Every month, members of teamTEENauthor write a blog post for teens about a one-word topic. July’s topic is Bully. For links to more posts on this topic, scroll to the bottom.
I’ve been thinking about bullying and my own encounters with it for a while now, even before it came up as a topic for teamTEENauthor. Bullying has been in headlines all too often in the past few years, unfortunately due to some high profile stories about related suicides. The flip side of all this attention is that more people are talking about bullying for a positive reason: to raise awareness of it as a serious problem and explore ways of preventing and dealing with it.
The nature of bullying has changed a lot since I was a teenager, with a greater focus on the dangers of “cyberbullying,” which wasn’t much of a problem for me since I didn’t really spend much time on our primitive version of the internet as a kid. I’m also sorry to say that bullying doesn’t end when you enter the adult world; people can always find new ways to be cruel to each other.
Bullying has been around probably for as long as people have socialized with each other—or at least since the first school went into session—so there’s likely no simple solution, nor one solution that will apply to everyone in every situation. But we can all agree that bullying will not just go away if it’s ignored. So I hesitate to share the fact that this is exactly how I handled bullying as a kid. I ignored it as much as possible.
In reflecting on my history of being bullied, I initially didn’t have many specific examples of it. I only had a vague recollection of having been made fun of, primarily by classmates in private and then public schools, sometimes by neighborhood kids and complete strangers. But soon it all came flooding back: memories of being punched, shoved, and tripped. I was knocked down a hill while carrying an armful of books home from the library. Things were stolen from my backpack on the school bus. Once, my backpack was stolen. A kid spat at me from a bus window. Kids threw snowballs at me, or sometimes rocks. I was called names. And then there was the time some kids threw chairs at me and my friends in the cafeteria while teachers and deans looked the other way. Chairs! Who even does that?
And let’s not forget… Dodgeball. Which is basically sanctioned bullying. Gym was my least favorite class, ever.
The thing is, I don’t remember what incited any of these incidents. That’s one of the most troubling things about bullying: It often happens without provocation, to innocent victims who are usually trying to mind their own business. Or maybe that provocation is perceived only by the bullies, triggered by any number of imagined slights, including the fact that they just don’t like you. You’re different. You get better grades. They’re jealous. They’re racist. They’re angry, not even at you in particular. And so on.
I think bullies usually go for easy targets, someone who attracts their attention for whatever reason, and who the bully can insult or hurt without risking injury or punishment. There were a few things that likely made me such a target:
- I’m Asian.
- I was a good student.
- I like to read and was always carrying around a book.
- I’ve worn glasses since the 4th grade.
- I was not particularly strong, was terrible at sports, and was kind of small for my age.
- I didn’t have many close friends.
- I didn’t have much money.
- I was open about liking geeky things like science fiction and fantasy.
Most of this equates to wearing a big sign that says: I am a harmless nerd. Please torment me.
And so they tried. They cracked oh-so-clever jokes about the Karate Kid, taunting me with cries of “wax on, wax off!” They dredged up every racist Chinese stereotype imaginable. When anime started to gain popularity in the U.S., they got slightly more creative by making Dragon Ball references.
I was sometimes drawn into short, one-sided fights, which resulted in my glasses being broken on one memorable occasion. (Okay, I’ll admit—the glasses I wore in junior high and high school were probably reason enough to make fun of me, but it’s not as if I could do anything about them.) Usually I suffered brief but excruciating pain.
People made fun of me for getting good grades, turning being smart and studious into a crime against humanity. We weren’t even graded on a curve, so my success had no affect on theirs.
But as it happened, being smart was my greatest strength, because somehow, even then, I knew that the problem wasn’t me, it was the bullies. And I knew that whatever the reason for attacking other kids, they did it because it made them feel better about themselves. They wanted to get a reaction from the victim. Perhaps they did it because this was the only way they could act out against their own problems, or they simply didn’t know any better.
I didn’t make a conscious decision to ignore them at first, but it was how I ended up coping, and it seemed to work. I have no patience for stupidity, and since I didn’t respect them, I didn’t care what they thought of me. I also wasn’t ashamed of the things that made me different or noticeable. I didn’t mind being Asian, so I didn’t know why it bothered them so much. (And they couldn’t even get it right, anyway. Go ahead, call me Chinese or Japanese—I’m half-Korean, moron. And if you like anime enough to watch it, why is calling me Goku or whatever an insult, exactly?)
So what if I read a lot? Books are awesome, and I’d rather spend time with them.
Maybe I’m wearing glasses, but I see the world better than you do.
Don’t make fun of me for getting the highest grade in the class on that test; you might have done better if you’d bothered to study as much as I had to.
In some ways, this tactic made me the perfect victim, because in order to ignore a problem like bullying, you have to accept its existence. This is the way of things, something you can put up with and make it through if you just keep your head down and don’t make a fuss.
But I also was not an ideal victim because I generally didn’t respond to their provocation. I didn’t freak out, or cry, or get angry, or try to fight back, so they often lost interest pretty quickly. In junior high, I spent a lot of time with another classmate who was frequently picked on—possibly not the best tactical decision I’ve ever made. He had a terrible temper and he flew into a high-pitched, red-faced, spastic rage when people mocked him. We became friends when I tried to calm him down and advised him not to let the bullying get to him. He couldn’t manage it, so the unexpected side effect of our association was that he diverted a lot of bullying away from me.
I was also a poor victim because I was smart; the bullies I encountered didn’t know how to deal with someone who could think on his feet. Sarcasm and humor make an effective defense, or at least temporarily confuses their simple minds. I remember that on one occasion, a mean, older kid asked me to turn out my pockets and give him money. “Sorry, I don’t have any,” I said (truthfully). “But I have some used tissues if you want them.” (He was disgusted and declined.) One afternoon on the way home from school, kids tried to pelt me with snowballs, presumably because they saw me reading a library book as I walked. They were handily thwarted when I used that book to block their frozen missiles. (Actually, I was just as surprised as they were.) Knowledge is power.
This is all a long way of saying that in my experience, bullying is acting without thinking, and the best way I’ve found to counter it is to think before reacting—to try to disrupt the cycle by depriving the bully of whatever raw response he’s trying to provoke. Obviously you can’t help how bullying makes you feel, but chances are you’re better, smarter, and kinder than your bully, and that’s all the fighting chance you need.
Here’s a little addendum. One day, maybe twelve or thirteen years ago while I was in college, I was riding the NYC subway back to my hometown of Yonkers. Another guy in the car called my name. I didn’t recognize him until he reminded me—we had gone to grade school together, and I hadn’t seen him in at least ten years. We caught each other up on what we were doing, and before we parted ways he said, “We all knew you were going to be successful.” I told him I was surprised to hear that, because I remembered everyone making fun of me. “We were jealous,” he said, noticeably embarrassed. “Because back then you already knew what you wanted to do with your life.”
That sort of blew my mind. Granted, it didn’t alter the past, but it was still a revelation into the motivations of those who had bullied me.
So have you ever been bullied? How did you cope with it? How do you think we can address this problem in schools?
Read more blog posts about bullying from these teamTEENauthor participants: