By JOSEPH TINTLE
Almost all of us have dealt with a bully at some point in our lives. I did in high school, and to this day I wonder why I never asked him at the time the reason he had picked on me. But a tiny voice in my head always raises the same point, “You didn’t ask because you were terrified of him.”
Then the frightening visage of the bully comes to mind. He stood five-feet, 11-inches, weighed 210 pounds, had heavy-lidded eyes, fists the size of hams, and a heart the size of a pea.
As for myself back then, I stood 5-feet, 4-inches and weighed 115 pounds. The only time I raised my fist was to staple invoices at the school bookstore. Clearly I was no match for this bully.
I remember the sneaky way he had about him, how he silently stole up behind his victims before the pushing and shoving began. Eventually word of his behavior spread and a caring teacher called me aside. He told me that no one had the right to push me around. The teacher’s advice: Let this bully know I wouldn’t stand for his actions. Fight back. And don’t worry, he added, when confronted bullies back down.
I wondered about this well-intentioned logic. There was a time earlier that fall when the bully spat on me as I got off the school bus. A milky, snotty goo clung to my left jacket sleeve. So infuriated, I instinctively hurled the apple I was holding and it sailed through the bus window. I could hear everyone laugh as the bus drove off because the apple had caught the bully on the side of the head. After that, the bullying got worse.
A week later, I finally decided to take the teacher’s advice and hope he was correct. It wasn’t easy, but I had to do something in my defense.
No sooner did I stand up for myself than I quickly found myself shoved halfway over a third-floor railing and praying the fixture could support my weight – and his. Somehow I talked my way out of the precarious situation. I must have said something clever like “Uncle.”
Years later the bully and I discussed that moment when we met at our high school reunion. To my surprise he was no longer the brute he once was. In fact, he had become a rather decent person.
During our talk he told me that as a teenager from a lower middle class background he had always felt uncomfortable being part of a private school setting. Hearing students boast about their fathers’ huge salaries, palatial homes, and expensive cars only filled him with shame. By contrast, he was raised in a two-bedroom Cape Cod, with a broken-down Plymouth in the driveway, and parents who had to work long hours.
“Nothing wrong with that,” he’ll tell you now. “But try telling it to me back then. Not once did I ever feel that I belonged at our school.”
Another problem for him was that he was regarded by many of his classmates as a “dumb jock.” It was a tag that stuck throughout high school and it hurt him deeply.
“How would you feel if everyone thought you were stupid just because you played sports?” he said. “Hey, I’ll be the first one to tell you that I wasn’t serious about hitting the books, but I do have brains. Own a business now, and I’m doing well. But realizing everyone thought I was stupid in high school, well, now that I look back on it I can see how it ate away at my self-esteem. And so I took it out on everyone – you included.”
For all the times he had bullied me – and others – none was worse than the day in gym class when he began pushing around an overweight classmate whose round, innocent face turned wet with tears.
As the bully knocked the helpless student to the floor, he snatched the back of his gym shorts, grabbed his jock strap, and dragged him around the freshly waxed basketball court. Through it all the bully howled with delight while the rest of us were too intimidated to stop him.
When reminded of the ugly incident years later, the bully swore he had changed. “I really have,” he insisted. “I’ve got kids of my own now, and to think about someone doing to them what I did to others really bothers me.”
As our conversation continued, I began to feel a sense of compassion for the bully he once was. Yet I could still recall how he swaggered down the hallways and gave me a chill when he passed by too closely. What I never realized back then, however, was that inwardly he was feeling much worse about himself than I ever did as a teenager.
“Look, I’m no longer the person I used to be,” he said. “What I did back then was wrong, completely wrong. And I’d like to apologize for giving you such a hard time.”
As he extended his hand, I could not help but think that we should have patched things up a while back. Who knows, we might be good friends today.
Then he looked across the dining hall filled with old classmates and said in a low voice, “Hey, there’s Jack. I have to go talk with him.”
Jack had been the kid the bully dragged across the gym floor long ago.