I Was Bullied In High School Because I Was Quiet, Jewish, And My Grades Were High.
And I wanted to take it out on each and every one of the students who made that formative experience a misery.
Tomorrow is my 55th birthday. Indulge me, please, while I pull back the curtain.
I woke this morning taking stock, asking myself questions such as Why am I who I’ve become? And, Why am I always ready to fight?
The truth is, I’m not ready to fight physically, but as is patently obvious on my social media I am extremely opinionated and unafraid to express myself. I will confront anyone and anything who I believe is doing wrong to another. Any sort of racism or discrimination over religion, sex or sexual identity, or race particularly incenses me. And, as I’ve said before, I’ll own my hypocrisy. The internet is forever, and I haven’t been kind to certain groups myself, most particularly those I consider Donald Trump sycophants (as opposed to supporters), and those who act “holier than thou” and justify racism, homophobia, and misogyny due to their religious beliefs.
My chronic opposition to those who condone bullying of any type emanates from the same place, the same wellspring:
I was mercilessly bullied in high school by older students, in part because a) I allowed it to happen, and b) I allowed it to continue.
Being Bullied: My Personal Psychology
I can, obviously, only speak of my own experiences (but do let me know in the comments if you can relate to my words). The beginning of my high school years correlated with a family relocation from Queens, New York, to upstate’s Middletown. I was near the top of the Honor Roll throughout most of my pre-high school experience, and that reputation carried into my freshman year of high school in no small part due to exclamations from my teachers. My classmates realized early I was being treated more favorably than most; I became the “teacher’s pet” in nearly every class. The teachers called on me first. They had me correct others. To make matters more intolerable, this all happened in the midst of a horrible puberty. My face was ridden with acne and my self-esteem had taken a downturn. Suddenly, I was horribly shy around female students I pined for. I didn’t need any of this pressure. I shut down to everyone ... which led some to believe I had a superiority complex. I didn’t allow anyone to know me, as I felt more comfortable being an aspiring writer and a collector-fan of all things horror and Star Wars.
In other words, I allowed myself to become a loner. Impossible expectations led me to seek shelter.
Though I wanted nothing more than to have a girlfriend who understood me, I was called a “fag” and worse during my freshman year. I was not gay, but it didn’t matter. I was physically slapped around. My knapsack was knocked to the ground more than once. When I was asked to “pick it up,” it was kicked out of the way. I became a laughingstock as I wouldn’t fight back.
The perception of having no one to talk to was immensely difficult. The teachers loved me, but that didn’t add to any personal cool factor so I began to stay away from them as well. I stopped answering their questions in class, and my grades began to suffer. I said nothing to my parents, outside of the work being tougher than I expected, as I didn’t want to worry them.
I lived inside a shell. I was horrified to go to school.
Down deep, truthfully, I was hurt and confused. Prior school experiences were just the opposite. I had close friends. We shared news on the latest comic book stories, and shoveled snow from neighbors’ driveways together for $5 a pop. We talked movies and pro wrestling, and who we wanted to marry. We played racquetball and “shot hoops” (basketball) in the spring and summer.
And then, high school changed everything. I went from going home unable to stop talking about the “great day I had,” to crying in my bedroom every night while smothering my face with a pillow so my parents couldn’t hear my sobs.
I was becoming increasingly agitated, and I wanted to take out my anger on each and every student who bullied me.
Wrestling With Anger
I had heard in advance about the “harmless initiations” in Middletown High, but I knew what was going on with me was not right. I also knew that taking any sort of revenge was wrong. I only wanted to get through my days, not cause another set of issues.
In truth, I wanted them all to suffer. Thankfully, I retained a degree of control.
My two brothers and I were raised well by loving parents. One night, one of my brothers casually mentioned to my dad that he heard a classmate, who lived in our neighborhood, ask another student if I really was a “gay Jew bitch.”
My father hit the roof. He wanted to know who was spreading such things about me, and why. He was ready to immediately drive to the school to speak to my principal and file a report on the student.
Such was the love we have always shared in my family. In that regard, I’m one of the fortunate ones.
But I remember that night well. It was nearly 10PM. We were watching a live MSG Network transmission of that night’s pro wrestling event — once a month we were able to go to sleep an hour later on a school night to watch the latest then-WWWF (now WWE) show — and there was an hour left to the program.
I told my dad not to worry about it, and he reluctantly let the matter go.
I knew I had to do something, though. Something productive, preferably.
A Decision Had To Be Made
I joined Middletown High’s wrestling team, shocking my parents and my classmates alike. The latter were not aware of my athletic inclinations. My parents knew I was unhappy and something more was happening in school than I was letting on, but were supportive of my decision.
