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Eric Parrish pushes people around. He’s a defensive back, after all. He jokes around with his brother and realizes his brother isn’t in on the joke. He’s a bit of a bully. I sketched out Eric that way before bullying became such a huge topic in the news and before my essay was picked up for the Dear Bully anthology, or it might be even a bigger element of the story.

Bullying is a complicated topic. There’s a cliche of the schoolyard thug, Nelson Muntz/Scut Farcus types who shake little kids down for their milk money. Those kinds of kids exist, but they might not know they’re bullies. Or they might be bullying out of desperation, to keep themselves from being victims. Or they might be misunderstood.

Eric’s role as much about reputation as behavior. I think big, husky kids are often assumed to be bullies, or potential threats. I was always a smaller kid, but I could easily figure out what it was like to be a kid like Eric just by flipping expectations. I was quickly filed under “smart, nerdy kid.” Eric is quickly filed under “big, tough kid.” There’s a lot of confirmation bias once you’re labeled. People look for evidence to support their thesis and ignore the evidence that doesn’t fit.

Bullying is really a social activity — kids bully together, winking and nudging one another, seeking reinforcement and approval. It’s a way of bonding and forging unity. Bullying also takes many forms — pushing and shoving, griping, rhetorical re-framing. In a way bullying is even a kind of storytelling: bullies construct a narrative that is riddled with defiance, as if they’re only standing up for themselves. You’ll see this among first graders and among political leaders and everywhere in between.

All fodder for a future novel, because it’s only glancingly treated in Tanglewood.


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