Out of no where, this short new kid began pushing me backward into the middle of the school’s courtyard until I fell and my books scattered in the grass. It was a few months into 9th grade. For whatever reason, this kid picked me to show everyone he was tough or cool or something. I was an easy target. I was tall, near anorexically thin, shy and a good two years from puberty. In those first few months of 9th grade, this short new kid terrorized me. He knocked my books out of my hand. He made fun of me. Once he grabbed my books off my desk and threw them out of the classroom. Now he was ready for the final blow. He was going to kick my ass.
He was not my first bully. I don’t really remember who was. All I remember is being made fun of a lot by many other kids, starting about 6th grade. It was miserable. I was scared most days at school. I tried to be invisible to protect myself. I sat in the back of class, never raised my hand, avoided eye contact and walked quickly from one class to the next. The teasing didn’t stop but I felt I contained it to a minimum. That was, until this short new kid started school and needed to feel important.
Kids abandoned the hallways and encircled us. The bully was standing and glaring at me lying on the ground surrounded by my books. No one wanted to miss the ass-kicking. I stayed down but I was furious and frightened. I wanted to stand up and punch this kid right in the face. Never have I ever wanted to fight someone more in my life. At the same time, I wanted to hide or disappear. I did not want to be there. My breath quickened and I felt my face turn hot. I started to get up and the the circle around us grew louder. The other kids were about to witness a fight, sure to be the highlight of the week, maybe the year.
I disappointed them.
There was no way I was going to win a fight with this kid, or any other kid for that matter. I knew I was weak and I knew I would look ridiculous. It would have been like Apollo Creed fighting Adrian instead of her fighter boyfriend Rocky. I sat up on my knees with my head down and slowly gathered up my books. Inside I was seething with anger and trembling with fear. The short new kid was probably taunting me, baiting me to fight him, but I didn’t hear anything. I held in my anger, and my tears, got up with my books and started walking away, my head hung low. There was no doubt in my mind this kid was going to tackle me from behind and start wailing on me as he intended. But nothing happened. Everyone went silent. The circle broke away, allowing me to pass, dumbfounded. Squeezing my face tightly to hold back a waterfall of tears, I walked to my next class.
It was the last day that kid ever bothered me.
My instinct was to fight back but my brain knew that was impossible. What I did not realize at the time, but know now, is that the bully, all bullies actually, was more scared than me. He was afraid of himself. He didn’t want to feel insignificant. He needed attention to feel good about himself. When I didn’t give him what he wanted, he left me alone. Ignoring a bully, unbeknownst to me at the time, is one of the best strategies to protect yourself.
Eventually I hit puberty but my shy nature and flimsy frame continued to make me an obvious target for bullies.
I was a junior in college, living off campus for the first time, when I found myself in a similar situation to 9th grade. I was living with my best friend, Mike, and another guy I knew, Jimmy. Jimmy was a large man, a few inches taller and at least twice my weight. He knew his size compared to mine would intimidate me and after a few months he began to use it.
One night, he and I got into an argument. I do not remember what it was but I am sure it was about something he wanted me to do for him that I was not going to do. He became enraged, got in my face and yelled menacingly at me. I was backed into a corner of the kitchen and his anger grew when I refused to acquiesce to his demand. My best friend, Mike, who was about as lightweight as me, grabbed our phone and dialed 9-1-1.
Jimmy backed off. A few minutes later the cops arrived. They talked to me and tried to talk to Jimmy. I was shaking but otherwise okay. Jimmy went to his room unwilling to talk to the cops. The cops asked if I wanted to file a domestic violence report but I declined. I didn’t think Jimmy would be violent. He had the chance but just yelled at me. As long as that was all I had to endure, I could manage, especially knowing my best friend had my back. Strangely, being bullied as a teen gave me strength mentally I didn’t have physically. I also felt Jimmy was embarrassed by his actions. Shortly afterward, he moved out and we found a new roommate, Jason, who cared way more about his girlfriend than intimidating me.
As I moved into adulthood, bullying followed. My earlier experiences, however, taught me a lot. I had survived a couple very serious incidents and hundreds of smaller ones. I also grew in confidence. I wouldn’t say I had a lot but I had enough that I knew I could stand up for myself.
In 2011, I became President of the National At-Home Dad Network, a non-profit organization creating community for stay-at-home dads. Our primary function was hosting an annual convention. We had agreed to host the convention in Washington DC that year, the home town of one of the founding board members, Mike (another Mike, not my best friend from college). I had worked with Mike for the past 2 years on the board. He was taller and heavier than my former roommate Jimmy.
Mike was put in charge of the convention and the planning committee of about 20 dads from around the country. However, Mike would not work with anyone on the committee. He took great offense to being asked about the progress planning the convention. As the months of 2011 ticked by, I became concerned with the lack of information from Mike. Instead of sharing his plans with me, he attacked me in phone calls and emails, accusing me of not trusting him and trying to take over the convention planning. Since Mike was unwilling to share any details with anyone, the board voted to remove him as convention chairman. We discovered he had done almost nothing to plan the event. He was trying to bully me so I wouldn’t find out he was failing. It was May and the convention was scheduled for October.
Everybody pulled together and made the 16th Annual At-Home Dads Convention happen. It was, in fact, the most attended convention of the previous 5 years. Mike came and was very helpful with things on the ground. He did not bully me or anyone else that weekend. Nearly every day that year, though, I was highly anxious, scared and frustrated. I frequently felt like I was trembling inside. It was a strain on me and my family but I was proud of myself and everyone who came together to make the event a success.
Mike’s bullying of me, however, did not end. At the following convention, also in DC, he spoke in front of all the attendees about something (I forget what it was) he strongly disagreed with me about. I ignored him. He wrote negatively about me on Facebook every so often the next couple years. I would reply respectfully with truth to his misleading accusations but otherwise ignored him. His abuse stopped after I stepped down as President of the National At-Home Dad Network in 2015.
I have not experienced any significant bullying incident since, but I expect I will sometime in the future. There are people who need to tear others down to feel better about themselves. It is an unfortunate reality of humanity.
Bullying, at its core, is about fear. There is something within a person who bullies that he or she is afraid to face or afraid others will find out. To avoid these gnawing feelings of unimportance, self-loathing and weakness, a bully finds someone to beat up or terrorize so he or she can feel superior. The bully is driven by an all consuming fear of his or her brokenness being revealed.
I wish I could go back to that scared, ashamed 9th grader who was trying to hold back his tears and tell him I was going to be okay. I wish I could tell him how wonderful his life was going to be if he could hold on and persevere. I wish he could see my life now instead of fearing the next day being worse than the day before. Perhaps I would have been less miserable, had fewer bouts of depression. Maybe I would have become more confident in myself a lot sooner. I do know that I am happy about who I am today, most of the time. My traumas have not defined me. My survival has.
Father of 4, Husband, Catholic, Historian, published author, LGBTQ+ ally, runner, sports fan (he/him/his)