How To Stop A Bully

I’m sure by now many of you have heard the story about the little girl getting picked on for loving Star Wars. This is a subject I feel rather strongly about, as I was the chosen target of one or more bullies from grade school all the way through high school. Like little Katie, I can remember a couple gender-role faux pas. I was really into Care Bears when I was 7, and I made the mistake of wearing my favorite Tenderheart Bear sweatshirt that my grandma had made me to school one day. The ensuing snide remarks were merciless, and I can remember evading my mom’s questions as to why I didn’t want to wear my favorite shirt anymore just as little Katie wanted to switch to a pink water bottle to avoid getting picked on. You learn terrible lessons from being singled out by your peers. Unfortunately, the lessons are usually that you suck and you deserve what you’re getting. At least, to a kid like me who tried to think his way out of everything, those were the conclusions I would come to. Not overtly, mind you. It just didn’t make any sense, otherwise. I can remember being 8 and trying to reason with a much bigger 10 year old that liked to pick me up and hold me up against a wall while he took whatever he wanted from my bookbag. I was a shy, naive kid, but it was the right thing to do. It was futile.

After a few years of this, I assumed it was simply a part of going to school. I couldn’t stop it, but I could try to avoid it. I can remember mapping out long, convoluted routes to classes in the hopes of avoiding my tormentors. I can remember getting to classes early, and staying late enough that they’d have to leave before me. It didn’t help. At some point, they’d be waiting. Sometimes, it was just poor circumstances, but there were more than a few ambushes waiting for me. I can even remember getting surrounded by a group of six guys once and getting popped in the mouth. I still don’t know what it was about. What had I ever done to make someone hate me that much? I was a nice guy. It made no sense. It never, ever, made any sense.

When I was 13 years old, I started taking karate lessons. Oddly, it wasn’t because I wanted to learn to defend myself. A friend of mine was doing it, and I wanted to hang out with him. I wish I could say “and suddenly, the bullies magically vanished”, but that is the opposite of what happened. I was already 6′ tall and 220 pounds. Had I fought back, I might have stopped all this. But I hadn’t realized yet that what made me such an easy target was a giant, gaping void where my self-confidence should have been. I didn’t hit back because I didn’t think I could, or because I thought I’d get in trouble. It was utterly insane for me to prioritize “not getting suspended” over my physical well-being, but that’s the kind of weird crap having low self-esteem will do to you. Karate became simply another vector for me to get tormented. Now all I heard were Bruce Lee impressions as I was getting stuffed into a locker, or “You’re in karate, right? Can you block this?”. It sucked. Bad.

I don’t know whether it was just the right time in my life, the change of venue, or that I was starting to get somewhat competent in karate, but when I got into college the bullies did mysteriously vanish. I suspect it was simply that I was no longer an easy target. I felt more confident than I’d ever felt in my life. I made lots of new friends. I started writing for a ‘zine. I started a BBS. It was a lot better than it ever was. It still is. But you don’t suffer at the hands of other people for over a decade without some scars. It’s still hard for me to trust people. Overly aggressive people terrify and enrage me. And I’ve had more projects die from being poisoned by self-doubt than I’d care to admit. It is really, really hard to remember you don’t suck after that many people tell you that you do for that many years. I don’t doubt in the least it’s a part of why I’m depressed, and I know I’m probably going to fight with this until my time on this plane expires.

I never have been quite sure what it is about our particular culture that finds so many of us having been victimized for being different somehow. Especially in retrospect, I understand now that me being weird and different was just the excuse the bullies would use to validate their actions. I remember hearing my parents say “bullies are just as scared as you” a thousand times, but until I got older I never realized they meant “scared of having the same thing happen to them”. It made me remember a couple times when I too found someone I thought was even dorkier than me, and joined in the taunts. I understand why I did it, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about it. The lack of self-confidence is like blood in the water to a bully. They need their targets to be afraid, or the attack will backfire and they’ll be humiliated – the exact opposite of why they’re attacking someone in the first place.

