When I was in 8th and 9th grade, I was bullied at school: picked on, physically tormented, the whole nasty sandwich.
I never really understood how I became the target. My working theory as a 13-year-old was that I was small for my age and perhaps I hadn’t fought back ferociously enough the first few times I’d been tested.
I was also sufficiently embarrassed that I tried very hard to hide it all from my parents. It’s still kind of embarrassing now, many decades later.
Case in point: In the first draft of today’s newsletter I tried some mildly witty, understated ways of summarizing the whole thing: “Not quite how the school had described itself in the brochures,” for example.
But honestly, why soft-pedal? Let’s get past that: It was a rough experience that took me a long time to grow beyond. Sometimes, even today it can cloud how I reflexively see the world if I’m not careful.
(Also, in case any parent reads this, and you’ve wondered if your kid is going through something similar, and if so, whether you should intervene or let the kid figure it out, I have one word of advice: Intervene!)
Now, I had good news for 10th grade, which was that I finally came clean to my parents, and they took future Bill’s advice and intervened. I transferred schools, and I was excited for the chance for a fresh start, to make friends, and to redefine myself.
Mostly, it worked. In fact, the current president of School #2, along with several classmates, are subscribers to Understandably and will likely read this newsletter.
But, I was also on edge, watching for the chance to set an example in case anyone displayed even a hint of the same kind of crap that had gone on in my old school.
Showtime turned out to be the second or third day. A much bigger kid (just my luck!) knocked a big pile of books off my desk so that I’d have to pick them up off the floor. He kind of smirked and laughed at me as he walked away.
No, it didn’t exactly rival Pearl Harbor as a casus belli, but in fairness, I was just a rising sophomore and I was still several years away from studying Just War Theory. Regardless, I vividly remember thinking:
“This is it.”
I picked up the heaviest book and followed him to his desk. As he turned back toward me, I wound up and tried to whack him in the face with it as hard as I could. I mostly missed, and the book went flying across the room.
I think the book-knocker was stunned; he really was a lot bigger and stronger than I was, so it looked as if I were on a suicide mission. He punched me hard in the chest, which left a mark. But, other than that, we both just threw a few wild swings, and somehow got tangled up in the desks and fell to the floor.
The teacher came over and broke everything up, threatening us with detention. The whole thing was done.
Now, this isn’t an after-school special (my God, my references are so old!) where I say we later became great friends. In fact, I don’t recall us ever saying another word to each other or interacting in any way for the full three remaining years of high school. And it wasn’t that big a school!
Also, School #2 was generally just a nicer group of kids, so maybe I didn’t really need to do the whole, “on the first day, pick a fight with the biggest guy you can find,” thing that you see in the movies.
Still, whether it was causation or correlation, I never ran into this kind of thing in School #2 again. Plus, I learned a lesson: Stand up to bullies.
Stand up to them because a bully doesn’t expect you to fight back, so it can sometimes take less of a fight than you anticipate to shut them down.
Stand up to them because the very experience of standing up makes you feel a little bit more powerful if you’re on the side of right, even if you lose.
And stand up to bullies because doing so, if you’re a thoughtful person, also makes you stop and think about the times when you might have acted a bit like a bully yourself.
I mean, I don’t think the book-knocker was a bad kid; it was just his turn. I know I’ve had mine. (I wouldn’t be as charitable for some of the kids at School #1, though.)
Anyway, I suppose the hook for this whole anecdote is simply that we live in a world in which a lot of bullies take up a lot of space. (I have two words for you, and they rhyme with “Schladimir Scootin’.”)
Also, much smaller scale, but I thought I was going to be writing today about Will Smith (6-foot-2, 220 pounds, literally played Muhammad Ali in a movie) “sucker-slapping” Chris Rock at the Oscars (5-foot-10, which is probably an exaggeration, and 170 pounds).
It was a bullying move—but then Will Smith went and issued a much more complete apology for his actions yesterday than he had before, so I’m going to leave it be.
Instead, I’ll share the silver lining that resulted from my having gone through my own little 8th and 9th grade middle class suburban version of purgatory.
It’s that I realize that today, the experience makes it much easier for me to feel empathy for other people going through difficult times, even if the details are very different.
It’s not a deal I would have made if I’d had a choice. I’m not going to say I’m glad to have had the experience.
But I am glad, literally decades after most of it happened, to finally have had the chance to write about the experience.
A few more days of reminders—please check out the survey if you haven’t already. I’ll start sharing the very interesting results toward the end of this week!
7 other things worth knowing today
The last train from Russia to Finland, which has been packed with Russians seeking to leave before sanctions or other factors make it impossible, arrived Sunday. Finland’s train service says it’s suspending the route. Separate story: the ironic, unpredicted flight of Ukrainian Holocaust survivors who are now taking refuge in Germany. (AFP, AP)
“The Academy condemns the actions of Mr. Smith at last night’s show,” the Oscars organization said Monday. “We have officially started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our Bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law.” In theory his Best Actor award could be revoked, but that seems very unlikely. Also, here’s the story about Will Smith’s (better) apology. (LA Times, CNN)
Three of the country's largest credit reporting agencies are removing nearly 70% of medical debt from consumer credit reports, the companies announced in a joint statement earlier this month. Starting July 1, the Big 3 will no longer include medical debt that went to collections on consumer credit reports once it has been paid off. That will eliminate billions of dollars of debt on consumer records. (CNN)
Ukraine has vowed to investigate after graphic videos emerged purporting to show the horrific abuse of Russian prisoners of war, including some who were shot in the legs. “The government is taking this very seriously, and there will be an immediate investigation,” a senior presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Sunday. (NY Post)
A federal judge, ruling in a case about withholding documents from the Jan. 6 House committee, found that former President Donald Trump "more likely than not" committed felony obstruction in the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. (ABC News)
In a new Monmouth University poll, 52 percent of Americans say they’ve personally contracted the virus. That’s up from 40 percent in late January. (WashPost)
When actor Sam Waterston, now 81, first joined the cast of the original NBC series Law & Order in 1994, his contract was only for one season. He stayed for 16 years. Now Law & Order is back—and so is Waterston. He says returning to the original set was "extraordinary and strange. It looked exactly like the same old sets, the same furniture, the same books, the same linoleum on the floor.” (NPR)
Thanks for reading. Finally, one more plug: Please take a look at the survey if you haven’t already!