Bullying is all over the news. States are legislating around it, school districts are implementing programs to prevent it, and in the midst of it all, parents are struggling to protect their kids. This is part of a three-story series from the Public Insight Network’s exploration of bullying. More on the topic:
FIRST: Listen to a compelling story by PIN’s Jeff Jones on what the experience of bullying meant for a man who bullied, and for the man he thought he had bullied. It’s a great story of the intricacies of power and memory. (AUDIO)
BELOW: Read more stories of bullying, from across the decades and across the world.
Bullying doesn’t just happen on the playground. And in the flurry of attention these stories draw, we don’t often hear first-person accounts, even though the experience of bullying — whether as the bully, the bullied or the witness — has probably worked its way into most people’s lives.
So when a news story connected a presidential candidate to a decades-old bullying incident, we wanted to hear from other people with memories of bullying from the recent or distant past. What we heard took us to gym classes, school buses, workplaces and dorm rooms, across the country and across the years.
There were some common threads. The voices tell a collective story of bullying as a universal occurrence within peer groups: among siblings, in the classroom, at the office; consciously and unconsciously; chastened and without remorse; through passive silence and aggressive participation; as a one-time experiment and a never-ending stream of abuse.
A frequent refrain: Repeated bullying often had something of a domino effect within a social hierarchy. One person would find himself the object of constant bullying by another individual or a group. To establish his own place within the social strata of his world, he would then need to find someone else to bully.
Adi Jaffe, who now lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., explained it well:
Growing up in Israel, I was certainly subjected to ongoing bullying by a group of kids who were deemed the most popular and accepted. The bullying could consist of something as small as making fun of me for clothes I wore (real brand names or not), a specific haircut or the fact that I had asked a specific person out, which they decided was worth a good week of public humiliation.
As a defense, to some extent, I had to pick someone to bully myself, helping me make sure that I wasn’t sitting on the bottom rung of the junior-high social world.
The kid I picked on was someone I had known for years. In fact, he was my next-door neighbor.
I would pick fights with him, make others poke fun at him, and eventually ostracized him from our school, making hi leave for another.
I claimed I had reasons. … Still, what I did was inexcusable.
Glenn Koenig, of Arlington, Mass., echoed Adi Jaffe’s theme of pass-it-on bullying during his elementary school years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Koenig, though, found himself bearing the brunt of his school’s social hierarchy.
I was bullied by numerous other kids, mostly on the school yard, but also sometimes in the neighborhood.
We lived a half-mile mile from the school, so I walked instead of taking the bus. There was really only one road for me to walk home without going way out of my way.
One boy used to get ahead of me, and then throw small stones back at me as I walked. He stayed a long distance ahead, so I couldn’t catch up to him, and his aim wasn’t that good at that distance, so the stones almost never hit me, but at times they came close.
I met him at a high school reunion 40 years later. We talked. He apologized and then said he felt as if he was ‘second to the bottom’ of the totem pole (of the bullying pecking order), so he said he was trying to make sure I stayed at the bottom, one step below him.
Scottie Seawell lives in Carrboro, N.C., close to the area where she grew up. She describes bullying in the halls of her school in the 1970s, where integration and court-enforced busing happened in a scene that she calls mostly “chaotic.” But the bullying came home with her sometimes, too.
I experienced bullying in the halls and on the bus. It was sometimes psychological and sometimes physical.
I also witnessed bullying and am ashamed to say I haven’t always stepped up or been bold enough to confront it, when another person was being bullied.
And I’m certain my siblings felt bullied by me on occasion when we were growing up.
Seawell describes the motivation behind the bullying this way:
In some cases, like when I was pushed on a flight of stairs in elementary school, it was at a time of great change in the Durham Public Schools, with increased busing of students and not a lot of help integrating new and current students into the same school.
In those cases, I think the bullying was motivated by fear.
In most cases, though, I don’t think the bully always knows they are bullying.
Within the similarities among the stories of bullying were a few surprising twists, as people at various points across the spectrum took their situations beyond the stereotypical.
A few who identified themselves as bullies also noted that they had learned something from the people – or, in many cases, the person – who they had bullied. (So often, in these stories, it was just one person who bore the brunt of an entire group’s actions.)
Craig Miller spoke of an indebtedness to a young man he had bullied. Miller lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., now. But he recalled a young man who lived down the hall from him during his freshman year of college.
