This article appears in a different form in the book Dear Bully
I was the new kid seven times between first and twelfth grade. In every year but one, I was the smallest boy in my class. Not only was I smart, I was a smartass. I made fun of other kids when they used words wrong or got their facts mixed up. Heck, I made fun of the teacher when she used words wrong or got her facts mixed up.
I read from big, thick books. They were nothing especially difficult, but they looked show-offy to other kids. They’d say I was faking and make me read passages from them to prove I could. Then they would say I was making it up, anyway. In fourth grade, I read The Shining. It was pretty accessible, and had a child hero I could identify with. Some other boys made me read a page out loud, and there was a bad word on it. They ran to the teacher and told her I’d said a swear word. She took the book away from me.
Kids would say my name in a mean way as they rode by me on their bikes. “Scaletta!” they would say, like it was a bad word. They’d take things from me and hold them out of reach. They’d ask me if I was going to cry, and sometimes I did.
I was almost always the last one picked for sports teams, but I understood — I was small and ineffective. Once the kid who passed on me apologized later. It was a sign of real respect, and of slowly realized social acceptance. When I got glasses, some kids tossed them back and forth over my head. When someone finally threw them back to me and I dropped them, and they broke, he was genuinely sorry.
Over time, those kids would become at least casual friends. It turned out I was fast for a short distance, and other kids would want to race me. I knew a lot of jokes. Most importantly, I was a red-blooded, straight, white, Christian, able-bodied and able-minded male. While I was different, I was still “one of them.” I occupied a space of marginal acceptability, like a small wolf from a different pack, but eventually I made my way into the hierarchy. There were lesser wolves than me, and there was prey.
Only one kid did have an especially intense hatred for me. That came in middle school. He put mean notes in my coat, calling me a racist name. I wasn’t black, but I had curly hair, and that was all he needed. I expect he rather would have had a real minority to harass, but our class didn’t have any that year. He challenged me to fights after school. He finally forced me to, and I won, thanks to guile and a patch of ice. I got him backed helplessly against the ledge of a window well, scooped up his legs and threatened to let go. He cried and begged other kids to help. None of them did. I helped him back to safety, supposing my mercy would give way to a robust new friendship. It didn’t, and no wonder. I’d humiliated him, not just because he lost, but because not one kid would team up against a weakling to help him. Now he’s the sort of guy who goes to political rallies with misspelled signs.
I’m not ashamed of having been bullied. I understand that I was spared the intense, murderous, bullying that other kids experience. A few hardships made me, and didn’t break me. I’m more liberal minded because of them, and more inclined to side with the underdog.
My shame is having ever joined in the abuse. I realized once there was a kid who, though taller than me, could be rabbit punched and tweaked without fighting back. Another time I made a racist joke in the locker room, and during the same spell, told an anti-Semitic joke on the bus, loud enough for the sole Jewish kid to hear. There was the time I joined in a round of teasing of a friend when we discovered he suffered from a weird, mostly harmless, but embarrassing medical problem, and the time I abandoned a new friend because nobody else liked her. There were a dozen time I faked a smile while my not-quite-friends savaged an overweight girl, and hundred times I tuned out their derision for the kid everyone suspected was gay. I felt powerless to make a difference, anyway, and would rather be on the side that was winning. I think about all of those incidents all the time. They’re the ones that bother me to look back on — those times that I showed my meanness and cowardice. They also made me who I am today.
If I hadn’t been small, or smart, or the new kid–or even if I’d been only two of those three–I might have had a thousand such moments, and they’d have made me into a different man. I’d be less thoughtful, less inclined to side with victims. I would not be an ardent reader and writer. I’d be the one taking misspelled signs to political rallies.
Everything you do as a kid adds up to who you are as an adult. Your experiences and decisions are a column of red and black numbers. If you want to be the grown-up that you can be proud of, take the hard times in good humor. Make the hard times of others softer. Pull the bully back from the ledge.