“No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his well-being, to risk his body, to risk his life, in a great cause.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of United States
I want to say I was about 7 years old, maybe 8, when I had my first encounter with a bully. His name was Tray, I believe, — a bully name if I ever heard one — and he was a good deal bigger than me. I was on the small side until I hit about 12. I don’t remember why he had it out for me, though he probably recognized some budding of manliness which, if left unchecked, would one day usurp his reign of power and take all of his women. Or maybe he had a bad family life…you decide. It was recess and I was on the swing set when a few kids came over and told me that Tray wanted to challenge me to a fight. I accepted and walked over to a spot nearer to the school-building where the throw-down was going to take place. Though closer to the old, red-bricked building, we were around a corner which was out of sight of the teachers.
On a side note, this was in the 80’s and teachers didn’t worry about fights and things like they do now. Reagan was president and the only people who had a reason to be afraid were communists!
The rest is a bit of a blur except for a few moments which have stuck with me. Firstly, Tray and I had words which I remember thinking were fairly clever but do not remember what I said. I also remember the feeling of adrenaline; I can actually feel it now as I step back into that time and place. At some point, a crowd of kids had formed to watch the match as Tray and I were in the initial throw of things. Just as I was getting warmed up, I heard a girl call my name from the crowd. Being the gentleman I was, I turned around to see what lady might be in need of my attention. Out stepped this short, red, curly-haired girl who proceeded to slap me in the face! What the hell? This really happened! Just like in a movie, I spun back around towards my assailant who promptly took advantage of the situation and landed a good blow across my cheek.
We were next to some sort of horizontal metal pole, the purpose of which, on a play-ground, I have no idea but we played with everything back then. Being the shorter and more spry of the two of us, I used this to my advantage, and, maneuvering under and around, was able to get in a few licks of my own before the teachers finally came and broke up the fight. I’ll be honest, I was probably crying at this point, but I like to think that was from the nasty red-head who tried to cat-claw my eyeballs out and not from anything Tray did. Yes, let’s go with that.
While I suppose there was probably some repercussions for my actions, I do not recall what they were. I do recall going to school a few days later and seeing Tray in the restroom. He had a black eye!
With Fists and Mother-Wit
Looking back on the last 5 years, I am shocked at how quickly the anti-bullying agenda has taken off and also by what is deemed bullying today, compared to 20 years ago. While I would be the first to say that it is good to have safe environments for children to learn in, I can’t help but think that we have moved too severely in a direction which will do more harm than good.
Bullying Today vs. the Past
Before I jump into the meat of the article, I think it is good to acknowledge some of the real issues we are facing that didn’t exist when many of us were kids. Let’s start with the fear that has been used to sweep in anti-bully-reform.
Due to the lack of parental involvement and over-emphasis on peer acceptance, plus the pervasive view of social-media-is-reality, several young people have killed themselves after being bombarded with online and in-person smearing. What’s more, girls are now in the fight. The story of some hefty girl picking on a bunch of skinny boys is nothing new, but now all you need is Facebook and a snarky attitude, which opens the fray to all-comers. Where boys used to have it out and be done with it, girls tend to revel in the gossip. The danger, from both girls and boys, of mean-spirited prattle to spin out of control and push someone over the edge is real. However, when we shame people for sticking up for themselves, because in a sense that is not tolerant — which, now, is of course a form of bullying — what options do they have? And, when we tell children that anytime a person severely disagrees with them, particularly their sexual orientation or, God help us, gender identity, that they are being bullied, how will they know real bullies from schoolyard punks when they get older?
We teach children they are part of a cosmic accident, descended from apes, then expect them to sit still in the classroom, be kind to each other, and stop humping one another in the bathrooms. I don’t think this way is working.
Instilling Courage Instead of Blame
If kids are committing suicide as a result of bullying, and we can perhaps stop that, then what is the big deal? The problem is in the message more than the intent. There was a time when, if a boy came to his dad and said, “Johnny is taking my lunch money and flushes my head in the toilet,” dad would say, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” In other words, there are a few choices here: One, keep letting Johnny be a bully; Two, try to talk it out with Johnny; Three, put Johnny on his ass, the latter being the oft encouraged recommendation.
The difference here is that the issue was seen to be our own lack of courage and fierceness rather than putting the blame on Johnny. If the world produced bullies, as it often does, the solution is to become stronger and smarter than the bully, and to stand against him. If a kid came home and said, “The boys at school are calling me names,” the problem didn’t lie with the kids at school, it was your own responsibility to either accept or shrug off their comments.
One quick note on the anti-bully movement that is happening. We had this back in my day as well. It went something like this and it seemed to work fairly well in the long run: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
While I believe it should be a last resort, there is a time to let a person know they have crossed a line, and if they continue to disrespect boundaries you have made clear, or they should otherwise know, there will be consequences. Sometimes this means standing up for yourself, but it may also mean standing up for others. I recognize that not every man, much less every kid, can defend themselves against an aggressor. It is the responsibility of the strong — or the willing — to defend the weak.
One issue we are running into today is that boys aren’t allowed to roughhouse and get into scrapes like they used to. They don’t know their own strength, and worse, they don’t know their own emotions. They don’t have the wherewithal to know when to quit. This can be addressed with some practical training in martial arts or wrestling. Allowing a boy to spar, to feel pain in a controlled environment, and to come to terms with his own ability and inability to handle himself, is tremendously important. I got into a number of fights when I was younger, but after I began taking Taekwondo, it almost never happened again. I believe this has to do with a certain confidence you find through training that others recognize.
Mother-Wit is a type of intuition which helps keep you out of scuffs. Some call it street-smarts, others common sense. It is the ability to recognize a dangerous situation and either avoid it, or cleverly find your way out of it. And, while it may sometimes feel innate, it is actually learned and honed over time. Boys who are not tested, when they sit in a classroom, sit at church, sit in front of the TV, sit down to eat, will find themselves sorely lacking in Mother-Wit when it comes time to stand up for things they believe in.
After our infamous “fight on the playground of 1980-something”, Tray and I were cordial. We never became best of pals, but we never fought again. Tray never showed up, years later, at school to knife me in the kidneys, either. Could we have worked things out, had a teacher sat down and helped us through it? Perhaps. But, strange as it may sound in our time, after our fight, I respected Tray and I believe he respected me.
Putting a bully on his backside may not always be the proper solution. However, when that solution is needed, it’s good to have some men around who know how to get it done.