Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Man Cave: My Name is Aaron, and I Was Bullied

I was a scrawny kid. I was a poor kid. I was a kid who wore thrift-store clothes and home-style haircuts. I was also a very smart kid, hand-picked for the school's "gifted program". Until the fifth grade I lived in rural Idaho, where such "flaws" were more easily overlooked. Despite my resume I was well-liked and had many friends. When I was 11 my family moved to a rough neighborhood just south of Seattle.

That's when I became a new kind of kid: a target.

The bullying began almost immediately. I didn't yet know the rules of big-city life, and came across as a geeky hick, which I guess I was. The bigger boys (which was all of them) teased me relentlessly. I came to dread school. On the best days I only felt isolated. I distinctly remember a favorite place near some playground tires where I would often "hide" during recess to escape attention. I could stand there and feel the sun on my legs and be blissfully ignored.

On the worst days I was pursued or beaten up. Usually the incidents were over quickly: intimidation, a shove, a trip. Other times they were not. Once I was held down by two kids who took turns hitting me, for no other reason than the fun of it. I was beaten pretty severely while trick-or-treating once, for nothing more than a handful of the candy from my bag. By the end of my fifth grade year I had learned the fine art of avoidance. Stay low, don't draw attention.

The following year things escalated. In the sixth and seventh grades I had my own personal bully. His name was Ricky, and he was ruthless. I was subject to every form of intimidation and ridicule his small mind could devise. Neither the classroom or the schoolyard were safe. I had a paper route, and Ricky knew it as well as I did. I was ambushed more than once. I have memories of being choked, kicked, punched, and laughed at. I can still feel the burning tears of embarrassment in my eyes as his kool-aid-red spittle slid down my arm.

So why am I baring my soul like this? I'm doing it because I want to establish my credentials before I offer up any solutions. Ultimately, that's what everyone wants, right? A way to keep the Rickys of the world from preying on the Aarons. Well, I'm sorry to say it, but in my opinion there is no solution. "Bully Prevention" is  flawed and unworkable. As long as there are children (or adults, for that matter) with the strength to control others by force, there will be bullies. There have always been bullies. There will always be bullies. It is an unavoidable component of life.

The closest thing to a solution is to create places where the bullied can feel safe and empowered. Everyone wants to feel important, and everyone wants to feel loved. A strong sense of belonging goes a long way towards countering the feelings of isolation and desperation that bullying invokes.

It's tough to throw out ideas on how to deal with bullies that work for everyone. Every kid is different, every situation is different, and each parent's solution should adapt accordingly. I think it's safe to say that the most effective parents are those who are actively involved in their children's lives. To a certain extent kids need to learn to deal with the situations life throws at them on their own, but every parent should be prepared to step in when their child faces odds that are beyond their capacity.

Home-life is critical. As a kid I knew that no matter what happened to me throughout the day, once I got home I was safe. At home I was important. The people there loved me. I could express myself in ways I often kept hidden while at school. I could be loud and crazy without worrying about being singled out for persecution. Parents should try to create such an atmosphere in their home.

I also had a strong circle of friends from church that accepted me for who I was. If fact, my social circle through middle and high school revolved mostly around the kids I knew from church. I think I was more accepted there because despite all our differences, we all had church in common. Parents should provide group activities and experiences where their kids can meet others with similar interests. These include clubs, martial arts, dancing, music, athletics, church groups, and scouting.

I was a scrawny kid. Now I'm a scrawny man. It would be lying to say I've grown beyond the bullying I received. I'm still easily intimidated. I still struggle with asserting myself in certain situations. I'm still more cautious and guarded than I should be. Thankfully I had the family and social support I needed to get through the worst of it. In the end it is the sum of my experiences that have made me who I am today. And Kathy thinks I'm pretty freakin' awesome, so I guess I have my bullies in part to thank for that.

1 comment:

  1. I learned the fine art of avoidance to be the best tactic. In fact I still try to stay low, don't draw attention. I'm not sure I will ever get beyond it.