This is a long post. But a very, very important one. I urge you to read it and reblog / tweet if you see its merit. I would truly appreciate it.
I’ve written this post many times throughout the years. I’ve done about four or five different versions and never finished it, never posted those older drafts. For whatever reason I was never ready for it, I’d get too caught up in emotions to provide any kind of clarity on the subject. Sometimes with writing you have to wait for the right time to let it out. Now is that time for me, for no other reason than it presented itself to me in a way that I found acceptable. It has nothing to do with filmmaking, other than I know that so many of my friends who are filmmakers and artists have experienced it.
There’s been a lot of discussion in these past few years about cyberbullying. Kids and adults that are victims of relentless online attacks who often turn to self-harm or suicide in the wake of the abuse. Cyberbullying is an evolution of our standard bullying, in that it is relentless and knows no boundaries, and has the added terror of anonymity.
The world’s changed so much, and yet it hasn’t. I start this discussion with a story of my own. From seventh to eighth grade, I was bullied mercilessly. My bully tormented me every day after school, for a year and a half, as I waited for my mom to pick me up. We were building a new house - which took almost two years - and my parents wanted me to go to school in the better school district so they drove me, every day, for two years to and from school for an hour each way. Going to a better school also meant I had to wait until my parents got off from work, so I’d be alone at school for almost two to three hours every day. I took the time to get my homework done, read some comics, and do a lot of drawing in my notepad.
And then Eric showed up. His mom also picked him up every day after school, and we’d both be there for hours, waiting by the door for our ride home.
I don’t know how it started. We’d generally keep quiet and to our own, and then all I remember is that he started to become verbally abusive. I was an awkward kid, my mind developed far faster than my body, and I wore glasses and had braces. I was a classic geek. I read comic books. I liked rap music. I drew ninja turtles. I was also Indian, and one of maybe five ethnic minorities in the entire school.
Eric would call me things like dickwad and retard and for whatever reason I’d laugh at his words. A nervous laugh, perhaps. I was pretty weak and scared those days, so I probably didn’t want to rock the boat. It’s always been in my nature to avoid conflict, and I probably thought that if I went along, then I wouldn’t get hurt.
Over the weeks, Eric’s words became more personal. He started calling me faggot, homo, buttfucker and nigger, and started doing things like threatening to hurt me. He said he knew karate, and that he was going to kick my “faggot ass,” that my mom would pull up to school and find my dead body across the street. It scared the living shit out of me, but I never thought that he’d actually do it. Nobody could be that cruel.
Strange thing is that when I’d see Eric in the halls and in the lunchroom during the day, he wouldn’t even look at me. He acted like he didn’t even know me, nor did he bully me in the halls. It’s like he knew that after school we were alone and I was pretty much helpless.
Winter had set in and the snow started to fall. I sat out by the curb and pulled out my pad to start sketching. Eric wasn’t anywhere around, and after many months of being scared I had some moments of peace to myself. Suddenly I was nailed in the back of the head with a snowball, but it hurt like hell. My glasses were knocked off and I fell to the ground. I staggered up and got hit again in the neck, and this hurt even more. I looked at the snowball on the ground and saw that it was actually a medium-sized rock that was covered in snow. I looked over and saw Eric, laughing, getting ready to chuck another rock at me. I ran inside the building just as Eric launched another snowball, and it hit the glass of the door and it shattered. Eric saw the damage and ran away. I never reported it to the principal, and the next day there was a piece of wood where the glass was. At least Eric wouldn’t be throwing those again.
What I didn’t anticipate was that the entire incident would make him just angrier. I don’t know why. He started pushing me, punching me, spitting on me. He’d be laughing all the time, taking tremendous joy in it. I never told on him because I was too afraid of what he would have done to me. I never told my parents about Eric. I don’t know why. Maybe I thought it made me look weak, that it reaffirmed Eric’s declaration that I was indeed a loser.
My drawings, my writing, my daydreams were filled with violence and hate, I would imagine ways to make Eric suffer, but the end of every school day amounted to the same routine - Eric physically and emotionally abusing me, calling my family towelheads and sand niggers. Despite my love of school I despised going every day, when the final bell rang and my friends got on their respected buses, I felt like I was on an island, trapped with a rabid animal. I feared every day, and found refuge in art and music.
