I felt my gut clench when faced with a FaceBook friend request from the guy who bullied me through junior and senior high schools. The old “fight or flight” response kicking in? I found myself weighing whether he could somehow harm me, more than forty years later.
Ted tormented me from the moment he came to my junior high school, until probably junior year of high school. That makes four years of hell. He wasn't the only bully, but he was one of the more physically demanding bullies in my life...or was he more of an emotional bully? Separating the two presents a difficulty, because a faked punch to the head or stomach always has the potential to be the real thing, and the threat, when not carried to completion, becomes emotional violence.
Please don’t think that I’ve spent all these years fretting over the bullying I suffered as a kid, which was plenty. I carried around the emotional scars from those years like a sack of boulders. I wouldn't blame years of alcoholism and drug addiction on the bullying alone--plenty of parental violence at home fed all the self-pity and self-loathing I needed to justify bad behaviors. But I do wonder that perhaps I’ve suffered what’s now called “post-traumatic shock syndrome.”
So I accepted Ted's FaceBook friend request. He lives in Tennessee, hundreds of miles from my Pennsylvania home. I'm fully capable of defending myself through an electronic medium. I use words as weapons today. My problem was physical violence: I was always a pussy. I finally had the advantage.
But one day Ted sent a message that he'd be making a delivery to a restaurant in a nearby town. He asked to meet me for dinner. Without hesitation, I accepted his invitation.
As the day approached, I got a little nervous about the meeting. What if there was going to be violence? (I'm still a pussy.) Worse yet, what if he'd completely forgotten what had been an overwhelming issue in my life for years after the fact? From our few interactions on FaceBook, I'd gotten the impression he thought we’d been great pals.
As the day approached, I hadn’t heard from him. I sent him an e-mail, but no response. I started to think that maybe he'd tried to play yet another cruel joke on me.
But no, he called pretty much on schedule early on the day of our meeting, to arrange the time and place. He’d be waiting for me in his tractor-trailer, behind the restaurant--probably, I imagined, with one or two biker buddies all wielding tire irons.
We even chatted for a while, about nothing in particular. I listened for any hint that he remembered our torrid past. I picked up on a subtle reference when he told me that, as he’s aged, he’s outgrown some of the more childish behaviors that marred his earlier life. I asked him whether he remembered beating me up, but he said he only vaguely recollected any of that.
“You don’t remember beating me up for being gay?” I asked him.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know you were gay until I read it on your FaceBook profile. I never would’ve guessed.”
“So then you didn’t like Jews?” I asked.
After a couple of beats to mull that over, he said, “Yeah, that wudda been the reason. Funny how you outgrow some of that stuff as you get older.”
Then he mumbled a few words about not being “that way,” meaning gay, just in case I had any intentions of trying to get into his pants. I let that punch roll off my back. He's not the only one possessed by stupid stereotypes.
We met that night at the restaurant. Spying his tractor-trailer in the back lot, I parked my car in the space closest to the road at the front exit. My escape route.
I walked cautiously toward the truck, all senses on red alert. Ted was alone. And all smiles.
We shook hands. Awkward smiles. Nothing and everything to say.
”I'd rather not eat at this restaurant, if you don't mind” I said. “They discriminate against gay people.”
“Really?” he asked. He seemed genuinely concerned.
“Yeah, they’ve even fired employees who seemed to be gay and lesbian. No apologies, no remorse. I won’t give my money to businesses that discriminate against me--or against anyone else, for that matter.”
“Well, what I really want is a good Philly cheese steak. You just can’t get a good cheese steak or a good hoagie down in Tennessee. They don't know how to make the bread.”
So we headed for a great little Italian place I know down the road. As many times as he’s delivered here, he’s never driven through the center of this quaint little Pennsylvania town. I got to share that with him as I would any friend. Meanwhile, we talked about this, that and nothing in particular.
We ordered food, then sat at one of the old, battered fake-white-marble Formica-topped tables in the glare of fluorescent tubes in the grimy eating area of the pizza takeout. A steady stream of exhausted customers grabbed packs of beer out of the refrigerator case covering one entire wall.
Casually, unhurriedly, we began talking.
Ted worked in construction after high school, then got into trucking. He moved with his wife and kids to the Florida Keys, then sold his house at a nice profit and moved his family to a Tennessee farm. Although he works long hard hours, he’s happy with his lot.
He told me about years of drug abuse. “I joined a biker gang for a while, did some stupid shit with them,” he said. “But when I'd had enough of that, I quit. The drugs and the gang. But you don't just quit a gang like that—they'll kill you first chance they get. So I packed heat for a while after that.”
Even now? I thought.
The food arrived. My meager chef’s salad mocked me--the wilted lettuce, the impotent tomato--while Ted dug right in to the real Philly cheesesteak he craved. “It’s the bread,” said Ted between joyful mouthfuls.
