My first experience with a bully happened when I was 14. OK, that’s not true; I had definitely been bullied before then (it comes with the territory when you’re smaller than everyone else and have red hair), but it wasn’t until 14 that I encountered a bully that really had a profound effect on me. Before that, I had always used bullying as a form of motivation. “Oh sure, you can take my lunch or call me names, but one day I will rule the world and then you will be just some stupid insect to me which I will poke at with a stick when I am bored!” (To this day I still keep my eyes open for a good stick, just in case things start going my way…)
Anyways, at age 14 I was a freshman in high school and one of the smallest kids in my grade. I hated organized sports but needed gym credits, so I signed up for PE as my athletic elective. It wasn’t long before I discovered that the PE system in high school was much different than the one in middle school. In middle school, PE was a time where students spent an hour of the school day trying to win whatever game we were playing. But in high school, all the students with an acutal competitive drive joined an actual sport for their athletic elective, and the ones who didn’t were assigned to PE. As you can imagine, most of these students couldn’t care less about sports. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was one sport they were rather fond of: finding the smallest, weakest freshman and picking on them mercilessly. Personally, I was not a fan of this sport.
The kids in my PE class were lucky, as they had not just one, but two classmates that fit the small, puny freshman mold. Little ol’ me, and this other boy named Roger. Roger wasn’t as skinny as me, but he was shorter, so I figured he would be in more danger than I. And for the first couple of days, I was right; the other kids went after me, but not nearly as much as they went after him. But one day, something snapped in him, and he decided to change his fate. He wasn’t going to let them push him around any more; he was going to do something about it.
I’ll never forget the day it first happened. Class had just started and we were all in the gym waiting for the instructor to arrive and unlock the locker room. In the meantime, the class was playing the beloved game: try to stuff a freshman into the equipment closet. Naturally, they were going after Roger and me, trying to see which one they could grab first. That’s when Roger turned towards me with a fury in his eyes that I had never seen before. Then he grabbed me, threw me to the ground, and jumped on top of me. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do. But the class did. They went nuts. This was the best thing they’d ever seen. It greatly appealed to their teenage lust for barbarity.
And from then on after, the other students had a new game to play: cheer and laugh as a small, puny freshman gets bullied by an even smaller freshman! I have to hand it to Roger; it was a pretty ingenious plan. As long as he was going after me, he would be left alone. As for me, you might be wondering why didn’t I fight back or stand up for myself. I don’t really know how to answer that, except to say that for some reason I felt like I just couldn’t. Like I was completely powerless. This kid had pretty much decided that he would dedicate all of his focus to bringing me down just to save himself, and the entire class supported him. I felt like it was all too much to overcome. So I just let it happen. And the more I let it happen, the worse it got. I think other people who have been bullied before are familiar with this feeling of powerlessness.
The next two months were a living hell for me. Roger had really begun to embrace his new role as a bully. I suspect it was one of the first times he had experienced any kind of power over another person, and I suspect that feeling was rather intoxicating. I was feeling the exact opposite, naturally. I felt like I wanted to die; like I was worthless. My entire life I'd always had this innate sense of pride, like no matter what anyone said or did to me, it wouldn’t matter—because I knew who I was. Now I didn’t feel like that anymore, and that’s what hurt the most. I’m not going to lie, there were more than a few nights when I lay in bed crying, wondering what hell was waiting for me the next day.
And then one day, PE switched to the wrestling, and each person was paired with a partner equal to their size. Guess who my partner was? Naturally, I was less than thrilled about this, but I figured it couldn’t be any worse than what I had been subjected to for the last eight weeks.
But on the wrestling mat, something happened. I remember looking down to the mat as we were getting ready to wrestle, and hearing the rest of the class hoot and holler as they waited for Roger to do me in yet again. I looked up at Roger, and I could see that he was looking right at me with this evil grin on his face. For some reason, between the class' jeers and his smirk, something inside me snapped. And when the instructor blew the whistle, I went after him with everything I had, and I took him down. I pinned him. I pinned him! I remember feeling a rush of adrenaline as I heard the whole class murmur in surprise. I had defied their expectations, which was definitely a sign that the old me was back (again, if you’re short and a ginger, you’re gonna have to defy a lot of expectations).
After that day, Roger never tried to bully me again. And then a month later he got expelled from school for selling drugs. In some small way, I felt that was karma paying him back, but whatever. I’m not bitter. Because that experience taught me that no matter how bad things are, or how impossible your situation seems, the worst thing you can do is accept that you are powerless. That only leads to more misery.
I can’t say that that was the last time I ever encountered a bully, but it was the last time I let a bully get the best of me. After that incident, I wasn’t afraid to stand my ground, no matter how big, or small, the bully. And besides, I always told myself, win or lose, it doesn’t matter. Because the truth is that one day, they will be mere insects to me, and I will have a great stick for poking.
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