His name was James: We called him James the Freak.
He listened to ‘weird’ music and looked quite different from the rest of us.
Many of us on the floor made fun of James. We used a common dormitory prank in which we ‘pennied him in,.’ That is, we would push his door against the latch and place a stack of pennies in the jamb so that he couldn’t turn the knob. We would then break into the utility closet and turn off his telephone and electric service so that he would be left in the dark and out of communication.
On one occasion, we left him locked in his room for several hours.
The remarkable thing about this story is that after many instances of this behavior on our part, he continued to share his gift of technological knowledge with any of us who sought his help.
By the end of the school year I had begun to realize that he had not deserved our jeers and antagonism.
By turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile, he taught me to look for ways to connect with those who are different from me.
I never did get to apologize for my behavior, but even more I would like to thank James for teaching me a powerful life lesson.
Wayland Burton, who now lives in Rougemont, N.C., said he had been bullied during his school years, but was able to use the very thing that had drawn the bullies’ attention – his size – to defend himself and other kids from further abuse.
I grew up in the sixties and bullying existed then, as well.
As a kid, I was husky, [which] made me a target for bullies and tricksters. I also grew up on a farm and there were always those kids who like to pick on the country farm kids because we didn’t carry lunch boxes but lunch bags, and instead of loaf bread for sandwiches we had biscuits.
I also carried a high grade average, and that was another reason for kids to pick on me.
I never liked bullies, and I became a self-imposed savior to all that were bullied. I would step in and ask the bully if he would like to bully me instead of the kid he was picking on.
I knew how to, and was not afraid to, fight, so most bullies – who are small-minded and cowards as well – usually backed down when I confronted them.
I had very few actual fights, but the ones I did have only established that I was not to be bullied – nor was anyone who was under my protection, either.
Bart Jones talked to PIN editor Jeff Jones (no relation) about bullying Larry D., whom he’d befriended and had become close with. Adi Jaffe mentioned a similar circumstance, as he took out his own victimhood on his next-door neighbor, also a friend.
Among the stories we heard, bullying among friends and relatives wasn’t all that uncommon. Bonita Rothman, of Staten Island, N.Y., found herself on the receiving end of friendly fire in junior high school.
My ‘best friends’ got together and sent me an anonymous letter in which they criticized my behavior.
Thinking they were my friends, I shared the contents of the letter and asked around, trying to find out who might have sent it.
I was completely humiliated when one of the group – at a sleepover party! – revealed to me that they had sent the letter.
I could not get home or leave the group and was forced to stay overnight with this hurtful crew.
I never spoke to any of them after that occasion, but the confused hurt they caused me lasted years – well into college and beyond.
I never told my parents, and my ability to trust others, especially other women, was severely damaged by their actions.
And sometimes, as was the case for Gretna, La.’s Anna Chiasson, years of intense bullying – here, compounded by the fact that the bully was an adult in a position of power – can be simply a matter of misplaced misunderstanding.
My cheerleading coach in high school treated me horribly. She was always very mean and she never let up. I can remember being afraid of her presence.
I was not chosen as captain or co-captain my senior year. But I tried to hang on. It just kept getting worse.
I quit cheerleading in March of my senior year and forfeited all the senior gifts given to those who cheered for the entire four years of high school.
It was a horrible experience for me.
Well, about 15 years later, my husband and I were at the hospital visiting a relative who had just gotten out of surgery. My cheerleading coach was also lying in the recovery area after surgery.
Out of courtesy I walked over to say hello. When she met my husband – an African-American man – she sat there a few minutes, and then she said that she felt she should apologize to me for the years of mistreatment in high school.
She said that she always thought I was a racist, and that I didn’t like black people.
I accepted her apology fully at that moment.
I have seen her a few times since that day, and we have smiled and hugged and talked for a while.
I am grateful.
Reconciliation – and forgiveness in general – was a key theme among the stories around bullying. Some who had bullied wrote of wanting to find the person they had bullied and apologize. Others, like Dr. Bill Strinden, a surgeon in Lufkin, Texas, already had.
When I was in junior high, there was a group of thugs, and one guy in particular threatened me almost daily. Although I was never hit or beaten up, he and his thugs were an ominous presence that caused anxiety and stress for months.
