True confessions of a reformed schoolyard bully

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It wasn’t my intention to come right out and confess to my wife and children that their husband and father once earned a regrettable reputation as a schoolyard bully.

But since my two kids have moved beyond the fairy tale stage of their development and recently found themselves square in the crosshairs of bullies, I thought it necessary to let them know how and why bullying occurs – during the school-age years and beyond – so they could both avoid being bullied and probably more importantly avoid becoming a bully.

At the risk of having my parental respect meter spiral downward in their estimation, I figured the best way to hammer this message home would be to give them the benefit of hearing straight from a reformed bully himself.

Bolstered by the clarity of hindsight coupled with a few decades of regret and remorse, I described the dynamic that existed back in the 1970s as I set about attempting to stake my claim as grand master of the playground.

The ignoble goal of my menacing ways was to gain attention, improve my social status, impress my peers, increase my sense of self-importance and raise my profile by terrorizing some of the more vulnerable members of our elementary school population.

Even more deplorable is the fact that in our warped adolescent world more popularity points could be scored if the vitriol were directed at a teacher, or any adult authority figure on the premises. Heck, even the janitor was fair game for hazing. And if that’s not cringe-worthy enough, you could become a bullying legend – revered for years after graduation, that is, assuming you graduated – if you had the nerve to target the principal for abuse.

In any event, I came clean with the family, describing the deep insecurity, the sense of inadequacy, the cowardice, callousness and fear that drove my behavior – that drives all such behavior – and how it later came to an end.

One of the episodes that curbed my arrogant antics came when I decided it would be cool to taunt a female classmate about her, um, physical development. I gave not a nanosecond of thought about how my idea of poking a little fun would affect this girl, but I was sure being the instigator and getting a few laughs at her expense would result in grabbing the attention I craved.

Well, later that night the phone rang. It was the girl’s father calling to speak to my father.

Nowadays, that call might just as likely result in the contacted parent immediately taking the side of his dear, sweet, innocent angel, condemning the accusations as baseless, blaming the caller for not raising his daughter to be tough enough, or blaming the victim for being too thin-skinned and unable to take a joke, or for reaching puberty too prematurely, or maybe threatening some kind of cockamamie lawsuit – anything other than bearing responsibility, taking his mischievous son out to the woodshed and teaching him how to behave.

Which is exactly what happened…the woodshed part, I mean. As I was getting “disciplined,” I took careful note that completely absent from the scene and certainly not participating in the pain of my deserved punishment were the kids who just a few hours earlier were joining in by laughing at my cruel one-liners and egging me on to sling more wise-cracking, hurtful insults, those same people whose approval I desperately sought. They were around for the fun and games, but when it came time to face the music I was standing on that old dance floor all alone.

The topic of bullying is one we hear about often, especially since we now know the negative effect it can have on victims even years after the fact, to the point of pushing some young people to commit suicide.

And, now that technological advances such as the internet and instantaneous worldwide communication are catalyzing unprecedented levels of narcissism across our society, we’ve expanded our understanding that bullying doesn’t occur only in adolescence, only on the playground or only by males. Statistics show, and my own experience confirms, that girls can be just as vicious and mean as anyone else.

When more than a few humans are gathered in real time or in cyberspace, and egos and status and control and power and pride and pecking orders are at stake, that’s a prime breeding ground for bullying to take place.

It should also be noted that in many ways we all play a part in the proliferation of bullying. For instance, on these TV reality shows that draw millions of viewers a week, the more crude, nasty, abusive and profane these awful characters are, the higher the ratings. In my view, standing by and watching bullies operate, even applauding and glorifying their cruelty, is almost as bad as doing it yourself.

Bullying is also flourishing on the political landscape, which has come to resemble a playground full of incorrigible school children. As the major political parties, ideologues and their shrill media mouthpieces become more polarized, the more they demonize, dehumanize and vilify the opponent.

It’s encouraging to see that there are many individuals and organizations pointing out this problem and attempting to do something about it. One such group is the General Council on United Methodist Men, which recently devoted an entire edition of its quarterly magazine to the topic and how men of faith can help curb bullying.

As one of those men in pursuit of faith, I believe it begins with looking at myself in the mirror. And as a parent, it begins with making sure my own children aren’t bullying others.

So, if you see any member of the Gibson family being abusive, please report it as soon as possible. Remember, tattling is trying to get someone in trouble, but reporting is trying to keep someone out of trouble.

And when it comes to staying out of trouble, I need all the help I can get.

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