It’s chilling to recall how easily we turned on “Raymond” in sixth grade because he was “different.”
As I follow with interest the current legislative responses to bullying, I recall reading a while back about a study that found that some bullies enjoy being bullies. This ran counter to the perception of the bully as a miserable kid whose anti-social behavior is a cry for help. I have a feeling that the label probably encapsulates both types. And then there’s another kind.
I was a bully.
In childhood I was always a “good kid.” Good grades, good friends, happy home, happy demeanor, positive reports at parent-teacher conferences. I mean this quite honestly, and by “good” I also mean “normal.” I was a typical kid — the occasional playground scrap or rasslin’ match being part of that definition. The anecdote I will relate here did not change that. I continued to be a good kid, and now I’m a good guy.
But there was one time in sixth grade when two friends and I (two other good kids) ambushed a classmate, ganged up on him and attacked him with large snow blocks crashed over his head. He ran home crying; we ran the other way.
That was it. Although I was not otherwise perfect (see “typical” above), that was about the extent of my career as a bully. I am not being disingenuous, hoping that the reader will say, “That was it? That’s nothing!” Rather, I offer my story as a kind of laboratory example, part of a theory of how an episode here and an episode there may add up to more bullying than is accounted for by the serial anti-social types.
And I add these points of commentary:
1) We picked on “Raymond” (not his name) because he was “different.” He had a quiet personality and a slight physical deformity that got our attention. The kind of thing that would elicit sympathy in most caring adults became a cause for derision in sixth grade. We came up with a nickname for him because of it. (As I write this, I almost weep.)
2) I have a distinct memory that our teacher didn’t like Raymond. This certainly does not excuse our behavior, but upon reflection it seems that her unhidden disdain for him gave us kids a bit of permission. God bless those teachers who recognize the children who are having a hard time and don’t contribute to it.
3) Raymond’s mother called the principal after our ambush, and we were called into his office (the one time in my life). I can visualize the hall bench upon which I sat waiting my turn. I can’t remember if the principal called my mom, but I had a good talking-to from him, and I’m forever grateful for it.
4) Again, no saint here, but I have an antipathy for seeing people mistreated and a sensitivity for the underdog. This incident and my visit with the principal may have contributed to that.
5) In our current legislative and social milieu, there is much discussion about how to bully-proof our classrooms and get through to the perpetrators. I support all of this, and have been part of some programs. And I am concerned about the factors that lead to the development of anti-social kids and adults.
But I often reflect on my own limited experience, and I find it somewhat chilling how easily we good kids turned on Raymond because he was different. I wonder how much of the problem of bullying has to do not with “professional bullies” but with the isolated offenses of otherwise well-behaved children picking on target kids — one day a taunt from Susie, the next day a jab from Billy.
6) I think a simple, well-placed word from our teacher on the general subject of bullying and people’s feelings might have had some effect. But I’m not sure.
7) And by the way, I didn’t enjoy it.
Were you ever a bully? Talk to your kids.
Richard L. Jorgensen, a retired Lutheran pastor, lives in Faribault, Minn.
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