Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"What did I do to deserve this?"

I hope you'll pardon this departure from my usual fare. This has been on my mind for a long time, and it's time to get it out.

It was September of 1984, and I was coming off one of the best summers of my life. That summer my baseball team went 10-2 in the regular season and in the playoffs won the North Tonawanda American Little League minor division championship. Baseball was everything to me back then, and, in all modesty, I was a big part of why my team did so well that year. I was the star pitcher. Of course, it wasn’t hard to be a star pitcher when you’re one of the biggest people in the league and all you have to do is throw a baseball as hard and as straight as you can. Even so, it meant a lot to me, and that accomplishment had the potential to boost me into a great school year.

I don’t remember how it happened. Maybe my classmates had a meeting to decide who the whipping boy for the year would be. Maybe I did something really stupid on the bus on the way to school that first day—though I don’t recall doing anything any more stupid than usual. Maybe it was just that at age 10 or 11 you discover just how great is your potential to be beastly to someone else, and you want to try it out as often as you can. Whatever it was, from that first day onward throughout my whole fifth grade year, I was at the receiving end of daily bullying—and when I say daily, I mean every day, throughout the whole day. If the teacher’s back was turned, my ears would be finger-flicked or my back would be poked with anything from a finger to a ruler to the point of a pencil. Walking down the hall, I would be tripped or punched or kicked or pushed into a wall or mocked by a collection of my classmates. A couple of my more creative classmates made up a song about my underwear. In the lunch room, crumbs would be dropped on me or drinks would be spilled on me or my sandwich would be smooshed or my bag lunch would be taken and hidden or thrown away. In gym class and recess Dodgeball was the big game, and when we played with multiple balls, the biggest and fastest and strongest boys on the other team would line up with all the balls and throw them at me as if this were an execution and I was the one with the cigarette in my mouth and the blindfold over my eyes—and they didn’t even have the decency to give me a cigarette or a blindfold. I couldn’t avoid gym class, of course, but for recess, my teacher actually gave me permission to sit in our classroom, where I would play games on the computer while everyone else ran around and worked out at least some of their aggression on someone other than me. All of this took place at a Christian day school.

I don’t know how I survived that year. I guess, in a way, I was fortunate. I wasn’t the biggest kid in the school, but even as the youngest kid in our class I was one of the biggest. I wasn’t the fastest kid, but I was one of the fastest. I wasn’t the smartest kid, but I was one of the smarter ones. I did what I could to outsmart the fastest kids, outrun the biggest kids, and use my size to my advantage in dealing with the smarter boys. I couldn’t escape most of the time, but at times I was able to avoid some of the worst of the abuse. Nevertheless, it was a long year, full of physical and emotional pain and the constant demolition of my self-confidence.

The thing about bullying is that it doesn’t just affect you where it’s taking place, and it doesn’t just affect you while it’s happening. During the worst of the bullying, it wasn’t just that I was being hurt. I had trouble paying attention in class because I was constantly worrying about where or when the next attack would be. I sat in the front seat on the bus and tried to stay away from the rest of the kids—most of whom weren’t in my class, many of whom weren’t even from my school. When I got home, I didn’t say much to my parents, and I don’t think I ever told them why I was so withdrawn all the time. And I certainly couldn’t tell them I was being bullied—after all, I thought, who wants a son who whines to his parents about his problems instead of taking care of the problems himself? My teachers knew, and while one of them was at least sympathetic enough and let me hide in the classroom during recess, the other teacher (who doubled as the principal) seemed content to let it go, as if our classroom was the world of Lord of the Flies and my daily swatting was just a natural part of our world.

And the consequences of that one year of bullying? Where do I begin? The next summer, playing baseball, my favorite thing in the whole world, I constantly had to fight the voices in my head that kept nagging that I wasn’t good enough—and at times those voices were too loud to overcome. I had a lousy season, and that, of course, ruined my whole summer. But that’s a relatively minor aftereffect. Much bigger than that was the horrible state my self-confidence was left in after that year. I had become mired in indecision, fearing where any decision would take me. I was riddled with self-doubt. Nothing I did was good enough. And I wasn’t good enough. Nothing about me was good enough. My relationships with family members and friends suffered because I felt I couldn’t talk to them about what was going on or what had gone on in school. And I tried never to stand out too much at anything, for fear that standing out would make me a target again. My lack of self-confidence helped cut-short or delay my dreams of professional baseball (which were probably unrealistic anyway, but dreams are allowed to be that way), teaching music, writing novels, and a great many of my other desires. I didn’t date at all in high school and very little in college, in large part because I never had the confidence to ask out even girls who seemed to like me. (And yes, as an adult I know that dating in high school can be rather silly, but tell that to my fifteen year-old self.) And the one girl I did date in college for more than the proverbial cup of coffee was someone who lived hundreds of miles away, and we seldom saw each other, so I always had time to screw up my courage and hide my self-loathing before we got together in person.