Eric became more and more violent and I couldn’t take it anymore, and I told him that he was a fucking asshole - those words exactly. He stopped and stood silent, looking at me, and then he pounced on me and began to choke me. Instinctively I punched him in the head - in the ear a few times with my hand and then I elbowed him in the nose. He fell back, startled and his nose bleeding, and then he did a roundhouse kick to my throat. I guess he really did know karate.
I fell to the ground and he proceeded to kick my ass. Handily. I was broken and beaten, I lost that fight in a few seconds, and had the bruises to show it. Eric stood above me, looked at me and then ran away. It took me some time to collect myself and by the time my mom came to pick me up, there was no way to hide that I had been in a fight. I made up a story of how some random kid attacked me and told my mom that I was okay.
But something strange happened. The bullying stopped. Eric would no longer hang out by the curb, he’d be across the street. He kept his distance from me. I’d see him in school and he wouldn’t look at me. He never bullied me again, and by the time we got to high school, he moved and was forever out of my life. I’d survived.
I think of my situation - of the sheer terror I faced and the dread I felt every day - and I wonder if I was a kid today how it would’ve been different. Maybe Eric would have brought a gun or a weapon. Maybe he’d post hurtful things online to ruin me further. False reputations can be just as painful as physical violence. I remember a girl on the bus who for whatever reason was rumored to be sticking hot dogs up her vagina. Kids would call her Hot Dog and she’d go home crying every day. She was one of the first girls to hit puberty and she paid the unfortunate price, from both boys and girls.
The defense of this behavior always comes out as “kids will be kids” and that kids are inherently cruel, and that bullying is a natural part of life, where the natural pecking order is established. If that’s the case then most successful people will have been bullies, whereas the actual case is the opposite. Take a poll of some of the most successful people in the world, and a majority of them were introverted, awkward kids who got teased a lot. Most of our beautiful supermodels were gawky girls who were mocked, most of our popular musicians were lambasted for being in band or choir, most adult actors, writers and artists who are openly gay were mercilessly teased. Maybe it’s that we carry a fury of injustice in our seeking of meaning and purpose, I don’t know.
But what I do know is that not every child is equipped to take the torment of a bully. I consider myself lucky, having survived Eric without serious injury or the help of a counselor. I am very lucky, because there were times where I did think suicide was a better option than having to face my bully for another day. There are many documented cases of kids who did take that route, and it’s unfair to call them an exception to the rule.
It’s difficult for schools to adjust the behavior of an individual student, but conversely schools simply cannot give up on kids or their bullies. The bullies are likely acting out learned behavior. I often wonder how Eric learned racial phrases like ‘sand nigger’ and ‘towel head.’ We didn’t have the internet back then, so there’s a high probability that he heard it from an adult, most likely his parents. Maybe he himself was being bullied by his parents, or he’d played witness to abusive relationships. I can’t be entirely sure, but what I do know is that his behavior, in my estimation, should be seen as a cry for help. It’s the school’s job to identify that signal, stop the violence and direct Eric’s parents towards appropriate resources. I don’t think we can ask any more of our schools.
Seems like common sense, but we tend to forget that adults can be bullies too, and that we live in a very violent, conflict-oriented, alpha-dog society that praises aggression and sees brute strength as a penultimate quality. It’s indicated by our treatment of CEOs and star athletes, who get away with literal murder because they represent the ideal of what America wants to be. Strong. Dominant. Powerful. Bullying is a systemic cultural issue, one that can only be changed by a wholesale cultural shift. Kindness and compassion can only be learned by example, and it begins with parents, teachers and adults. If a child is surrounded by kindness in her home, she will more likely be kind to those around her.
Parents whose children are being bullied often feel helpless because may times their children don’t tell them out of embarrassment or lowliness, which later manifests itself in the form of self harm, i.e. cutting, substance abuse or suicide attempts. Parents need to be trained to see the warning signs, and more importantly understand that once the signs are seen, to refrain judgement upon their children as being weak or shameful. A tough dad may unfairly reprimand his son for being bullied, wanting his son to be tougher and meaner, which is itself a form of bullying. There is no shame in a parent coming to their child’s aid - that’s what parents are supposed to do - whether it be talking to the school or confronting the bully and their parents face-to-face. But once again a proper example must be set, wherein the parents must show civility and the ability to rise above and not stoop to the level of the bully or the parents who defend the actions of a bully.
