High School, 1979. I was a sophomore, bullied mercilessly by the school jocks. In Junior High I was popular, though I was almost left back due to a miscue on the part of my English teacher. Thankfully, that worked itself out due to some well-timed interference on the part of my dad.
I swore to myself I would do anything not to have him get involved like that again. I swore I would take care of my own business from there forward.
Upon a family move from Queens, New York to upstate Middletown, while I was expecting great things I could neither make new friends nor escape from an early label as a “teacher’s pet.” I was bookish, skinny and wore glasses. The “Star Wars” T-shirts — one for every day of the week — didn’t help matters.
The image, in its entirety, was all it took.
In truth, as my teen hormones were raging all I could think of was trying to find a girlfriend. But something happened during my family move. I became painfully, torturously shy.
I had as much chance of finding a mate as I did winning the state lottery.
I withdrew. My grades suffered; I stopped answering questions in class as the jocks called me “fag,” “Jew bastard,” and worse.
The assault was unending. When my father found out with what his son was dealing, he was once again ready to barge into the principal’s office and hold nothing back.
I was embarrassed. I appreciated my dad’s anger but this was not his business.
It was mine.
I decided to do something about it.
I was not looking at doing anything illegal. I came from a terrific, very close family. Instead, I began lifting weights. Many reps of heavy barbells and dumbbells. Isometrics. Running.
I worked myself into great shape, and my body notably changed.
Though I was still an introvert, I elected to join the jocks on their home turf.
I elected to join the wrestling team.
I tried out and made Junior Varsity, straight away.
What was bad before, though, became worse. The jocks believed I showed some serious nerve joining their team. I didn’t care; I thought I needed to show them all up as an authentic grasp for respect.
I began receiving threatening calls at home. My lunches were stolen in school.
I was prevented from leaving the bathroom while three on my team tackled me to the ground for money and another blocked the door as they all laughed.
But I didn’t quit.
I refused to quit.
Two weeks before my first wrestling tournament, the team coach assigned us a drill. Two lines were formed, equally split at six wrestlers each.
The exercise was allegedly to enhance our endurance, in this case by overcoming bearhugs. The coach wanted to toughen us up, he explained. The person squeezing would squeeze as hard as he could for 10 seconds, while the person in the bear hug would have to take it.
I was third in my line.
I took the bearhug from one of the students who held me to the ground the week before.
It was hell. It was also utterly irresponsible of the coach, as I noticed firsthand, to do this to his team. I choked back bile; I felt my back crack. I couldn’t breathe.
But I tried to stay strong. After scant seconds of recovery, now it was my turn.
I noticed my tormentors elbowing one another and smirking as I grabbed my opponent. The coach blew his whistle and I squeezed.
As the teammates were rooting for their friend, I squeezed harder. I lost all perspective of time and space, so consumed was I with anger and a sudden need for retribution.
I squeezed still harder until his arms flailed and his head bowed.
The whistle blew. I didn’t let go. It blew again.
Though I was tempted otherwise, I finally released the hold and my teammate fell to the ground, cracking his head against the hard floor.
Blood seeped and his eyes fluttered. The coach called for an ambulance. I sensed chaos but heard nothing. Everything was a blur until the paramedics arrived.
Thankfully, by then, he was revived by another student with some orange juice as they bandaged his head with a T-shirt.
I quit the team after that misadventure. The teasing stopped.
I’d like to say “I got the girl” and became Mr. Popular … but none of that happened. High School remained torturous for me.
At the time — some 40 years ago — I liked what I did. I felt he deserved it. I learned I could take care of myself, and yet I was seriously troubled by my action, realizing just how close I came to either severely injuring, or even killing, another student.
I tried apologizing a few weeks later. He walked away when he saw me approach.
I was miserable for the rest of my high school experience, forever contemplating what could have happened if I didn’t let go.
It goes without saying bullying is highly dangerous. However, what is usually paid short shrift, until it is too late, is the danger that lies not with the bullied, but to the tormentors who are often the target of revenge. The spate of school violence by formerly bullied students, including shootings, over the last decade only reinforces — especially in the midst of a pandemic and the rest of our problems — bullying must be closely monitored.
There are lives at stake.
I hope you understand the message behind this post, which has been motivated by children around the country returning to school during an especially stressful time. I became a special education teacher for ten years, in part based on a personal understanding and sensitivity about how harrowing it could be for some school-aged kids to be accepted.
I didn’t snap, though I was close. Others have. I know the struggle. Though I no longer teach, I hope I can help with my words.
Thank you for allowing me to share my experience, and thank you for reading.
For further information on school bullying and preventive measures thereof, please visit StopBullying.gov.