Bullying has been all over the news and social media lately. Bullying, hazing, harassment – whatever name it goes by the damage it does lasts a lifetime, make no mistake, and unfortunately the disabled make easy targets. In fact, bullying is so ubiquitous among the handicap that I can’t name one person I know who who wasn’t targeted for bullying at some point in their lives. It’s part and parcel with being different, and when you are young, obvious differences become deadly weapons in the hands of even the most inept bully.
Now, this is not to say that healthy kids don’t get bullied too, they often do, just in different ways. Whether it’s pointing out differences in person, harassment online, or abuse in a group, though, it’s still extremely damaging. Bullies are always finding new ways to bully, and while the means have evolved, the motives have been the same since time immemorial.
Bullies do what they do for a number of reasons – some because they are bullied themselves, some because they want to fit in, and, although people don’t like to hear it, a few do it simply because they enjoy it. Also, many times, little bullies grow up to be great big bullies, and then they make little bully kids, and the cycle of asshat continues. This was a bit of a surprise to me because I, like many others, got told that my bullies would “get what was coming to them,” and would grow up to be fat, bald, ditch diggers, or end up stamping license plates at Sing-sing. (No offense to ditch diggers or license plates.) Unfortunately, because even adults are susceptible to bullying, they can be successful. One of my former tormentors runs a hedge fund and drinks Vodka made from 5000-year-old-glacier water and dines on mustard flown in from the Orient.
Kids can sniff out weakness better than a truffle pig, and if you have an obvious difference, well, that’s low hanging fruit, so you also get picked on by kids who aren’t even any good at it. “Hey look at him! He… does… limping!” Genius. Truly, though, I might as well have been making fun of myself with every single step I took and every single day I was absent, but back then I just assumed I was unpopular like everyone else. Far from the svelte, quick-witted, paragon of chic fashion and purveyor of cutting-edge literary tidbits that you see today, back then my snapshot was decidedly different. I rarely combed my hair before school, simply mashing it into place on the bus. I had the worlds most obnoxious braces and since I never wore the useless rubber bands, they were on for just under seventy years. Give or take. As if that wasn’t enough, my fashion sense was going through what some might call an “experimental” phase. A typical day could find me wearing skin tight neon green athletic shorts with an old “Turkey Trot 5k” t-shirt and a pair of powder blue tighty whities. (Tighty blueies?) It looked exactly as bad as it sounds. Add in my high-top sneakers, which had “Nike” written on the side in black marker, and you pretty much have a bully’s wet dream. It would have been weird if people didn’t make fun of me, but ignorance is bliss, and my mom told me I looked great. Blue underwear, ma?
Keeping all of this in mind, now, when I look back, I think maybe even I would have told me to give myself my lunch money. Yikes. As light-hearted as this may sound, all of this is bush league bullying when compared to the hurtful things that were directed at me solely because of my illness - by teacher and student alike. There was time I was forced to participate in gym class by one of the “assistant coaches,” which is apparently a euphemism for “overemployed jackass.” He made me attempt pull ups in front of the entire class. I remember going up to the bar and in my head I was convinced I was going to do 20 pull-ups, somersault off the bar, high five the entire gym class, and leave Mr. Roid Rage scratching his head dumbly. Reality began to set in when I had to be helped up onto the bar, and was solidified when I just hung there and jerked my legs around like a trout caught on a hook. Of course, The Incredible Lunk made sure to point out all the areas of my wimpishness, and encouraged class participation.
A few months after that, there was an incident on the school bus. Now, riding the bus home was a Mad Max movie all its own, complete with Thunderdome. I remember one day an upper classman who wasn’t strong enough to pick on anyone else decided to target me. Unfortunately, I missed the all-bus memo, so I was blissfully unaware of the wave of stupidity and Aqua Velva heading my way from the back seat. Sitting there, jamming to Motley Crue on my brand new Walkman (a love of Crue was a gift from my third grade bully), I never saw coming the punch which smashed my head into the window. I saw stars and immediately an egg-sized lump found a home on the back of my head. Interestingly, everyone saw it, but no one said a word for fear the bully “Eye Of Sauron” might land upon them. When I got home and my mother found a golf ball growing out of the back of my skull, she started working the phones until she had a name, phone number, and address. I’ll never forget standing on that woman’s stoop as my mother grabbed her hand and forced her to feel the welt her son had caused. Later on, this bully’s father showed up at my house with his son in tow, and an awkward conversation and forced apology followed. After that, the physical abuse stopped but the chants of momma’s boy got much, much, worse. It was a no win situation from the beginning.
There were other incidents, some I remember and some I don’t, but as I got older, I became aware of other disabled kids in my school and I heard about some of the things they had to endure. There was a blind girl who had to deal with popular girls who would go into the rest room before her and urinate on the toilet seats in the handicapped stall. There was a boy who would definitely be considered autistic today who was constantly berated for the way he talked and not a day went by where he didn’t get his books knocked out of his hands. Once, I even witnessed an incident where one of the most infamous bullies in our school took the guide cane from a blind boy and cracked it in half right in front of him while screaming at the boy. To this day when I think of a psychopath, that bully comes to mind, but kids are cruel, and more than likely someone was abusing that bully just as badly as he hurt that blind student.
We like to tell ourselves that bullying is being stamped out here in America, and everyone gets along and cartoon bluebirds tweet happy tunes in the hallways of all our Middle Schools. The truth is that grades five to nine are a minefield of puberty and shifting popularity, where the air is filled with hormones and the lunchroom is a terrifying mix of gladiatorial combat and fashion show. This is Middle School and also happens to be the perfect recipe for bully stew, and just like prison, if you show weakness or have an obvious failing you can’t hide, you better buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Some say put cameras in the schools, but my guess is that will just move the bullying online or outside the school’s jurisdiction, which is possibly what they actually want. Here’s the one good thing , though - when you come out the other side you’ll be stronger for it, and probably better equipped to handle the lemons that life will inevitably throw at you, and if you’re especially lucky, you can lord your success over your fat, bald, ditch-digger bully.