April 24, 2020

In Solidarity with the Bullied

bullied child

I had a few experiences with being picked on in school. As an adult, I've had difficulty labeling these experiences as bullying. Maybe I figured that would make me weak. In any case, some of them could be described that way. I'm not crazy about the common claim that going through this stuff builds character, makes kids stronger, etc. There have to be healthier ways of accomplishing that. What I will say is that I think that having these experiences made me more sensitive to the plight of those who are bullied, especially when they are bullied for standing out from the crowd in some way (e.g., they have physical disabilities, are LGBTQ+, or dare to reveal their atheism). Part of being more sensitive in this context means that this stuff really pisses me off, and I think that's a big part of why I have so little interest in supporting those who call people names on social media.

The first experience with bullying I can clearly remember took place when my family moved to a new state mid-way through my third-grade year. I suddenly found myself as the new kid in a new school, and I had a rough period of adjustment. I remember lots of playground teasing, threats, and a few fights. I knew I was being picked on because I was new, but that didn't make it any easier. And kids being kids, they found plenty of things not to like about me. This was unpleasant, but it was far from the worst I'd face.

The second experience took place midway through junior high school and more closely resembled traditional bullying in the sense that there was one primary bully who made me and a couple of my friends his target of choice. Fortunately, this didn't last long. He ran into some serious trouble with the police, and a domestic violence incident at his home would lead to him moving away. The big difference between this experience and the first one, as well as the next one, was that only one bully was involved.

The third and worst experience took place in high school. I was trying to figure out who the hell I was at the time and made the mistake of embracing nonconformity right as I was realizing I no longer believed in gods. Between how I dressed at the time, the fact that I was friends with an openly gay boy, and word quickly spreading that I might be an atheist, I was doomed. There were several bullies this time, and they were relentless. It lasted for months. I dreaded going to school, my grades took a hit, and I briefly considered suicide. I had stood up to bullies before, and this was effective when there was one main one. This situation was a bit different. After being pushed to my breaking point and deciding that I'd rather go to jail than give them the satisfaction of hurting myself, I started bringing a switchblade to school. I made sure they knew I had it, and this did the trick. They could overpower me as a group, but doing so would come at a cost. They moved on in search of weaker prey.

I am going to disagree with those who continue to insist that bullying makes kids stronger. Maybe it does that in some rare cases, but it didn't do anything positive for me. I have no difficulty whatsoever understanding how kids subjected to prolonged and/or severe bullying reach the point of considering suicide or violence. Not having easy access to a gun or the familiarity with how to operate one was not the only thing standing between me and murder, but it was a big one. It wouldn't have taken more than a couple things being somewhat different for me not to be here today.

Experiences like this take a toll, and they teach those who have them something about humanity. In my case, the lesson was that nonconformity is poorly tolerated and will be punished. I battled this for years, and atheism was the main front of this battle. I blame experiences like this for at least some of my lingering misanthropy, although I recognize that I am more than the sum of my experiences. If there is a silver lining here, it is that I find it easy to empathize with those who are being singled out and mistreated for daring to be different or simply being different in ways they cannot help. After all, I am one of them. I won't forget that.