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CONFESSION OF A FORMER BULLY

This past Wednesday, my wife and I went to Ithaca to see the emotionally charged play, “From White Plains.”

White Plains CastThe title is meant to suggest plain white kids from a suburb.  As the lights first brighten the stage, thirty-year old Dennis hears that he has won the Oscar for his film based on the bullying he and his friend faced in childhood.  When Dennis reveals in front of a worldwide audience during his acceptance speech the name of the worst of the bullies whose actions led to his friend’s suicide, the drama begins.

Ethan

Ethan

Dennis

Dennis

Ethan, the former bully, sees the telecast, as does almost everyone in his life, and his smartphone lights up. Although Ethan quickly and publicly issues a heartfelt apology for his actions as a child, the fiercely outspoken Dennis is not in the least ready for forgiveness.

“Why should a two-minute apology be enough to forgive someone that caused the death of my friend and years of my own tormenting anguish?” he cries.

Gregory

Gregory

But Dennis’s friend, Gregory, challenges him to think about his campaign for vengeance.  Increasingly sympathetic to Ethan’s pain from the unrelenting public humiliation that Dennis is leading against Ethan, at one point Gregory emotionally declares to Dennis, “It is you who have now turned into a bully!”

John

John

The plot is further complicated by the dilemma faced by Ethan’s closest buddy, John.  With so much anger being directed toward Ethan, John fears that if he continues to be Ethan’s friend, those who now hate Ethan will also turn against him. Viewers of these scenes, as they watch John, an adult, struggle with this dilemma, get a vivid sense of how much more difficult it must be for kids facing the same type of dilemma whenever they see a friend begin to be targeted by others.  Should they stick with their friend through thick and thin, or join with the larger, more powerful group?

I won’t reveal the rest of the play other than to say it’s very well done.

As I left the theater, I found myself thinking about my own past.  At first, I vividly recalled the times that I was bullied and how I fantasized that I was Superman and used my powers to violently put all of the bullies into the hospital with broken arms and legs.  And then, with angst in the pit of my stomach, I suddenly recalled an incident that occurred when I was in junior high in which I participated in bullying a classmate.

classroomA student in my class, let’s call him Ralph, had a head that was a bit bigger than my other classmates.  Another student began to pass around a sheet of paper with a drawing of a caricature of Ralph with an enormous head standing at a microphone stand giving a speech.  The sheet of paper asked for signatures to nominate Ralph to be “Head of the Class.”  Although I knew Ralph was watching me, I found myself laughing when the paper arrived in my hands.  Not only did I laugh, I ended up signing the petition and passed it on to the student next to me, who proceeded to crack up at the site of the caricature.

school hallwayAfter class, while walking beside Ralph on our way to our next class, I saw from his eyes and forehead that he was feeling pretty miserable.  “Ralph,” I said, “we all get crap from the other kids from time to time.  It’s just the stuff that goes on at school.”

“Yeah, well it doesn’t feel too good,” he replied in a choked-up voice.

“If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “well, I like you.”

With that, I felt that I had done my good deed for the day and the incident was over. The next morning, however, when Ralph showed up in the schoolyard just before the line-up bell, the kids in my class began to once again put him down.  I noticed there was a girl that I knew Ralph liked standing near bschoolyard bullyy.  Although this time I didn’t join in on the teasing, I wanted to speak up and ask the kids to cut it out, but I didn’t have the courage.  I found myself afraid that if I said anything to defend Ralph, the bullying would be turned on me.  And so, feeling like a coward, I kept my mouth shut.

Fifty years have gone by, and I still feel that I hadn’t done quite enough at times for all the Ralphs out there.

As an adult, I now believe that the best hope to deal effectively with the bullying problem is to have programs at school that change the culture so that the actions of bullies signify ineptitude rather than manliness; and that sticking up for a kid who is being bullied is a sign of a real hero (see my post “BULLY” AND BEYOND).

schoolyard bully2But for those of us who went to schools that had no such programs, how are we to deal with the ruminating memories that continue to plague us years after we graduated?   Can we ever forgive ourselves for the actions we committed in our youth?   Can we ever forgive the kids who humiliated us?  Why do some people, having been bullied as kids, turn into bullies themselves the first chance that they get? And finally, why do some people who had bullying experiences as kids instead of converting them into hate somehow manage to convert them into acts of kindness?

