Will has been learning about bullying at preschool lately. But that one innocent question from my curious son suddenly brought back a tidal wave of nauseating memories I’ve done my best to repress. Memories I’ve thought about sharing on these pages, but never could for several reasons. Shame, the chief among them. But maybe now it’s time.
I was a shy, pudgy kid growing up. Very nice and extremely naive. I got along with almost everyone, had never been in a real fight and had no reason to mistrust or fear anyone. I tried out for the soccer team my freshman year and was the slowest player there. When we’d go for our runs I lagged behind almost everyone. Everyone except “Stu” (name changed even though many people who read this blog will figure out who I’m talking about easily enough).
Stu was as slow as I was and had joined the team late, so he was always asking me how things worked, where he needed to be and what he had to do. It was actually nice to have someone in my boat, and I didn’t feel like so much of a loser. But while I did improve and get faster, Stu got there even quicker than I did. He was actually really good. Better at soccer than I was, and soon he was right up there with the starters.
But instead of remaining friends with me, Stu began making fun of me and making my life a daily hell in order to ingratiate himself with the in-crowd.
It was never physical. Stu never beat me up or even laid a finger on me. Truth be told, I think he worried when it came down to it he couldn’t beat me up. So instead, he made it his mission to tease and torture me whenever possible. Stupid shit, but the kind of stuff that makes high school a hellish experience for some people. Like the time he got an entire gym class to call me a “faggot” and make fun of me because I listened to Boyz II Men. Or the time at soccer camp when he went out of his way to ask if i wanted to be on his 3-on-3 pick-up team, only to publicly exclude and ridicule me just before game time saying he couldn’t believe I was stupid enough to think he’d actually have me on his team.
Little stuff, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And he’d think of something new every couple of days. The absolute worst part of it was we were friends with a lot of the same people. If Stu wasn’t around, the rest of the guys were fine with me. We hung out as a team and had a good time. But the minute he came around, they all just followed his lead. Taking little shots and jabs at me for this, that and the other thing. I could never understand why everything would be cool one second, and then I’d be the subject of ridicule the instant he showed up.
I even tried to talk to him rationally about it one time. I nervously approached him after gym class and asked if I could talk to him for a second. I asked him what I had done to him and why he felt the need to torture me. At first he looked stunned that I was talking to him directly about it, and for a second I thought maybe I’d get some answers and a resolution. Instead, he walked away and loudly proclaimed how “gay” I was for asking to be alone with him.
I wished I could get up the guts to stand up to him, but at the same time I constantly wished just one of those guys — one of my friends — would tell him to knock it off. But they never did. Either they joined in or said nothing. And it made me want to avoid school, soccer and most social situations on a daily basis.
My senior year when I was 17, I was dating a girl from another high school. And I found out Stu was dating a friend of my girlfriend’s. A girl who was a straight-A student, headed for a good college with an extraordinarily bright future in front of her. My girlfriend tried to talk some sense into her and tell her what a terrible human being Stu was, but she didn’t want to hear it and wouldn’t stop seeing him. She was lying to her parents about where she was going in order to sneak out and be with him.
So one day when I knew she wasn’t home, I went to her parents and told them about Stu. I told them everything about the deadbeat, knowing full well I’d incur his wrath on Monday because he’d know it was me.
He sat right behind me in math class and when he walked in, I braced myself. It didn’t take long for him to start in on me. Talking about what a snitch I am, how big of a faggot I was for going behind his back, and finally, for “ruining his reputation.” I’m not sure why it was that last one that set me off, but I snapped. I stood up in the middle of class and told him he’s responsible for his horrible reputation and all the shitty things he’s done. And I challenged him to hit me if that’s what he wanted.
He didn’t. He swore and yelled but he wouldn’t take a swing at me, and eventually got sent down to the office. And suddenly it was plain as day that he was a complete coward. He was a loser who picks on other kids with lower self-esteem to pump himself up. I don’t know why it took me nearly four years to figure that out, but after I did Stu didn’t bother me for the rest of the year. After that we graduated and I don’t think I ever saw him again or gave him much thought.
And because he was out of my life and therefore out of mind, I never really considered what his bullying had done to me. I was too thankful to be free of him. But I always wondered if he knew how much havoc he wreaked on my life, and how miserable he made me. I always wondered if he cared, or ever would care. If maybe he’d look me up one day and apologize. Or if he truly was just a heartless, cruel, empty little shit who got off on making other people feel bad.
I don’t know those answers and I never will. Stu died a couple of years ago. I’m not sure what the circumstances were, and honestly it doesn’t matter. But while I’ll never know why Stu did any of those things to me, I did discover how bullying affected me personally. And I hate the results.
Because while I’m not happy Stu is dead, I’m also not unhappy. I’m completely ambivalent. And that’s terrible, because when someone dies so young it should be easy to muster up sympathy regardless of the circumstances. While I do have sympathy for Stu’s family and friends, I have none for him. Maybe I’m awful for that, but if you want to know what bullying steals from you, this is it.
Bullying robs everyone involved of compassion and a little bit of humanity. And that’s why it has to stop, and why I’m glad kids are learning about it at an earlier age these days.
The last thing in the world I want to see is Will — who is one of the most loving, sensitive and gentle kids I’ve ever seen — have all those traits eroded to the point that the death of a classmate stirs absolutely no emotion other than ambivalence.
Because while we certainly want to prevent the rash of suicides spurred by bullying, we need to remember the long-term effects can be almost as damaging.
*EDIT: Just for the record, I’m sure I’m not guilt-free in the bullying department over the course of my life. This post is not intended to paint me as a total innocent, but I’m speaking strictly from the point of view as someone who was bullied. And if I inflicted this kind of pain on anyone else in the past, I couldn’t be more sorry.