Life has a funny way of turning the tables on you. Since becoming a father, I always worried that my son will get picked on and I vowed even before he was born that he’d know how to decapitate a full-grown man by the time he entered kindergarten. Oddly, the very friend that got me started in karate over twenty years ago is now having trouble with his son, who has been bullying other kids. He asked me if I’d “straighten him out” via an intense workout in which I re-instill the fear of God. My friend’s a good guy, but this plan didn’t sit quite right with me. I didn’t really see how it was going to solve anything. When I asked our senior instructors about it, they confirmed my reservations, and explained a few things to me. It’s a cycle. The strong prey on the weak. All this does is show him a big bad black belt can terrorize a kid. Fortunately, we have a couple senior black belts in our club with education backgrounds and special anti-bullying-behavior training. So, hopefully, we’re going to be able to work with my friend and his kid to change his behavior. For my part, I’m probably going to explain to him that even the biggest dork in the whole school is still a human being with feelings, and that he doesn’t really know the hurt he’s causing. As for my boy, he’s already pretending to be a robot and he knows who Pac-Man is. He’s going to be a nerd, and I’m thrilled – but I remember what it was like growing up nerdy. He’ll know how to defend himself, for sure, but I think I’ll focus more on teaching him to love himself and compassion for other people. It scares me to think of him being victimized, but it scares me infinitely worse to think of him doing the victimizing.

I always wanted to stop a bully using karate. I just figured it would involve more blood and teeth flying everywhere. This is better.

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  1. Powerful stuff Vanir.

    Having read your story as well as little Star Wars girl (SWG)and the Princess Boy a few weeks back, I’ve come to realize that the solution to localized bullying problems is for the moderate community to close ranks. SWG had parents dress their kids in Star Wars gear and sit with her. Both her and Princess Boy had teachers come to school dressed in what the kids loved. (Princess boy wanted to go to Halloween school activities dressed as a Princess, so lots of male teachers dressed like that too as a gesture of solidarity).

    We have to face a fundamental facts here people, we geeks of the 80’s, from Wil Wheaton to me, from Obama to you Vanir, rule the world. We’re everywhere, in schools, in corporations and, more importantly on the net. We can help stem bullying by refusing that our kids go through the same things many of us went through by closing ranks with similar minded people at your kids schools or in your work places.

    (I was bullied once or twice, but I violently fought back… it was worth it in my case, no one believed the bullies that I struck them first when they went crying to the principal… then again, I was 5’11” and weighed 180+ lbs by the time I was 13).

    I’m happy you decided to share man. More people need to do it and we need to ask our kids how things are going in school… and fucking complain and organize community solutions if the school (or worse, some parents) tolerates this.

    That’s why I’m so damn proud of campaigns like “It gets Better” and the like. They apply to the LGBT community, but to the geek one as well.

  2. Very interesting article. My daughter just started kindergarten. Like you, I was bullied, though, my experiences were not quite so dramatic. I was always on the bigger side, so as I got older, fewer bullies bothered me. I am very much not a violent person. I never understood why people would want to fight… hell, to this day, I can barely understand boxing.

    I worry greatly about my daughter. She is intelligent, which will set her apart. Her dad’s a geek, and she is learning the geek ways from me. Heck, even her mom and step dad are geeks and gamers, as well. Looking back, I wish it never happened, but today, those experiences have made me stronger. Steel sharpens steel.