While breaking bread, I mustered the courage to broach the subject of the bullying. Ted claimed only vague recollections of what had happened.
“Was I really that bad?” he asked with mournful eyes.
He seemed so...what?...contrite? At that moment, my heart softened. Despite all the years of torment at his hands, I couldn't hit this aging man with the truth.
“Oh no, Ted. You weren't the worst.” So I lied. Sort of.
One guy I remember as the worst, backed up by a gang of his friends, actually spit on me one time at the local bowling alley, when I was there with my synagogue youth league. Of course, in the way of many bullies, he had waited until I was away from my friends and followed me to a part of the building where nobody would see or hear. Cowards.
And certainly there were those who punched and kicked me, kicked the books out of my hands, or simply faked a punch to see me flinch. At times, I’d be showered with pennies--because, according to the anti-Semites, Jews pinch pennies. Many times, the bullying happened under the watchful eyes of teachers. Sometimes even the teachers joined in with subtle psychological violence.
I found that the mere threat of violence is enough to cause the emotional pain brought by the physical violence itself.
Truth to tell, I can’t remember the exact bullying moments with Ted. Have I blocked the pain out of my memory? Or have the intervening years simply made those events fade away, along with so many other brain cells? Or have I seen how the details don’t truly matter?
What matters is that my experience, the events that formed who I am today, enables me to help others, to empathize with those who now suffer with what I survived.
And more truth to tell, Ted certainly remembered some of the bullying.
Because what he also remembered I had no idea had happened. Ted was himself the victim of bullying. And when Ted got bullied by this gang, and one rather severe bully in particular, if I was the first weakling he encountered, then I suffered because he suffered.
That put an entirely different spin on my own suffering. All along, it was shared suffering. My bully was himself bullied.
That jibes with the research and literature coming out on bullying. Often, the bully is bullied by others, especially virulent if the bullying comes at home from parents or siblings.
Fortunately, Ted experienced the love and support of his family. In fact, his dad was present in his life to an enviable degree. And Ted had two brothers. So another factor in his treatment of other guys may very well have been the kind of rough banter he learned at home. I learned no such thing growing up. Maybe what I often perceived as “bullying” was merely what Fred thought of as “male bonding”? With a perhaps well-deserved chip on my shoulder--after all, I had endured a great deal of bona fide bullying--I didn’t stand a chance of understanding male bonding in the guise of rough-housing.
On Friday, two days after our dinner meeting, Ted called me. He was eleven hours into an eighteen hour drive from Massachusetts to his Tennessee home. And he'd been thinking about our dinner conversation.
“I want to apologize for all the bullying back in school,” he said.
I’d like to say I was stunned. But we both knew about 12-Step recovery programs. He was doing a Ninth Step: “Made direct amends to such people [we had harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
I accepted his apology, and thanked him for making amends. And I owned my share in those terrible events so long ago.
That’s right. Although I was bullied, I certainly played a part--I was there.
Of course, I can’t require that the boy I was react with the knowledge I’ve gained in manhood. But I can pass along what I know now, so that others going through similar experiences might be better able to cope.
What could I have done differently?
Certainly as far as understanding the propensity of the bullied to bully, not much. We see that on the world stage today: Regimes that bully their own populations and, when possible, other nations, rarely respond to the gentle prodding toward good that comes with the preferred, loving but corrective approach.
So I doubt that the same loving understanding of the bully, transplanted into the boyhood mind of the bullied, would have any positive effect. Yet I suppose it’s worth a try as a first resort. A great prophet once said, “Love your enemies.” I’ve tried that with wonderful results.
But the biggest reason I got bullied--and I know many won’t like this, but it’s a Male Truth--is that I didn’t fight back. Perhaps self-defense training might have helped me overcome my fears? I'll never know for sure.
But Ted’s experience bears out what I’m saying. He was being bullied by one group but, as usual, one bully in particular stood out from the crowd. Ted enrolled in a karate course. One day, his hard work paid off: Ted’s bully came after him, and Ted gave the kid a kick to the head. The bully bled so hard, he couldn’t see to fight back.
After that, the bully and his gang left Ted alone.
And in that I believe there’s a lesson: On the playground, in the halls of “academia,” on the world stage, most often (I’d like to think) tensions between parties can be lessened and even eliminated through negotiation and mutual understandings. But people exist in this world intent on doing evil--for whatever reasons and motivations--and the only way to stop their bullying is to return their violence with a crushing blow that will put them out of the bullying business.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Ted and I, now friends, have cleared the wreckage of the past. I look forward to seeing what the future may bring, how the Creator of All might use us to help others in the same situation, both bullied and bullies.
Today, unbelievable as it might have seemed to teenaged me, Ted has become one of my heroes.