Of course this is a very complicated issue, and so much is not understood when it comes to the mindset of a bully. We experience it all the time, and yet so little is known of it. Again I think back to my own bully, and wonder what made him see me as an easy target. Perhaps it is a control issue, where he might have felt he had no control over his life at home, and I was something he could fully dominate, have complete control over. It’s not unlike a kid focusing a beam of sunlight with a magnifying glass on an ant. There is a degree of sadism, for sure, but there’s a god complex of being able to harm and change the life of another organism, largely against their will. It’s frightening just to think of it.
I’m not naive enough to think that we will rid the world of bullies - that is indeed a part of human nature. But I wholeheartedly believe there can be better systems of detection of behavior, where bullies can be identified early before they can do harm, and where kids on both sides of the conflict can seek solace and nonjudgmental people to talk to. So much of this can be diffused through simple, pure honesty. Honesty between parents and kids, teachers and kids, parents and parents, and parent to teacher. While it’s true that many children may and can sort these problems out on their own - like I was very fortunate and lucky to be able to - but for every few thousands of kids that survive bullying, there is one Matthew Shepard or Megan Meier, and that is one too many in any given society. To view these kids as weak or somehow see them ferreted out through some archaic Social Darwinism is to embrace pure savagery. This is not an issue of forcing a kid to pull up their bootstraps and fight; a lot of these kids do fight back, but to no avail. They are overwhelmed. They have no support. Their friends become enemies or worse yet, they disappear. Their parents and their elders become disappointed in them, seeing them as weak or “asking for it.” Put yourself in that kid’s shoes, and ask yourself where you can go, what you can do, where you might see hope and a calm, peaceful existence. Our society is designed to give them our ire, when we must in fact come to their aid.
If you see someone getting bullied - child or adult - step up to the plate and help defend them. No need to get into a fight, although it might happen, but instead use the greatest tool of human change - guilt - to show them the wrong of their ways. A simple “how about picking on someone your own size” or “you beating up an innocent kid is very well my goddamned business” is as powerful as a smack to the face. Most bullies are scared inside, and a simple defiance of control will shatter all that they have over the other. It may take work, but it is worthwhile work. Bullies think they can get by with size or intimidation, but showing that you are willing to take a punch for what is right, that you can see through their chest-thumping, will diffuse the situation.
In today’s society there is a fear of violent retribution - that someone can pull a gun on you or cause you serious harm - and I won’t lie that this is indeed a factor that makes me think twice of getting involved in someone else’s conflict. If your fear is real use the tools of our time, a cell phone, to call for help. Be it a cop, or a teacher, or an adult. Just don’t stay silent, do not walk away, do not turn the other cheek on someone’s suffering. I imagine if some kid or adult came to my aid during my year-and-a-half torment with Eric, he would have left me alone, and would think twice of finding another kid to torment.
Many times bullies will move on to another kid, and this is where a collective shift in culture will help. If we all agree to come to someone’s aid, to care for the person next to us above our own needs, then that bully has nowhere to go, they will see their tactics as futile and cowardly, and there might actually be some change. This is not an easy thing to inculcate, because more often than not the mob rule is stronger than the moral rule. This is the plague of our society, and it must be overcome through the sheer determination of those who believe in standing up for what is right, irrespective of the consequence against them. This takes bravery, this takes gumption, this takes the understanding that it is more punk rock to stand up for what is right than to simply wallow in hatred.
Every year I stop to think about Eric. About where he is right now, if he ever feels any kind of regret for what he put me through. I wonder if he’s teaching his daughter or son to be a bully, and if his kids are tormenting other kids. I wonder if his wife even knows that the man she married was / is a bully, or if she too is scared of him. Or if he is a changed man, someone who has found peace. I pray for the latter. I hold no ill will against him, in fact I wish I could talk to him now and have this very discussion with him. I would want him to know that I forgive him.
I wonder how he would react to that. I wonder.
For more resources on how to combat bullying, visit cyberbullying.us or stopbullying.gov for more ways you can educate and empower yourself and others.