Thirteen years ago, when I was 39, I encountered one of the bullies of my youth at a Seal Beach party. I didn’t recognize the adult male as he approached, beaming with delight at seeing me again. “Hey, Charles, remember me? I threw Tobasco sauce in your face when we were kids!” he said.
He stood there, still proud about 23 years after the event. I could almost hear the wind howling through the empty place where humans supposedly have souls.
I felt neither anger nor compassion for him—merely astonishment that a “man” could occupy space and create a void at the same time. I excused myself and walked away.
I’ve had too many encounters with his ilk—bullies verbally and physycally terrorized me from age 6 to 17. I was told that God hated me and that I had no right to be alive. One assault left my face covered with lacerations when I was 7. I was attacked with carpenters hammers when I was 16. My last bully dropped a hangman’s noose around my neck when I was 17—in physical education class in front of many witnesses— “bystanders” the experts call them. More on bystanders later.
I tried talking bullies out of hurting me. That only made the bullies madder. Running away, going to teachers and even fighting back usually had the same result: the bullies took offense. Bullies feel entitled to attack. You’re supposed to take it. (Though you’re a loser if you do.) And teachers mostly told me to deal with it myself. Fighting back had the potential to get me in trouble with my teachers, but sometimes there was no alternative.
All that said, I know I was luckier than many kids. Home was always safe.
I prefer to waste no more time on bullies, but good news recently appeared in the Sun that compelled me to talk about them.
The good news: Los Alamitos Unified School District is scheduled to launch an anti-bullying campaign in February. The bad news: we don’t know yet if it will do any good. I’m crossing my fingers, proud that our Miss Seal Beach Court has stepped up to recruit volunteers for the cause. I hope the “No Bullies” program works. Research has found that peer pressure can be an effective tool against bullies.
Bystanders—witnesses—are present when bullies strike from 60 to 80 percent of the time, according to education.com. My own experience is that some bullies prefer an audience. They seem to derive a sense of power from seeing the fear in the eyes of the witnesses to their antics.
According to the 2000 study “Observations of bullying in the playground and in the classroom,” published by School Psychology International, when bystanders intervene on behalf of the target, bullies will break off. I can’t remember a single time my peers interfered on my behalf. My peers were probably afraid of being attacked if they helped me and therefore did nothing.
If Los Alamitos Unified can get kids to see that their choices are to stand up for others or stand alone, then maybe we can make bullies stand alone. I believe most of them would then choose to stand down.
As I wrote in the Sun in 2010: Bullying is a lifestyle choice. The bully commits to spending hours, days, even weeks insulting, intimidating or assaulting one or more kids.
Physical attacks carry the risk the victim will fight back—or that his friends might seek revenge. Yet bullies are so committed to the lifestyle they accept that risk—and select targets who are unlikely to win. If someone defends the target, the bully will likely switch targets.
People often say that dealing with bullies is a normal part of growing up. But why would anyone tolerate that “normal” for their children, grandchildren, god children or their neighbor’s children? It’s nice to know that the young women in the Miss Seal Beach Court aren’t willing to accept the old “normal.”