Sadly, I am a case study in “identification with the aggressor,” because I found myself then as point man in another group of guys who bullied others, including two of my own friends. One was a very good friend from my earlier days.
I have, in recent months, looked him up, called him to apologize, and when I returned to my hometown, my wife and I invited him and his wife for coffee.
I apologized to him, as I had denied him three times as a close friend, exactly as Peter had denied Jesus.
Being bullied is a terrible corruption for a weak, immature soul. Just as a corporate cubicle-dweller goes home and berates his wife after taking a dressing-down at the office, it is far too often that, when a young lad with immaturity is bullied, he will feel small and impotent and take it out on someone even smaller and weaker.
Of all my actions on this earth, those years revealed my most despicable.
Now that I am mature and aware, I would die a tortured death a thousand times before I would turn my sufferings onto an innocent person. It was a most regrettable time of my life.
For Charon Hannik, who lives in Orlando, teaching her young daughter about reconciliation and resolving conflict at an early age has been a key lesson in her daughter’s development.
My daughter faced two situations: In one she was bullied, and in the other, she was the bully.
In both situations, she wound up making friends with the other person.
In the first, the bully turned out to be a boy who thought she was cool and wanted to be around her all the time.
[In the second,] the girl she bullied was the outcast of the class, and my daughter gave into peer pressure and joined in.
I contacted the girl’s parent. We set up a meeting for them to clear the air. My daughter apologized, and they became friends.
I’m sorry it doesn’t always work out like this.
Janet Anderson, of Robbinsdale, Minn., teaches Sunday school to middle-schoolers. She sees first-hand the intersection of reconciliation and bullying in her students’ interactions.
I am highly sensitive [to my students’] desire to get attention.
They frequently have little awareness of how provocative or cruel they are being until their comments and actions land. At that point, apologizing is rarely their first response, because they are drowning in their own humiliation and will grip tight to the idea that what they did to hurt someone else wasn’t that bad.
Anderson remembers vividly a moment she witnessed overt bullying – in the fifth grade – the moment, she says, she learned empathy.
To this day I feel sorrow about a moment on a school bus when, on a field trip, we drove by a ramshackle house and someone shouted the name of the student who lived there, with the intent of embarrassing him.
By that age… I was aware that this was a mean-spirited action, and I felt ashamed of having more and being unable to spare someone else the pain of being humiliated.
Among the rest of the voices, there were familiar stories of bullying: Name-calling, taunts, power plays and calling people out for being ‘the other’ in one way or another.
Dorothy Frayer of Wexford, Pa., tells such a story:
I can recall that during elementary school, the taunt that would hurt me the most was: “Fatty, fatty, two by four, couldn’t get through the bathroom door, so she did it on the floor. Fatty, fatty two by four.”
This taunt included the sense that I was unlike all the other students, but also was an unclean person.
Later in high school, a prank was pulled that was a twofer. Some person (or probably a group of students) put up an overweight male to walk up to my seat in an assembly hall and kiss me, then laughed out loud, mocking the sight of two ‘freaks’ kissing, even taking a picture of the scene.
I assume the boy was doing this thinking that it would bond him with the popular boys, never realizing that they were setting up an event that would allow them to laugh at both of us!
So does Diane Koster, who’s now a sixth-grade teacher in San Bernardino, Calif.
The time was junior high – seventh and eighth grades in Lakewood, Colo. – 1967 and 1968.
I was a rather odd child in that I wore large corrective shoes with knee-high socks. I had horn-rimmed glasses, and my long, straight hair was always falling out of an elastic headband.
With my high forehead and downcast stare, I made an easy target.
The boys, especially, liked to bully me: They frequently tripped me, pushed me down during passing period (so others would kick me), stepped on me, pinched me, spat on me and generally were mean.
One particularly demeaning time, two boys ‘fought over’ me, each saying that he wanted me more than the other: ‘No, she’s MY girlfriend!’
They pushed each other and had a mock fight over me – attracting quite a large crowd , which jeered and called me names.
The kids all laughed and pointed at me, and as the brouhaha reached a crescendo, a teacher came out into the hallway to stop the noise. One of the boys grabbed my arm and claimed he was my boyfriend as we all filed away.
Some aspects of bullying, as we’ve seen, are universal. They cut across the years, across the gender divide, across socio-economics and across geography.