I appeared at a try-out, and immediately made Junior Varsity. Why wrestling, of all possible sports?
Because my bullies were on the team. To say they were stunned when they saw me is an understatement. They were, but they were heartily laughing as well.
I was left alone for a week. No incidents. Other students, and some teachers, were discussing how I was now on the wrestling team … and that I would never last. I was a veritable beanpole, about 125 pounds soaking wet.
My coach told me the four bullies on the Varsity side were biding their time, and I had to work harder than them to get to where I wanted to be.
It was time to get to work, and prove myself.
First Day of Training
I almost killed another student. Literally.
The coach was irresponsible. The team members were asked to undertake a 10-second stamina drill. We had to give bear hugs to another team member, and then take a bear hug in return.
When it was my turn to take the bear hug, I tensed my body to where I felt weakened, but okay, after. When it was my turn to deliver the bear hug, the coach swapped out my teammate … with one of my tormentors.
The others paid little attention; they had their own bear hug drills to complete. We got in position, the coach blew his whistle, and I squeezed as hard as I could for the ten seconds. I took every last bit of strength, every last bit of my frustration and pain, and in my compliance didn’t want to let go. When the whistle blew to release, the student slumped from my arms to the floor.
He passed out. The coach had to bring him to, and an ambulance had to be called. He passed out again while sitting on the bleachers.
I found out later that day, in the principal’s office, that, as Coach Stewart (not his real name) was well aware of my issues, he had intended to put a stop to them right there. I also found out that I broke two of the student’s ribs, and if I kept the grip on for longer it could have been disastrous.
I was dismissed, and walked slowly back to my class. I heard the principal yelling to my coach about insurance issues, and what could have happened to that student if I did not release the hold. In that order.
The coach was suspended for two weeks. He was not fired.
He should have been. Though he said part of his intent was to help me, it was extraordinarily irresponsible of him to have asked any of the students to participate in this particular drill.
Interestingly, word spread, and I was not bothered again throughout high school. But I remained miserable as I watched other freshman being bullied in my place. From the same group of kids, including the one I had hurt.
I stayed on the team for another month before quitting.
I remained quiet, got my grades back up, and eventually graduated.
I loathed every second of it, as I just couldn’t shake the memories whenever I walked down those hallways.
Repercussions and Lessons
College was an eye-opening experience. I met my first girlfriend early, had a relationship that lasted nearly three years, had great grades and close friends.
Literal old-school popularity. Everything became as it once was … but for one thing: I took on the role of self-anointed protector.
I had gay friends who were picked on, even in college, and I advised their tormentors to stay away. I was lifting weights and practicing martial arts, and had developed a certain physical presence that was taken seriously by most who knew of me.
I had worked for that presence from my first day in college. I would no longer tolerate any racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other form of bullying or hatred targeted to others. I did not get into any fights, nor did I ever threaten to do so. Classmates simply no longer messed with me, nor anyone with whom I was friendly.
As I said earlier, tomorrow, I’ll be 55 years old. I was looking back this morning, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, and — in the spirit of a Monday Morning Quarterback — drew two conclusions that likely would have spared me some difficult emotion:
- I should have reported my incidents to the principal, and should have done so when it happened the first time.
- I should have spoken to my family about what was going on, and not been embarrassed by the thought of doing so.
For those reading this who are bullied today, I would strongly recommend speaking to someone you trust, or in lieu of that possibility seek the advice of a professional. Various online sites list specific strategies as to how best to deal with bullies.
Utilize discretion with your conclusions.
The two general schools of thought are to either stand up to a bully, or turn your back and walk away. Neither option works for every occasion. Reporting the incidents will work more often than not, and I wish I had the sense to do so when I was going through my troubling times.
Today, I’m long past my college physicality but the spirit remains. I know it’s the right thing to forgive. I try. Sometimes I am able; sometimes I look back and I am not.
Still, I’ve long since moved on.
Save for one thing: I will never tolerate hate or bullying. Never. I will have the back of most anyone who is abused. My political viewpoints? All related. Right or wrong, my truth is I will always fight for the underdog, and for those who consider themselves victims of bullying.
Bullies act upon their own insecurities. Most of us as adults are able to recognize that as fact. Still, to the bullied none of that matters. When you are bullied, in the moment you either strive to survive or want to die. Two extremes, both statistically valid. Depression issues, suicides, long-term trauma and PTSD, even deadly school violence can result.
I will never look away again. Don’t ever expect me to.
Thank you for indulging me.
If you found this article of value, feel free to recommend, share and follow me here on Medium (and I will follow you back), where I publish new stories daily on a variety of topics.