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.