What is the best way to deal with a bully? In my Cool Steve Trilogy, the main character, Steve Marino, struggles with this problem. It initially comes up in the first of the three novels, A Hero Grows In Brooklyn, which is available for free as an ebook by clicking HERE. There, Steve, who is at this point in the trilogy, a mere 13 years old, has move to a new neighborhood in the middle of the school year, and on the first day at his new school the only thing going well is that he has met the strange and beautiful Mysterious Jane. Let’s take a little look at some of what happens.
Please keep in mind that important sections of how Steve begins to gain the respect of the students at school are left out of this little parable to keep the story fairly brief, but what is left brings up many of the essential issues that must be addressed if we are to wisely answer the question, What is the best way to deal with a bully?
Cool Steve Faces a Bully
On Steve’s first day at his new school, he enters his mechanical drawing class. He’s surprised to see Mysterious Jane. In his last school, there were no girls in his mechanical drawing class, and she’s the only one in this one.
Steve decides to take a seat next to her. As he sits down, he hears a kid to his right whisper to another, “Hey, the new kid’s picked the seat in front of Godzilla. This should be interesting!” Several kids start to laugh. Others have wide eyes of anticipation.
Steve glances back at who is sitting behind him and sees this monster of a student. Left back twice, and a grade ahead of Steve, Godzilla is well past his sixteenth birthday and huge for someone that age. Steve gives him a smile.
The teacher, Mr. Carmello, a big man with large shoulders and a slightly bent back, gives the class an assignment—they have to draw an engine block using a pencil, ruler, T-square, and protractor. Mr Carmello then pulls on the lapels of his well-worn gray sports jacket and cries out, “Let’s get to work!” and he begins clapping his hands like a baseball coach.
As Steve works on his project he bites on his lower lip. Aaaa, that angle looks pretty shoddy. I better erase it. Okay, slow up and get it right. Aaaa, it still looks like crap. Again he erases it. This time, ever so carefully, he tries again. Hey, that’s better.
About halfway into the class, someone in the hallway knocks on the classroom door.
“I’m going to have to step out for a minute,” says Mr. Carmello. “I expect everyone to act like adults.”
As soon as he leaves, Godzilla, the huge kid sitting behind Steve, reaches out and grabs Steve’s pencil. Upon the initial grab, the pencil digs into Steve’s paper. As Godzilla yanks the pencil toward his own project, Steve’s paper tears in half. Steve spins around and quickly sizes up Godzilla. If he goes right at him, he would be a feather colliding into a mountain. Steve screams in frustration, “Why did you grab my pencil?”
“Because da point broke on mine,” says Godzilla with a nasty smirk.
“There’s a pencil sharpener right over there!”
“Your pencil was closer,” Godzilla says, laughing.
Steve leaps up preparing to go at Godzilla. Godzilla leaps up, ready to counter-attack.
Steve, seeing Godzilla towering over him, becomes so frustrated he feels he’s going to explode. “I know I can’t take you in a fist fight,” Steve hollers, “but if you grab my pencil again I’m gonna hassle you for twenty-four hours. And I don’t care what you do to me—I’m gonna hassle you for twenty-four hours any way I can. I’m not looking for any trouble with you but I’m not gonna just sit here and take your crap!”
Then Godzilla spits in Steve’s face.
Steve grabs Godzilla’s assignment and begins to crumple it while attempting to dart down the desk aisle. Godzilla reaches out with his long arm and grabs Steve by the back of his neck with his huge hand.
Steve yanks his neck free, leaving two deep bloody scratches.
Several kids begin to yell, “Leave him alone, Godzilla! Mr. Carmello!!”
Steve runs down the aisle, leaping over one desk and heading toward the classroom door with Godzilla lumbering after him.
Just as Steve gets to the door, in walks Mr. Carmello who begins to scream, “What’s going on in here!”
* * *
Vice Principal Lantern, with his bright angry red face that matches his red hair, escorts Steve and Godzilla to the principal’s office. “You two are lucky I’m not going to handle this myself!” he hollers. “Since that student was killed, Mr. Imperiale insists on dealing directly with anyone who gets into a fight.”