  3. I didn’t suffer physical bullying as much as taunting and getting made fun of, from grade school through 10th grade. But I know exactly what you are describing. I didn’t really relate my lack of self-confidence or feelings of worthlessness to that before now. But it makes a LOT of sense. My parents had confidence in me. My friends liked me. But everyone ELSE thought I was a huge dork! Because I was! I was honest, and that was part of my problem. I still am. I don’t think to censor myself when answering a question, so sometimes I reveal something about myself that is, well, revealing! Thus leaving myself open for attack from the wrong type of person. But I am much more well-equipped to handle that kind of thing these days. I grew to the point of not caring what people I don’t know, or don’t like, think about me. I could give a flying s**t. I simply do NOT have the time, nor the energy, to bring myself to expend my brain power on caring what someone who has no effect on me or my life thinks about me. I care what my friends think, but not to the point of changing what I think (unless, of course, we are engaged in a thoughtful debate which changes my mind logically, etc.) I care what my family thinks about me, but I won’t change for them. I care about what my significant other thinks, and THAT is my weak spot. I care TOO MUCH about that and I bend and change who I am for him. Bad habit. I am working on that one.

    I often think about this because I have several nieces and nephews and I hope to be able to counsel them if they run into this type of thing as they are growing up. Bullying is such a terrible thing. It is definitely a confidence killer and there are few worse things you can do to a kid than to kill their confidence! Thanks for writing this!

  4. Growing up, I was the second smallest kid in my grade, and (IIRC) the youngest. (Gotta love those October birthdays.) I was also very sensitive and a bit odd – go figure – so guess who was routinely tortured by 80% of his peers. I can identify with everything you related. I was terrified on a daily basis to ride the bus, much less go to school. It got to the point where I was afraid to even speak, for fear of giving the bullies an excuse to berate me. For a long time, even after graduating, I was borderline sociophobic, and did my best to avoid social interactions with all but my closest friends.

    Here’s the surprise: I’m happy with the person I’ve become as a result of it all. Instead of learning how to be part of the herd, my upbringing taught me how to be my own person, with my own thoughts and actions that are not dictated by those of my peers. As hard as it all was, I firmly believe that I’ve become far more confident and independent because of it. Of course, I’m sure there are other, better avenues to independence and confidence. I wouldn’t wish my childhood trauma on anyone. (Well, except maybe on a few bullies I’ve known.)

    What’s worse, I see bully behavior being regularly exhibited by adults as well. It disgusts me, yet it runs rampant in our culture. (And by “our” I mean American – I can’t speak to the extent to which bullying is in effect in other cultures.)

    It’s sad that bullying is still such an integral part of the human experience, especially in this “more enlightened” day and age. (Although I do blame some of this on the current “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” zeitgeist.) I think this ongoing you’re-not-in-step-with-the-herd behavior speaks volumes about how far we have yet to go before we can truly consider ourselves to be a civilized species.

  5. Bullying is the means by which a physically stronger individual asserts an ‘authority’ over others. That is, in the case of male bullies anyway. In girls, and later men, this develops in a ‘gang’ type mentality when they exert force through numbers.

    I was bullied in school, because I was different from everyone else. I was the one of two asian kids in an all white school, and I admit I fell into the stereotypes a bit. I got beat up by the bigger jock kids, and was always picked last, that sort of thing.

    Eventually what happened is that I made friends with other nerds. I made friends with the other kids that were considered ‘rejects’. The nerds, the kids in special ed, the smaller kids. We would watch out for each other. Eventually things stopped when I started to fight back. Things worked out when one of the teachers (or the principle? I don’t remember) caught me fighting with one of my tormenters in the playground.

    It was one of the most terrifying things in my life. The principal was pretty pissed because I was the smartest kid in school and fighting was really out of character. I told him that I was being tormented by these guys, and they were brought in. It was a pretty sad sight. We were lined up and berated and ordered to be friends. I can’t say that happened, but nobody really bothered me again after that.

    I think the key to beating a bully is to realize they take advantage of YOUR good behavior. Teachers and principals don’t pay attention to you if you’re a good kid. It leaves you vulnerable. If they know that you and this kid are a potentially explosive mix, then they’ll actively participate in solving the problem. A bully won’t attack you if you are both being watched like hawks. One thing kids should learn is that sometimes breaking the rules and getting punished is alright, if it saves you from weeks, months or years of torture. A quiet afternoon in detention is pleasant compared to a wedgie everyday.

