Business Casual: The Third-Grade Bully
It’s hard to say why one story out of all the hundreds we read about or hear about reaches out and grabs us. But the story of the young man, the student at Rutgers, who killed himself after two classmates videotaped a romantic encounter he had with another man and subsequently posted it on the Internet, is one that has not let go of me.
The tragedy of a young life lost contrasts sharply with the sheer pettiness of the bullying that prompted the death.
The incident and its consequences are sad on so many levels, but mainly for the waste of lives – the one that was ended and the ones that are forever altered by what seems to be a thoughtless stunt prompted by having to vacate a dorm room for the evening.
This was not some grand-scale revenge or part of an organized campaign of homophobic payback. It appears to be just a stupid act of bullying by a pair of 18-year-olds too self-absorbed to think through the consequences – and perhaps too afraid of their own vulnerabilities.
I remember with extraordinary clarity exactly when and where I began to figure out a few things about bullies.
I was six years old, at a school picnic in the park, playing with a group of my first-grade classmates on a wooden merry-go-round. A group of older kids – third-grade boys, led by a scowling little ruffian in an orange T-shirt – decided to give us a real ride.
With no warning, they pushed the merry-go-round to make it spin faster. We screamed, we lost our balance, we fell, we cried. Of course, teachers quickly intervened, consoled us and shooed the perpetrators away with stern warnings.
As he was running off, the kid in the orange shirt turned around and yelled over his shoulder, looking, I felt sure, straight at me: “Cry-baby!”
It stung all the more for being true.
Later in the afternoon, we all went to a skating rink adjacent to the park. That suited me just fine. I was actually pretty good on roller skates, so I had a fine time skating beyond the safe little corner where the other first-graders congregated.
On the other side of the rink, I came upon the most astonishing sight my young eyes had ever beheld: Holding onto the rail, slipping and falling on the unfamiliar skates, face red with embarrassment and – yes! – tears, was the boy in the orange shirt. This time it was he who was being comforted by adults.
Who knew that bullies had their own weaknesses? That was new information to be pondered and processed.
For the sake of a satisfactorily symmetrical ending, I would like to report that I skated up and shouted “Crybaby!” right back at the orange-shirted kid. I didn’t. I simply zipped back to my buddies as fast as I could to tell them what I had seen.
I can’t claim to have been impervious to bullies and petty tyrants ever since that long-ago day in the park, but it provided the beginnings of some useful insight. I have sometimes been able to rise to the occasion and stand up to a bully or speak out when bullying was imminent. I’ve sometimes managed to keep quiet when I was tempted to retaliate in kind. And I’ve faced the fact that we all have a bit of the third-grade bully in us.
There is some active cruelty involved in bullying, but there is also fear and insecurity and desperation. Bullies are often trying to get in the first lick, to distract from their own weaknesses.
When you add technology – the Internet, cell phones, video cameras – to the mix, bullying becomes easier and more detached from reality.
Cyberbullying must seem, to the bulliers if not to the bullied, less personal. At least my 8-year-old tormentor had to look me in the eye when he called me a name.
I don’t know – or, honestly, even want to know – the back stories of the two students who decided to post an Internet video of someone they didn’t like or were inconvenienced by. I’m sure they have their demons. I just wish they had found another way to combat them.
I mourn, with others, the sad consequences of their act.