“A student was killed?!” Steve exclaims.
“Quiet!” shouts Mr. Lantern. “Students are trying to learn.”
“A student was killed?” Steve repeats in a whisper. “What happened?”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss it.” Mr. Lantern replies.
Oh, this is just great! Steve thinks to himself as he’s walking down the long hallway. Just great! Marone, my neck is killing me!
“Excuse me,” says Steve to the secretary. “I have to go to the bathroom to wash my scratches.” Upon showing the secretary his bleeding neck, she grimaces and gives him permission.
When Steve gets to the bathroom, he takes off his one decent shirt. Spotting dried blood all over the collar, his face contorts. “It’s ruined. It’s ruined.” He turns the sink water on, looks at his neck in the mirror and begins to think about his first day at school—being put down at lunch because he’s on welfare, now this…well, Steve just can’t help it. He begins to cry.
* * *
Steve doesn’t cry for long, but it’s one of those cries that pours out of you leaving you feeling like something awful was released.
When Steve looks up, he gazes into the bathroom mirror for a long minute. Come on, I gotta get going, he says to himself. He shakes his head and begins washing. The warm water burns and the brown paper towels feel like sandpaper as he washes off the blood.
Slowly, Steve twists and turns to slip his shirt back on, struggling against the wrenching sharpness of his neck scratches. When his shirt is buttoned up, he sets his eyes for strength and determination.
* * *
Arriving back at the office, Steve sees that Godzilla is already in with the principal. The secretary tells Steve to have a seat until he’s called.
After a long uncomfortable wait, finally, Godzilla comes out of the principal’s office. As he passes Steve he whispers, “I’m gonna fix you good for this.”
“I ain’t looking for any trouble with you,” says Steve looking firmly into Godzilla’s eyes. “You leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone. But every time you fix me you’re gonna have to pay the price. Twenty-four hours. I’m gonna hassle you twenty-four hours. And I don’t care what you do to me. I’m not gonna just sit there and take your shit!”
“You watch your language young man!” the secretary hollers.
Godzilla, just about to respond to Steve, spots the principal coming out of his office. Quickly he puts on a smile and lumbers away.
* * *
“Step in here, young man,” the principal says in a deep voice as he points to the entrance of his office.
Steve slides his hands through his hair and complies.
“My name is Mr. Imperiale,” says the principal as he puts out his right hand. A heavy five o’clock shadow is already sprouting from his jowls, chin and upper lip even though it’s only a little past three.
“Mine’s Steve Marino,” Steve replies as he shakes hands with this symbol of authority.
“What happened in Mr. Carmello’s class?” Mr. Imperiale asks, examining Steve’s neck, his face contorting.
“I was working on my mechanical drawing assignment when the teacher had to go out in the hall. Then this Godzilla character, he grabs my pencil, and he just doesn’t grab it, but he digs it into my drawing, ruining it.”
“First of all,” says Mr. Imperiale, “the boy you had a fight with, his name is Warren, not Godzilla. He hates it when the other students call him Godzilla. Is that what you called him when he started in with you?”
“No!” answers Steve. “I just heard the other kids call him that.”
“Well, I don’t want to hear you referring to him anymore in any other way than Warren. Do you agree to that?”
“Sure, Mr. Imperiale. I ain’t looking for any trouble with anyone.”
“Go ahead, Steve finish telling me your side of the story.”
“Well, when he ruined my assignment and I asked him why he did it, he says it was because his pencil point broke. The way he said it and all, well, he had this smirk and I knew he was giving me a pile of…”
“Watch it young man!”
“Sorry. Anyways, I told this here Warren guy that if he hassles me again, I’m gonna hassle him for twenty-four hours any way I can, and then we’ll start over like nothing happened, even if I get the worse of the deal. Each time he hassles me, I’ll hassle back for twenty-four hours. I guess he didn’t like what I said because he spit in my face. So I grabbed his assignment and tore it up, and as I was trying to get away, he grabbed my neck.”
Mr. Imperiale rubs his chin. After a few moments, he says, “Where’d you get this idea about hassling someone for twenty-four hours and then letting the argument drop even if you get the worst of the deal?”
