Trust me, I still go through bouts of it today. But at that age, there can be times where you just believe that maybe you are as bad as people are saying you are, and you deserve the bumps, bruises and words. Maybe they’re all right…
I got out of that atmosphere when my parents decided it was time to upgrade living arrangements. The taunting and such moved with us, though. Same bullying, different town. In the end, it all sucked.
And while that was a long time ago, it doesn’t make good the fact that shit like this was used against me, and that the physical abuse was there too. Frankly, for the bullied, that never goes away.
Fast forward to my own adulthood. An adulthood that has been primarily consumed by parenthood…
Bullying has a different face in this different generation. At least when I was a kid, there was no Facebook, no Twitter… social media (or the internet, for that matter) was not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. But with those things, being a kid, or a different kid, can be challenging.
I, as a parent, vowed before my son, now 17, was born, to never uproot him from his first surroundings. I wanted this wish for him to grow up with all of his friends from pre-school and beyond: I wanted stability, regularity, and everything that comes from having childhood friends from the days of diapers to the days of diplomas.
My wife and I brought up our son in suburban Detroit… Royal Oak to be exact. Good community, decent schools, plenty for families to do, play and live in.
That is, until an opportunity to make our living ways better came along…
Before our family moved to Minnesota, I was in what would become a rather struggling construction career, while my wife was starting to thrive in her retail career. Then came a decision:
Follow the wife’s career to Minnesota, where she is originally from. She has her family there, while you have a really small core family left in Detroit. Plus, your family will thrive better in a new surrounding, right?
A hard decision for me, to be sure, but 8 1/2 years ago, we made it. And for most of that time, I hated myself for that decision.
See, when you promise your first born (before he/she is even born) not to uproot them, you kind of hope that promise sticks. Well, it didn’t. We made a decision that we thought was good for our family.
Except it would take a REALLY LONG TIME for that decision to play out.
My son was 9 when we moved. Finishing the 3rd grade during the time we left Michigan. Tough for a socially awkward kid already. So when you consider that the same kid ended up having to attend 4 schools in 4 years, you can imagine trying to fit in like a square peg in a round hole.
But here’s the thing: my son is a one of a kind. ALL OF YOUR KIDS ARE. A soccer player since age 6, he wanted soccer player hair. We let him have it.
But after a while, his hair got longer… long enough to where he may have been mistaken as a girl…
See, what kids will never ask, is "why is your hair so long?" It looks like you’re a girl!"… Or… "you look like a girl… PROVE TO ME THAT YOU AREN’T"….
Bullying takes on a different face, there. It’s not just about words. It becomes about actions. When you tack on words to harassment, it makes what you think is a quiet kid, and turns him into a potential monster. A monster that bottled up all the rage that was being thrown his way, along with his own rage… until one day that bottle exploded, and many punches were thrown.
For a while, I had that monster, he didn’t want to be that monster anymore, and that monster WANTED TO DIE.
Nobody wants to face that as a parent. Your pre-teen son doesn’t want to live anymore. He’s tired of nonsense. He thinks it’d be easier to not be around for this.
We cried about this for a while. Real tears. This was so hard to handle.
I hated myself as a parent for a really long time. I broke a promise to my child and I screwed with the natural order of things, just because I thought it would be fine. Except that it wasn’t fine. IT WASN’T FINE FOR A REALLY LONG DAMN TIME.
To a degree, time can heal some wounds. An emergency transfer from this awful school to a different school on a different side of town. We saw it as his last chance, but it ended up being the fresh start he needed.
Better school, better teachers, better peers. It was a nice way to start over. New friends, new social opportunities. Grades improved (they were suffering during the bullying). My son was getting happier again.
Even today, despite my son’s development socially and personally, I still don’t forgive myself for putting him though his plight. He didn’t deserve to be miserable for much of his early youth, but I feel responsible for it. He, like me, thinks that tactics that include hateful words, phrases, and other stupid things that make bullying ridiculous is a waste of society’s time. He’s grown up and become a perfectly normal teenager (being lazy, having a bunch of friends/girlfriend, eating all of our food), and frankly I’m so happy to see that… almost to the point that I wish I might have developed into the same kind of person while I myself was in high school. I’m lucky, though. He’s turned his own life around, and will start his senior year of high school and focusing on his dream of becoming a chemical engineer. It’s great to watch him have these dreams, rather than live with the nightmares that led up to this point.
Generations come and go, but bullying and the ways bullying are conveyed can be excruciating and damaging. In the end, bullying is all the same. It creates nothing but hate, resentment, and in some cases: depression and suicidal thoughts. And for what… so you can feel bigger than your peers?
If only I could have fought my way though the nonsense… if only it were easy to just walk away and not be a sponge to all the abuse. But sadly, much like the school yards we grew up in and played in, they were all fenced in. It’s hard to run away from bullying when you feel like there’s no way out.