If there was a category in my grade school graduation year book for “most likely to be bullied,” my name would have been under it.
I was skinny, shy and sick a lot with asthma. I had strange ticks — either blinking obsessively or flicking my head like I was trying to get hair out of my face. Puberty came very late and when it did come, muscles still failed to appear. I didn’t have a lot of friends and the ones I had were actually even weirder than me.
Any boy or girl who wanted to feel superior knew they could pick on me. I was too shy and weak to fight back and sometimes I cried. Perfect recipe for a kid who is going to get bullied. A lot.
On the bus, girls frequently pulled my hair. Once a boy grabbed my backpack and dumped the contents out the bus window. Another time a boy took my books off my desk and threw them out of the classroom when the teacher wasn’t looking.
I can’t tell you how many unkind nicknames I had.
These incidents made me sad and angry, but I knew I couldn’t fight back because I was simply too weak to ever win. The only choice I had was to try to be as quiet and invisible as possible.
That worked OK until 8th grade when a particularly relentless bully came to my school. He was a good head shorter than me but determined to prove to the other kids that he was tough. Every chance he had he would knock my books out of my hands, push me in the hall and make fun of me to the uproarious laughter of my classmates. Normally, I took different routes to my classes to avoid bullies, but this kid seemed to spend his entire day seeking me out so he could put me down.
The day finally came when he decided it was time to beat me up. As I was walking to class he ran up to me, dug his shoulder into my gut and pushed me out to the courtyard of our school tackling me hard to the ground. Everyone at school stopped what they were doing and ran out to the courtyard to see the fight.
The bully stood over me as I gathered myself and slowly rose to my feet. I saw the glint in his eye as he foresaw the punch he would get to shove into my face. My eyes welled up, my face turned hot and my fingernails pressed tightly against my palms. I stood up looking at him wishing I could knock that cocked smile off his face but knowing I never could.
We stood there sizing each other up for what felt like a lifetime. I knew he needed the satisfaction of me throwing the first punch. I knew he needed me to prove to him that he could make me angry because that is the bully’s game. I knew if I tried to hit him, I would feel better right up until his fist met my face.
I mustered up all the strength I had, bent down to collect my books and walked away, tears dripping off my chin.
No one said a word.
And no one ever bullied me again.
I didn’t completely understand it at the time, but looking back I realize that it takes two to bully: the one doing the bullying and the one getting bullied giving into the temptation to strike back.
Sometimes, I discovered, the best way to beat a bully is to walk away.
Al Watts is the president of Daddyshome, Inc. – The National At-Home Dad Network and an at-home dad of four children living in west Omaha.