“It started with this motto I’d hear in the streets every now and then. It goes, ‘It doesn’t matter if you win or lose a fight as long as the guy who started it ends up knowing he was in one.’ I got the rest kinda from this cartoon I saw and from trying to deal with my brother Pete. In this cartoon there were these two families—the Hatfields and the McCoys. They lived in Appalachia and they were fighting for years, for generations even. Nobody even remembered what started the feud. But they kept fighting anyway—mothers, fathers, and children, generation after generation would be blown away. At some point you gotta stop. I figure twenty-four hours seems like a fair amount. Every time you try a truce, maybe the other guy goes for it. It’s worth a try. I mean even if you get the worst of the deal while you’re feuding, it’s worth a try because, well, first of all, by then the guy who started it knows you gave him some trouble—and also because I personally got better things to do than feud, capeesh?”
“I capeesh,” says Mr. Imperiale.
“Another way I got the idea was from my brother, Pete. Even though I’m a lot bigger than Pete, I learned it pays to get along with him because he can do little things to me that’s more of a hassle than a punch in the nose. Like, he’ll start screaming when I’m watching my favorite TV program and if I twist his arm till he swears he’ll stop, two minutes later he’s making a racket with his train set. Before I know it, I’ve missed my whole show. Anyway, I’ve learned that being a lot bigger than a guy doesn’t mean you don’t have to get along with him.
“Hmm, very interesting,” says Mr. Imperiale. “Steve, your plan has some merit to it. But it also has an element of serious risk. There are some people who would seriously hurt you—even kill you—rather than settle peacefully. The sacrifice you make in waging a conflict might not be worth a fair settlement. Choose your fights carefully, Steve. Choose by weighing the good things and bad things about one plan and then contrast these with that of other plans. For example, your plan, in some ways, is kind of a ‘get back’ plan. That is, if a guy does something bad to you, you try to get back at him by doing something bad to him. Your plan does have two rather original elements. You let the other guy know you’ll leave him alone if he leaves you alone. You then let the other guy know you will only hassle him for twenty-four hours and then you’ll return to peace. Let’s look at the pros and cons of this.”
Then Mr. Imperiale pulls his seat around so it is side by side with Steve’s. He takes out a pen and begins writing.
PLAN 1 (Steve’s ‘get back’ strategy)
|1. Steve can bring about a desired change even with kids much bigger than him.||1. It takes time and energy to do bad things to someone for twenty-four hours.|
|2. There is a chance of peace every twenty-four hours.||2. Steve got spit on.|
|3. Some kids will be discouraged from hassling Steve because they wouldn’t want to pay his price.||3. Steve got his neck scratched.|
|4. Some kids will respect Steve because he stood up to somebody much bigger than him.||4. Warren can do other bad things to Steve in the future
5. Some people, when threatened, would seriously hurt Steve, maybe even kill him.
After making this list, the principal says, “Let’s consider another plan. I think Warren started in with you because he knew you’re new here. Without friends to back you up, he thought he could get on your case without any problems. What do you think might have happened if you would have waited until you made friends here at Cunningham before taking any action to deal with Warren?”
Mr. Imperiale and Steve make a list that looks like this.
PLAN 2 (Put off action to deal with Warren until Steve makes friends.)
1. Steve’s neck probably wouldn’t have been scratched.
1. Steve would have still lost his pencil.
|2. Steve might not have gotten spit on.||2. Steve’s project would have still been ruined.|
|3. Steve would be home now instead of staying after school.
|3. Warren could do other bad things to Steve.|
|4. In time, Steve could get enough friends to discourage Warren from hassling him.||4. Steve wouldn’t get as much respect from kids as a ‘get back’ strategy. (Though some kids might have lost respect for Steve because they might have thought he was pretty stupid to start a fight with Warren.)
“I’m not going to ask you to decide now which plan is the better,” says Mr. Imperiale. “Just think about it over the next few days, okay?”
Now Mr. Imperiale turns very serious. “Steve, students who need to prove they’re real men by starting fights with other students don’t stay long in this school. I’m not going to put up with that kind of behavior. The community has decided that this school is to be for students who want to get an education. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Steve nods. Then Mr. Imperiale smiles and shakes Steve’s hand.
