Sunday, February 13, 2011


I recall reading a while back about a study that found that bullies enjoy being bullies. This conclusion 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, good 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 little 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) literally 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 this as a kind of laboratory example, a 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 this 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 the sixth grade. We developed 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 now, 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, and we were called into his office (the one time in my life). I can visualize the hall bench upon which I sat waiting for my turn. I can’t remember if the principal called my mom, but I had a good talking-to with 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) There is much discussion these days 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,” and I wonder how much of the problem of bullying has to do not with “professional bullies” but with isolated incidents of otherwise well-behaved children picking on “target” kids – one day a taunt from Susie, the next day a jab from Billy, etc.

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?


Today my child came home from school in tears.
A classmate taunted her about her clothes,
and the other kids joined in, enough of them
to make her feel as if the fault was hers,
as if she can't fit in no matter what.
A decent child, lovely, bright, considerate.
It breaks my heart. It makes me want someone
to pay. It makes me think—O Christ, it makes
me think of things I haven't thought about
in years. How we nicknamed Barbara Hoffman
"Barn," walked behind her through the halls and mooed
like cows. We kept this up for years, and not
for any reason I could tell you now
or even then except that it was fun.
Or seemed like fun. The nights that Barbara
must have cried herself to sleep, the days
she must have dreaded getting up for school.
Or Suzanne Heider. We called her "Spider."
And we were certain Gareth Schultz was queer
and let him know it. Now there's nothing I
can do but stand outside my daughter's door
listening to her cry herself to sleep.

                                                ~ Sins of the Father
                                                    W.D. Ehrhart


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the honest and helpful thoughts about bullying. Some of what you share ties in with some of what I may say in this Sunday's sermon based on Matthew 5:38-48

Patti Rogness said...

Thanks for this Dick. Reading your posts feels a little like a visit in your study - Good. The comments about "normal" kids doing momentarily uncharacteristic and cruel things is a good reminder. I, too, can relate :(
The writing by Ehrhart is so moving...