A few boys started to pick on me a little when I was in the fifth grade. I was never a fighter; I always wanted to get along, and so I always tried to just laugh it away. Sometimes they were a little belligerent, and I tried to keep the peace by appeasing them. When that didn’t work I withdrew, often in tears, which only encouraged them.
There had been maybe 60 sixth graders in my elementary school, where the pecking orders had long been established. When we moved up to the middle school, our seventh grade class numbered more than 400. We boys had to figure out hierarchies anew, with all the one-upsmanship, displays of toughness, and putdowns that implies – made fierce by a puberty-fueled desire to impress the girls. But I was a late bloomer – boyish, scrawny, not chasing the girls yet. I was not tough and I still wouldn’t fight. So I was a frequent stooge for boys trying to impress others or salve their own feelings of inadequacy.
The least of it was the taunting and name calling. If you drop the r sound from my last name it sounds like “gay,” so naturally I was routinely called James Gay. A few boys lisped the s. One boy even made up a little singsong taunt from it. Some boys cut right to the chase and called me a faggot.
The many times my books and folders were knocked sprawling from my hands for me to retrieve from under other students’ feet were not the worst of it either.
No, the worst was the physical abuse.
On the bus, several boys liked to flick their index fingers hard into my ear. My complaints to the driver got me nowhere. Sometimes I’d get lucky and get the seat behind the driver. The boys wouldn’t mess with me there.
At school, teachers and staff seldom visited one dim back hallway. After being deliberately tripped three times and then outright assaulted twice back there, I complained to the shop teacher whose classroom was around the corner. He said that he couldn’t help me unless he saw someone hurting me. I wanted to say, “Then come out of your dang classroom and look!” I finally gave up using that hallway and went the long way, which involved going outside and around the building.
The gym teachers had looking the other way down to a science as the bigger boys would deliberately pass the basketball right into my face, spike the volleyball into my head, pitch the baseball at my gut, run me down on the track, and so on. After showering one day, several boys forced me into the adjacent restroom, all of us still naked, and tried to shove my head into the toilet. I hollered loud enough that the teachers couldn’t ignore it, but when they came into the restroom they only told us to break it up. I refused to shower after that.
I dreaded going to school. I grew depressed and fearful, and withdrew deeply. It was bad enough that my dad, who is not the most emotionally astute man in the world, noticed that I wasn’t myself. I told him what was going on, and he said that it would continue until I fought back. He tightly duct-taped a roll of pennies and told me to carry it for the day it came to blows, as the weight of the pennies in my fist would make my punch hurt more. The pennies in my pocket actually made me feel a little better, which might have been Dad’s purpose all along. An assistant principal discovered my penny roll one day, called it a concealed weapon, and threatened to suspend me if I kept carrying it. Dad said that if I were suspended he would visit that assistant principal to find out why he allowed such bullying to go on in his school. I wondered why he didn’t just go visit the assistant principal anyway.
I needed more help than I got.
There seems to be greater awareness of the bullying problem in schools today. Many schools have anti-bullying programs. In particular, New Jersey is trying to address the problem by passing a sweeping and complex law called the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which took effect Sept. 1. After reading my story, you may be surprised to learn that I have mixed feelings about this law. I applaud that it prescribes training for students, teachers, administrators, and even school board members in recognizing bullying and in their responsibility to try to stop it and report it when they see it. But it is too complicated to administer, defines bullying too broadly, fails to recognize bullying’s pernicious nature, and doesn’t offer any meaningful help directly to the victim.
The law starts to go sideways when it tells teachers they risk their licenses when they fail to report bullying. It adds layers of bureaucracy when it mandates that any report of bullying must be escalated to the principal, who must begin an investigation within one day and complete it within ten, and report all investigations to state government twice yearly. It also fails to fund the additional staff it requires – anti-bullying coordinators at the school-system level and an anti-bullying specialist and “safety team” at each school. Pity the existing guidance counselors and social workers whose workload just increased. I fear all of this will lead overworked staff to comply just enough to avoid the law’s penalties.
The law labels bullying as any act one student does to another that causes emotional or physical harm, but ignores bullying’s inherent imbalance of power. By the law’s definition a simple insult can be considered bullying, as can a straight up fight between two angry students. This could flood school officials with reports that aren’t really bullying, but that they have to investigate and handle as such anyway.
Meanwhile, a determined bully will quickly learn when and where to deal out abuse to avoid detection, and may instill such fear in victims that they will not speak up for fear of retaliation. No law is powerful enough to reach into every dark corner in which a bully can lurk.
In the end, victims need direct help that this law does not offer. They may need counseling to work through the depression and fear they feel. They may need help in setting and defending their personal boundaries. They may benefit from training in self defense, because fighting back may sometimes be their only recourse when their back is against the wall. Through these things they can start to feel more personally powerful, which will make them a less likely target in the future.
I wish my dad had enrolled me in martial arts in the seventh grade, or at least taught me how to fight. I would have benefited from seeing a therapist to help me work through my emotional pain, deal with my depression, and help me build my confidence. The middle school owed me teachers and administrators who took me seriously when I complained. Fortunately that’s just what I found when I escaped to the high school two years later. One day in the ninth grade one of my tormentors shoved me into my locker and shut the door. A custodian popped the lock when he heard me yelling and banging frantically. The teachers in the adjacent classrooms came to investigate and told an assistant principal what happened. I’m not sure what the assistant principal did to the boy, but he gave me a wide berth for a long time after that and never harmed me again. I got some of the help I needed, and nobody needed a law to compel it.
I’m still not tough, but I will stand up for myself today. It all started when I came to accept myself for who I am. Read that story.