* * *
Warren, the boy that the kids at school call Godzilla, gets suspended from school for a week because he started the fight with Steve. On the day he returns to school, Steve is nervous about meeting up with him. When the bell rings to go to his mechanical drawing class, he leaps up two flights of stairs, and then hurries down a hallway lined with student art. When he steps into class, he eyes the situation. Warren is already at his seat. His teacher, Mr. Carmello, is by his desk rubbing his mustache.
“Excuse me, Mr. Carmello,” says Steve. “Let me have a minute to talk to Warren alone out in the hall.”
“I’m not letting you two alone. What? So you can get into another fight. You’re crazy. Go take your seat.”
“I don’t want to fight him,” Steve replies. “I just gotta talk with him, for a minute. Please.”
Mr. Carmello fiddles with his moustache as he considers the situation. “Warren,” he says after a few seconds, “Steve Marino over here, he says he wants to talk with you out in the hall. You want to talk to him?”
“I don’t care,” Warren answers with a tough snarl.
Mr. Carmello fiddles some more with his moustache for a few seconds. Then he pulls on the lapels of his worn gray sports jacket, clears his voice with a throaty—”Ah, hum,” and proclaims his decision. “Steve, Warren, I’ll let you two talk outside the classroom but with the door open. Both of you are to stay at all times in my sight. I’ll be watching through the doorway, but you can stand far enough away so you can have some privacy. If I hear your voices shouting or you get into a fight, you’ll just have to go immediately to the principal’s office.”
Outside in the hall, alone with Warren, Steve paces back and forth several times and then he looks up and says: “Listen, Warren, I’m stuck. My neck is still killing me. You’re twice my size. What would you do if a guy twice your size started to hassle you?”
Warren pulls his head back and his pupils, wide and open, glare into Steve’s eyes. He firmly makes an X with his arms in front of his chest while his hands grasp his shoulders. “You askin’ me?”
“Yeah, I’d like your opinion.”
“I guess… well… well I guess I like yer plan a little,” Warren answers haltingly. “I mean dat plan of yours… you know… where ya hassle somebody fer twenty-four hours. It might work wit’ some guys. It’d probably’d ov worked wit’ me ‘cause I really don’t wanna go ta no 600 school. Ya gotta take a train dere. And Mr. Imperiale, he ain’t just threatenin’ ta send me dere neither. He’d really do it ‘cause I seen him do it ta t’ree udduh kids since I’ve been heah. So yer plan might ‘ov worked wit’ me, and maybe wit’ some udduh kids too. But you do it wit’ some udduh kids—ye’re dead. Like wit’ Harold an’ Anita’s gang, the Skull Bones. Dis guy, Gary, stood up ta dem an’ ended up da next day stabbed ta death in an alley. What are ya gonna do when ya meet up wit’ dem, Steve? Huh? And yer gonna meet up wit’ dem. Everyone ‘round heah gets shit from dem. What are ya gonna do den, Steve? Huh?”
Steve has no answer. He just gets quiet and then says softly, “I heard about some teenager recently getting killed around here but this stuff about Harold and Anita’s gang, I don’t know nothing about them. All I know is I’m not looking for any trouble from you.” Then he looks into Warren’s eyes and offers him his right hand. Warren looks into Steve’s eyes, and growls, “I ain’t shakin’ ya hand yet. Ya treat me wit’ respect and maybe den.”
“That seems fair, Warren,” Steve says. “Is there anything else you want to say to me.”
“Just don’t mess wit’ me.”
Well, that’s my parable for today. By presenting it to you, I don’t mean to suggest that Steve handled this situation perfectly. The story is designed to highlight many of the issues that come up in these types of situations, and to be part of the process that urges us to continue the discussions about how to handle bullying in our schools and in other parts of our communities. I urge readers to add their two cents to the discussion by posting your comments below.
And, with that, here’s hoping you join us again real soon right here at From Insults to Respect. Until then, may you find, and may you give, some kindness throughout this holiday season, and beyond.
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 and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.