Over the next few weeks, I hope readers will help me to make sense of all of this.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

TOUCHING WHILE TRYING TO RESOLVE CONFLICTS:IS THERE A PLACE FOR IT?
How I Met Cool Steve

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

12 Comments

  1. Confession of a former bully | Canadian School Psychology Blog
    October 27, 2013 - 4:04 pm

  2. Very thoughtful article, Jeff. I often catch glimpses of things I regret doing in my younger years. As you mentioned, 50 years ago — and it still bothers you today.

    Bullying is complex. It’s about power, control and shame. I’ve come to realize that when I allow someone behaving badly to impact me emotionally, I can’t fight back. Because I don’t have weapons in my vulnerable emotional places. I do have weapons when I respond with actions or words.

    Letting someone know that I’m in pain or discouraged allows my friends to support me. That’s new for me, but it’s been working brilliantly.

  3. Be A Kid (Adult) Against Bullying #cornermen #respectlessons #bullying #respect | A Listly List
    October 31, 2013 - 12:06 am

  4. Hi Cheryl Ragsdale, thanks for your comment. Yes, bullying is complex. I’m glad you found a way to get some support from your friends. I have found that even if someone is not a friend, but more of an acquaintance, if he or she says or does something hurtful toward me or someone else, if I respond in a manner that shows that what was said has saddened me, rather than it angered me, it can work brilliantly. What I mean by “working” is that the person who said the hurtful words (or deeds) pauses and thinks more deeply about what was done, and ends up coming up with something that leads me to see that some progress had indeed been achieved. My Best

  5. Maan…I remember gettin bullied back in school and it was AWFUL! Why did I go around picking on and putting down other kids at the same time then? And why do many many people continue this way of being long after grade school? I don’t know but it seems to be a horrifying element of human nature…I look forward to your future blog posts examining these ideas.

  6. Thanks, JSR! I’ll do my best in future posts to throw some light on a very troubling issue. I think the recent articles in the press about bullying in the NFL has the potential to be valuable by making people think more deeply about this topic.

  7. I teach an Intro to Sociology class, a 100 level college class, to high school students, earning dual-credit. Bullying is something we talked about, a bit, during class, and it is something I want to explore, in depth, next term. We watched a documentary about a remote African tribe, where the people had little, yet there was a strong sense of community, and, as a class, we wondered why those who had so little were so much more welcoming than those who have so much.

  8. Hi Vicki. Thanks for sharing your observation about those who have so little compared to those who have so much. I think that part of it has to do with the fact that in more wealthy communities there is such a focus on material things being so associated with being liked. From all the commercials we are so bombarded with in wealthy societies we have lost our balance. In poorer communities people rely on one another far more, rather than relying so much for fun and getting news, etc. from watching the boobtube. When you rely on others more, you become more sensitive to each other’s needs.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jeffrey; this might be a good starting point for our classroom exploration of bullying once we have watched the other documentary, BBC’s “Tribal Wives: The Afar”. By the way, this wonderfully welcoming tribe also engages in female “circumcision”, and wife-beating is sanctioned as part of everyday life. What a crazy, amazing world we live in!

      • Yikes, female circumcision and wife-beating, that’s pretty rough stuff. From my point of view this tribe can stand to learn some more peaceful, respectful ways to treat women.

  9. Thanks for sharing! I was bullied a lot as a young person by many different people for many different reasons. I think one of the biggest myths is that bullies are all the same. Different people bully for different reasons, ranging from peer pressure to abuse at home to a sadistic streak to trying not be bullied themselves. Obviously different approaches are needed in these cases.

  10. Hi Sarah. I like the way you are thinking about this, that there are many different reasons for people acting like bullies–peer pressure, abuse at home, a sadistic streak, trying not be bullied themselves, etc. Recognizing the different reasons can help in figuring out the best approaches to address this kind of problem. Much thanks for your comment.

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