My father was a civil engineer. He worked in the design and construction of public works—highways, reservoirs, dams, that sort of thing. He traveled to wherever the job was, bringing his family along with him. We lived in thirteen states by the time I was six years old. When I started school, my mother told my father that our constant moving would have to stop. I didn’t go to kindergarten. I went to first grade in Rhode Island, second grade in Virginia, and the third grade in Mobile, Alabama, where my father had taken a job with the United States Army Corps of Engineers. We were to live in Alabama for two years.
In Mobile, my parents enrolled me for the first time, in a religious school. Ironically, it was in this school that I encountered a bully for the first time. As the new kid in class, I was a natural target. A boy whose name and appearance I still recall vividly selected me to be the victim of his bullying. Every school day, I suffered one form or another of intimidation. Most of it was verbal, name-calling, teasing, or mocking me, but not all of it. As I would walk between rows of desks, his foot would suddenly appear in the aisle, tripping me up. He would stand in doorways blocking my entry or exit. In the hallways, he seemed to run into me “accidentally” many times.
I hated what was happening, but I didn’t know what to do about it. It wasn’t long before I began to dread going to school. I tried to avoid the boy, but he saw to it that I couldn’t. Desperate, I decided to speak to my father about it. One Sunday afternoon, we sat down together at the kitchen table, his favorite spot in the house. He had a freshly made cup of coffee and had set aside time to talk to me. He asked me what I wanted to talk about.
I told him that something was bothering me at school, that a boy was picking on me. He wanted to know if I had asked the boy to stop. I told him no that I hadn’t. He then asked a simple question: Why not? I told him I hadn’t because I was afraid. Then came the critical question: What are you afraid of? I knew the answer. I’m afraid he might hurt me, I said. No dissembling, that was the truth.
He paused a few moments, then looked at me. Son, he said, if the boy breaks your nose, your nose will heal, but if he breaks your spirit, you will never get over it. That was a sophisticated statement to make to an eight-year-old boy. Though my nose had never been broken, I had an idea of what that might look like, might feel like. My father once told me, in a different context, that his nose had been broken several times when he was growing up. I had no idea, however, about what a broken spirit would look like, or feel like. I only knew that whatever it was, it was something I would never get over, something that would never heal. I didn’t like the sound of that. My father didn’t say anything else. He didn’t tell me what to do. Our conversation was over.
The next morning, as I got ready for school, I felt like, today, something is going to happen. Things are going to be different. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, only that it might involve my coming home with a broken nose.
At school, on the playground during recess, the usual scenario began. The bully approached me and started teasing me. I told him to stop. This response was something new. He looked at me and said: And if I don’t stop, what are you going to do about it? Something came over me. I rushed at him, caught him off-balance, and knocked him down. I immediately sat on his chest and pinned his wrists to the ground. Both of us were surprised, me by how easy it had happened, and him by my having done it at all.
He yelled, Get off of me. Tell me you’ll leave me alone, I replied. Get off, he shouted again. Promise you’ll leave me alone, I repeated. In those days, boys in religious schools wore ties. Mine was hanging down, just above the boy’s mouth. In frustration at being unable to free himself, he bent his head up, caught a piece of my tie, and pulled at it. Some threads from the tie went into his mouth; he turned his head to the side and spat them out. All right, he said, I promise. I’ll leave you alone. And he did.
At the end of the fourth grade, we moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where I grew up, graduating from college there. No sooner did I start the fifth grade in Jackson, though, than I ran into a new bully. This time, however, I knew what to do about it.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that you handle your bullies the way I did, by pushing them to ground and pinning them down. In today’s world, that could be a dangerous option. However, I do believe that, if you find yourself being bullied, it’s a good idea to ask yourself the question my father asked me: What are you afraid of? Then name it. Be as detailed in describing your fear as you can be. Next, ask yourself if you’re willing to pay the price to get rid of your fear, or live with it: a broken nose or a broken spirit. Know the cost; accept the cost.
My father died young. He was only fifty-nine years old. By the time he died, his nose had been broken several times, in one way or another, literally and figuratively. He lost a job that I know he loved, when he was fifty-five years old, four years before he died. But no one, as far as I know, ever broke his spirit.
All the best!
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