  6. I think limp wristed parenting and absolutely zero accountability for anything has probably made the bullying situation which was always there worse. (I’m not saying this is everyone, but it is very noticeable) Teachers can’t do anything and of course everyone is “equally at fault” thanks to the zero tolerance nonsense that goes on now. What the bullied really need to do is a quick punch to the nose if the situation continues to escalate, but of course thats against the rules… so the situation continues.

    Sounds like the father needs to have a chat with the son in question and let him know that that situation is unacceptable and if it continues there will be consquences.. and then stick to them. (I’m not saying he’s in the above group either, just what needs to happen however.)

  7. When I got to Junior high school I wasnt sure what group I would fit into. I came from an abusive/alcholic home. In school I tried sports but that didnt work for me then I tried tae kwan doe, dont think that is spelled right, which the instructors daughter went to my school and when she said “Hey your in my fathers class right?” Just got me beat up by kids. At the end of 7th grade I had found my first rpg TMNT and was in love but after bringing the books to school to read a few times things got worse. I had my first fight with a jock who kicked the crap out of me and bounced my head off a locker, and in my school becaue he was the jock and good at what he did the principle did nothing. After this i got into one more fight with a stoner and when he was going to get suspended because he was a “hoodlum” in the priciple words i spoke up and said i should get the same punishment for fighting as well. I save him from getting in major trouble with his parents for a suspension and got 3 days in school suspension instead. This lead to me and the stoner becomming good friends and i found out he was into game as well but because he was a metal head he just hung with the stoners. We have been friends for the last 18 years. We dont game anymore but still stay in contact.

    Now in 8th grade I ended up having all the same clases as the jock who beat me up in 7th grade and low and behold we became friends because he say my Magic the gather cards and was interested. When I got to high school I still caught the usual geek and nerd comments but because the gamming group i played with were all around 6′ and we were your average gamers that weighed in at anywhere from 260 to 300 pounds no one really messed with us.

    Fast forward now to my son who is 13, when he first brought dragonlance books to school with him he started getting picked on for bieng a nerd and has always been shy. Unfortunatly i havent been around as much as i would like. I was in the marine corp for 7 yrs and was gone alot there and now unfortunatly my wife cant work and I am stuck on the second shift. I feel i have failed a bit as a father to him in showing him a bit about bieng a guy and how to stick up for yourself but i do love the fact that he has followed into my steps as a nerd. He is real smart and has only been in one fight but still catches hell from the name callers but no physical violence because when that was happening i went to the priciple of his school who didnt do anything then the school board same result and i finally had to go to the police liason at the school which got most of the stuff corrected.

    All in all i just tell him if he has to physically defend himself i wont be mad with him but not to ever through the first punch. Also if possible try to just ignore the name calling most of the kids who are doing that arnt going to ammount to much and my son is a straight A student. So i told him just keep up his studies and he will have a better job. Now even though i am just a custodian it was nice to see the guys that picked on me in school stare at my wife at the 10 yr reunion when i walked in in my blues with a beautiful asian woman on my arm. That said now i have to go roll up a lvl 3 pally for the campaign tomorro.

  8. I’m right there with you, I spent my elementary, junior high and high school years as the “Token Fat Nerd” that people only really talked to in order to set me up for a practical joke. Even some of the people I considered friends joined in when they felt bored or needed a self esteem boost. I know the bullying has been high profile these days, but did everyone forget Columbine? Those kids were bullied, beat up and tormented to the point that they felt no other way to solve the situation because no one wanted to help them. I remember watching those events unfold on television and thought back to my days in high school when I wished for that exact revenge. Of course, there was no way I could have done what they did, I knew full well that would be wrong and make me worse than my tormentors, but the daydreams were the same nonetheless. The only way to overcome bullies is with education, educate the bully and the parent, because I am certain that bullies are products of their environment. Teachers and faculty need to be more aware of their students as well, which is the hardest part since they are overwhelmed as it is. If everyone works together, students, faculty and parents, then something could change, until then, it will continue, today Star Wars, tomorrow sexual preference.