To this day I don’t understand it. Was it because I was the youngest person in the class? Was it because I was skinny as a twig back then? Did I stutter back then—or was the stuttering problem I have to this day caused by the bullying of that year? Were my classmates jealous of me for some unknown reason—and if so, what on earth could I have possibly had that would make them jealous? If it seems like I’m grasping at straws, it’s because I have absolutely no idea what it was about me that would make me a target. I think about the reasons kids are bullied today—homosexual tendencies, being the member of a minority in society, having different religious beliefs, coming from a poorer household, whatever—and none of those really applied to me. (And I’m not saying any of those traits make someone worthy of being bullied.) Oh, sure, my family didn’t have a lot of money, but that wasn’t really something we talked about back then. I wore sneakers and jeans and t-shirts or polo shirts just like everyone else.

It’s been twenty-six years since that school year ended. I’ve come a long way since then, of course—graduating high school and college, earning my Master of Divinity degree and my certification for Ordination, meeting Faith and getting married, surviving my unceremonious dismissal from a congregation I was Called to serve, having kids, managing a community center for three years, writing two novels, and a host of other accomplishments which my nine and ten year-old self would have thought impossible. But the aftereffects linger even today, whether it’s my discomfort on the telephone and in large groups of people, the fact that I’ve written two novels and nearly two-hundred poems and have never sought publication for them, my temper combined with my passive-aggressive nature, indecision… The list could go on and on; and as I said, I’ve come a long way in a quarter-century.

Some psychologist or some other mind-bender once said that bullying is as harmful for the bully as it is for the victim. In the sense of eternal life, I suppose that could be true. But as one who was bullied and who has fought for over twenty-five years to overcome the damage which being bullied did to my psyche, I doubt that the psychological damage done by beating up on someone day after day is as profound as the psychological damage done by being beaten up physically and mentally without reprieve.

I do not say all this to garner pity, and I don’t say all this because I hold a grudge. In the time that has gone by, I’ve grown and become a loving and God-fearing adult, and the man I am today has a lot to do with what happened in fifth grade (and seventh grade, too, by the way, though not as badly). And as for a grudge, I’ve since become friends with some of the people who participated in my bullying. Though I’ve never spoken this to them—why bring up bad memories for me or shame for them—I do forgive them. But there are lessons to be learned from all this.

The bullying on which the mainstream media seems to be focusing most these days is the bullying homosexuals receive—and rightly do they focus on it, because it seems to be the most pervasive bullying today. Numerous homosexual friends have commented about the bullying they’ve received from their peers and the complete condemnation they’ve received from the Church. As a Lutheran pastor who believes that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, I cannot condone the homosexual agenda or the active homosexual lifestyle. That being said, bullying someone for their homosexual urges is evil, and we as individuals and as citizens of a nation that claims to be a melting pot must be more loving toward our fellow man. And as the Church, while we must of course continue to speak forthrightly regarding all sin and must not give in to the postmodern “tolerance” which says that each person decides what is right and wrong for himself, we must not fail to demonstrate the love of Christ, the One who loved all sinners so much that He died for them.

Bullying comes in all forms, and it is aimed at people of all shapes, sizes, races, colors, creeds, languages, and all other differences. You don’t have to be a homosexual or a racial minority or a woman or a Muslim or Jew or speak with an accent or have a physical or mental disability to be the victim of bullying. Sometimes bullies are people who are just like you.

But more important than that, bullying doesn’t have to be the end. It hurts. A lot. Believe me when I say that I know just how badly it hurts and how much someone being bullied just wants it to end. But what someone else thinks of you or even what someone else does to you doesn’t mean that you have to believe what they say, and you don’t have to allow yourself to be victimized by what they do. Tell your parents. Tell your teachers. If your teachers are unsympathetic, tell your principal. If your principal is unsympathetic, tell your school board. Tell a police officer. Tell anyone who will listen. Seek support from wherever you can. Don’t let someone else’s evil bring about your destruction. Don’t even think about ending your own life. There is more to you than what anyone else can say or do to you. And no matter what, even if you can find no other avenue of support, you can commend all this to your Father who is in heaven. He will never leave you or forsake you.

Be still, and know that I am God…
—Psalm 46:10

No comments: