Thursday, September 22, 2005

Some Thoughts About Bullies

I’m 6'3" tall, and weigh more than 220 lbs. To look at me, you might think that I’d be the last guy who would have had problems with bullies when I was growing up. But the old saying is true: Looks can be deceiving.

In grade school, I made some friends, but I also encountered some children who inexplicably seemed to take pleasure in causing pain to others. Much to their delight, they discovered that I had a “thin skin”.

Most of my classmates were relatively decent people. But it only takes a few outspoken bullies to make life miserable, particularly for someone who is compelled (as virtually all public school students are) to share space with such people.

Most of the bullying to which I was subjected came in the form of verbal insults. The nicknames I acquired for a number of years sound pretty childish today, but it was obvious from their behavior that the children who called me by those names were deliberately trying to hurt me. I could not fathom what I had done to deserve such treatment. More than four decades later, I still can’t.

Sometimes, I would come home at the end of the day and pour out my pain and frustration during tearful conversations with my mother. It was clear that she had a measure of sympathy for me, but she seemed impotent to do anything about the torment. The most she could say was that I should ignore the bullies. That, of course, was much easier said than done.

Occasionally, the bullying to which I was subjected became physical. For example, I remember an encounter, one day after school, with a fellow grade school student named Todd. He was standing next to the flag pole. “Come here, Pettigrew,” he said. I didn’t know what he wanted, but I hadn’t previously had any encounters with him which might have caused me to be suspicious, so I walked over to see what he wanted. The next thing I knew, he had punched me, very hard, in the stomach. I was struggling to breathe, and he was standing there looking at me with a big, stupid grin on his face, as if nothing could please him more than to attack a fellow student for no apparent reason. As far as I recall, I never did get a coherent explanation from him for the attack. The only explanation I can think of is that he was emotionally and morally retarded.

In hindsight, I find it especially bizarre that he would have chosen that spot for his unprovoked attack against me. After all, the flag pole was located right outside of the principal’s office. If the principal had looked out the window, he would have witnessed the attack. He was a kind man, and I suspect that he would have punished Todd. But that never happened.

In recent years, people have begun to pay serious public attention to the problem of classroom bullying, largely because of tragedies such as the mass murders at Columbine and other schools. I would never argue that murder was justified, but I confess that I felt a good deal of sympathy for the shooters, nevertheless, when I read about those events. Being bullied can be emotionally devastating.

Parents and teachers are not gods. It's unreasonable to expect them to watch their children every second of every day. Children with a prediliction for abusive, bullying behavior can be very good at doing so when no adults are looking. Nevertheless, I feel that parents and teachers deserve a measure of the blame when the children over which they have authority repeatedly bully other children. It is their job to protect all of those children, not only from things which would cause them physical harm, but also from the kind of psychological harm which can come from repeated episodes of bullying behavior.

When I was young, my parents had my I.Q. tested. My I.Q. score was 140. In hindsight, I feel that jealousy of my intelligence may have been one factor which motivated the bullies who tormented me. Another factor may be the fact that there’s a general perception among students that “bookworms” are “losers”, despite the fact that people who excel academically are far more likely to achieve career success later in life.

My parents understandably had high hopes for me in terms of my potential for academic achievement, especially after they got the results of my I.Q. test. But natural ability is only one factor which influences achievement. Never underestimate the importance of a peaceful environment which is suitable for learning. Thanks to the bullies, and thanks to my teachers’ inability or unwillingness to control them, I began to hate school with a passion. I never played “hooky”, but I did occasionally beg my mother to let me stay home under the pretense that I was sick. Even when I wasn’t physically sick, there was a measure of truth to that claim. I was sick of being targeted by boneheaded bullies.

When I was eleven years old, my father bought a more expensive house, located in a different school district. For about a year, I had something of a respite from the harassment. The kids in my sixth grade class didn’t know me, for the most part, and consequently, my reputation as an easy target didn’t follow me there. Until I entered seventh grade, that is. Then I learned, much to my dismay, that the school districts were drawn up in such a way that many of the kids with whom I’d gone to grade school were in the same junior high school as I. They hadn’t forgotten me, and it didn’t take long before the bullying began again.

I was never extremely overweight, but I was never much of an athlete, either. Consequently, when picking teams during gym class, I was usually chosen last, or pretty close to last, and the people who ended up with me on their team made no secret of the fact that they felt disappointed that they had ended up with me on their team. Maybe I would have been able to devote more time to sports if I had not been working hard on my classical piano lessons (which I began when I was 10 years old). Maybe, if my classmates had been taught that different children have different talents which are all worthy of appreciation, they would have made more of an effort to make me feel wanted, instead of choosing teams in such a way as to make me painfully aware of my shortcomings. But that never happened.

Memories of those humiliating experiences definitely have a lot to do with the fact that even now, I have little interest in sports. As a general rule, the sports I like to watch on TV tend to be individual sports (such as skiing, the “gravity games”, and so forth), versus sports (particularly football and basketball) where there is peer pressure to excel for the sake of the team. Advocates of such sports claim that they teach teamwork. If “teamwork” is their term for an environment where the value of individuals is measured solely by whether or not they are naturally gifted athletes and for an environment where people who do not fit that description are treated as if they are lower than dirt, then I would agree. But these are not lessons which should be taught to any child, regardless of the level of that child’s talent.

As a result of my unhappiness in junior high school, my grades began to slip badly. I did pay attention during class time, and I actually learned quite a bit (although I struggled, for a period of time, with math). The fact that I was learning was reflected in my test scores. However, homework was another story. Homework was a substantial part of every quarter’s grade, and I did so little homework in junior high that I started bringing home a lot of D’s and F’s. The only reason the school didn’t hold me back a year was that they knew, from my test scores, that the problem wasn’t a lack of knowledge or intelligence on my part. I give them credit for recognizing that I was suffering from severe emotional problems. If they had held me back, it would only have made things worse (especially since I was somewhat large for my age to begin with).

Part of my problem was that I had developed a negative attitude about homework as a result of the absurdly easy homework assignments I’d received in grade school. Those assignments didn’t challenge me. They bored me to tears. Our assignments involved things such as going through lists of words and memorizing the spellings. For the most part, I already knew how to spell those words, so I didn’t see the point. Thanks to their “one size fits all” approach to homework, I began to feel that homework was something teachers assigned just so that they could extend their dominance of my life into the hours when I wasn’t in school. That didn’t change much when I was in junior high.

To this day, I still resent work when I perceive that it falls into the category of “busy work” — in other words, work which is assigned solely for its own sake, not because it really needs to be done.

In retrospect, I think that the other factor influencing my strong aversion to homework was that I felt that it was more than enough for people to expect me to endure what seemed like hell during the hours when classes were in session. When I got home from school, it seemed to me that that was my time. I saw time away from school as my escape from an experience I loathed.

Ironically, when I was not practicing the piano or watching TV, I spent quite a bit of “my time” reading. One would think that my teachers would have been pleased by the knowledge that I was so good at reading and writing. But I learned that that is not how the “system” works. Contrary to the rhetoric, I came to realize that learning was never really the point of school. Learning to play by the rules was the point.

This is not to say that my teachers did not want me to learn. But even greater than their desire for me to learn was their desire for me to learn in the prescribed way. Everything was done according to formula, and if the the formula was inappropriate for a particular child (possibly because that child was extraordinarily gifted), that was just too bad.

I realize that public education system has changed, to some extent, since I was in grade school. Contemporary teachers seem to make a greater effort to show individual attention to their students. Yet, the very nature of public school is that it is mass-produced education. The high student-to-teacher ratios typical of most public schools virtually guarantee that students who fall outside the norm will often fall through the cracks.

(This is one definite benefit of home schooling, in my opinion. Another obvious benefit, for Christians, is that classroom content is determined by the values of the parents who are teaching their own children, not by the dictates of court decisions based on the activism of rabidly anti-Christian groups such as the ACLU.)

Anyway, as a result of the various factors cited above (as well as other factors I haven't mentioned), I lost all motivation for doing my homework. In terms of short-term consequences, I learned that I could go for long periods of time without doing any homework at all. Yes, it was embarrassing when teachers called on me in class and I had to reply that I had not done the assigned work. But I learned to live with the embarrassment. It felt as if I had nothing to lose. After all, the bullies had started treating me like garbage long before I had begun to neglect the homework. In fact, looking back, I wonder if I didn’t start neglecting the homework, in part, out of the hope that they would leave me alone if they perceived that I was struggling with school just as they were. (If that was my motivation, I wasn’t conscious of it at the time; but then, not all motivations are conscious motivations.) If that was my subconscious plan, it didn’t work. It only made things worse. Now, in terms of the way that I was perceived by my fellow students, I had become a “loser” in every sense of the word. Paradoxically, I was a bookworm who nevertheless got bad grades because I didn’t do my homework!

In terms of long-term consequences, of course, things tended to get ugly in our house when report cards came out. The typical scenario was this: I would go home and get into a verbal argument with my mother over the problem with my grades. She made it sound as if my poor grades were the result of deliberate acts of disobedience on my part. I really felt, all evidence to the contrary, as if I was trying my best. (It was only much later that I began to understand why I had found it so difficult to get motivated in terms of homework.) So I would argue with her, feeling that she was being very unfair to me.

When my father would get home, my mother would complain to him about my “bad attitude”. He would then take me into his bedroom. We would sit down together on his bed, and he would explain that my mother had reported to him that I’d been giving her “back talk”. (Funny, I always thought that it was called dialogue. Like many people with whom I’ve had to deal in life, my father was under the illusion that I had some kind of obligation to stay silent even when I felt that I was being falsely accused.)

I would sit and listen to him quietly, knowing (from experience) that he had already made his mind up and there was no point in arguing with him. Then he would repeat that old-as-dirt cliché --- “This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you, son” --- and out would come his belt. (If I could go back in time, I’d like to say this to my father: “O.K., here’s a suggestion, Dad: Since the object of this punishment is obviously to hurt me, why don’t we turn the tables and allow me to hit you, so I can claim that I’m the one being hurt the most!” But of course, I wouldn’t have dared to say such a thing at the time.) He had a thin belt, and he would hit me as hard as he could with it. To say that it was extremely painful would be a mild understatement.

Of course, he was smart enough to hit me on the posterior, where it left no incriminating marks. Not that he had any reason to fear recrimination. After all, this took place during the late sixties, at a time when corporal punishment was common in most households in my region of the country. Even if it had occurred to me to report it to the authorities, I suspect that the only result would have been that he would have beaten me even harder the next time. Of course, if the same thing were to happen today, I suspect that a parent who treated a child as my father treated me would be charged with child abuse.

Admittedly, some parents have treated their children far worse than my father treated me, but that, in my mind, is a lame excuse for what he did to me.

Some conservative Christians cite the Bible verse which says, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, as evidence that corporal punishment is endorsed by God. Conversely, many modern child-rearing experts, such as Dr. Phil McGraw, argue that corporal punishment should never be used under any circumstances. My own feeling is that the Bible is correct, but I also believe that the aforementioned verse has often been abused by parents in order to justify their abusive behavior.

It does not follow from the fact that corporal punishment is sometimes appropriate that it is the right type of punishment in most situations. Punishment, whether it comes from one’s parents or the judicial system, should always be proportionate to the offense. And what was the offense which most often led my father to beat me? Was I smoking dope? Had I been arrested for shoplifting? Was I going out with my friends and getting drunk? Was I provoking fights with other kids in school? No, no, no and no. (I did eventually fight, a few times, in self-defense against some of the bullies I encountered, but I was not a quarrelsome, mean child.) Was it appropriate for my father to beat me for no better reason than the fact that I attempted to verbally defend myself when I felt unjustly accused by my mother? NO! Even if “back talk” was an offense (and I still question that premise), it certainly did not merit a beating. Unfortunately, beating me with his belt was just about the only form of discipline (with one or two very rare exceptions) my father ever used. The idea that a punishment should be proportionate to the offense seemed completely alien to his simplistic thought process.

As for the idea that my father would try to hear both sides of the story before deciding to respond to a report about an incident he had not personally witnessed, well, that was out of the question. If my mother’s version of an incident differed from mine, it was obvious who Dad would believe and who he would not believe. In order for punishment to be effective, a child has to feel that the punishment is just. A system in which the accused is automatically presumed to be guilty is inherently unjust, and a child intuitively understands this. Hence, any punishment which is meted out without giving the accused a real voice is virtually guaranteed to fail in its intended objective, and to lead to a loss of respect for the person doling out the punishment.

When I think of all the bullies I had to deal with in school, I find myself thinking that in some respects, my father was one of the biggest bullies of them all. This is not to say that he never treated me with love and affection. I do have some good memories of my father (who died in 1999) as well. But my memories of him will always be tainted (at least in this life) by memories of that belt, and of his violent temper. (In another entry, perhaps I’ll share my memory of the time he violently threw me up against the wall, all because I had ostensibly left a football out in the yard instead of bringing it inside!)

It was during junior high that I developed a severe case of Tourette’s Syndrome, which manifested itself as a series of involuntary tics involving blinking and grunting. I didn’t know, at the time, that there was a name for what I was experiencing. I just knew that it made me miserable. Undoubtedly, the symptoms made my social problems at school worse than they would have otherwise been, even though I did my best to suppress those symptoms. The Tourette’s symptoms increased the stress between me and my parents, too, since they tried without success to shame me into stopping (when the reality was that I wanted desperately to stop)! In hindsight, I feel that one of the reasons I developed those symptoms was that I had become accustomed to flinching a lot whenever my father would beat me or threaten to do so.

Fortunately, things gradually began to get better, in some ways, once I entered high school. I attribute a substantial portion of that improvement to the fact that I accepted Christ as Savior in 1969, at the end of my 8th grade year.

However, my increased involvement with churches and church-related groups became a source of friction in my home, which shouldn’t be completely surprising when you consider some of the things Jesus said about how families would be torn apart as a result of different levels of commitment to his teachings. The fact that my father had begun an illicit and adulterous affair --- and the fact that I criticized him severely for that affair when I learned about it --- was undoubtedly one of the main reasons why he resented my increasing commitment to Christ and to biblical teachings.

I found this particularly strange, because my father had spent six years serving as a Methodist “lay minister” at two consecutive country churches (Elwood and Oakland) in the Springfield, Missouri area. (In the United Methodist church, a “lay minister” was generally someone who served a church part-time when they could not afford to pay the salary of a full-time pastor. My father’s primary profession was that of an optometrist. As a result, he had the prestige which came from being called “Dr. Pettigrew”.) At one time in my life, I had looked up to my father as an inspiring leader worthy of emulation. He forfeited the right to expect my respect when he abandoned his moral principles for a lifestyle of licentiousness.

When I became a Christian in 1969, it enabled me to see many things from a new perspective. It was liberating to realize, for the first time, that it didn't matter whether or not my parents approved of me, as long as God approved of me and loved me. During my miserable years in junior high, my self-esteem had been very low. (It's hard to feel motivated to work hard, when your self-esteem is low! In fact, one often feels that effort is futile, since it seems that some people are impossible to please.) But after I became a Christian, and after I discovered what it felt like to help others (as a result of the summer I spent working as a counselor at Teen Challenge, during the summer prior to my Freshman year in high school), I began to feel that maybe I wasn't such a despicable person after all. This gave me optimism and hope, and with that optimism and hope, I began to feel as if it might be worthwhile to spend time studying. I felt empowered to turn over a new leaf, in terms of my schoolwork. I won't pretend that I was at the top of my class, but by the time I graduated from high school in 1974, I had achieved a fairly respectable grade point average.

At the end of my sophomore year in high school, my father sat me down on the couch and announced that he and my mother were getting a divorce. He told me that he no longer loved my mother, but he would always love me and my brother. He seemed oblivious to the fact that when a parent demonstrates that love for his or her spouse is conditional and finite, it inevitably leads to insecurity on the part of all the children, who no longer have any logical reason to believe that that parent’s love for them might not likewise end at some unknown point in the future. (And in fact, despite all of the bogus assurances to the contrary, my father’s commitment to me and my brother waned noticeably after the divorce.)

Modern sociological and psychological studies have shown, numerous times, that divorce can be emotionally devastating to the children of the divorcing or divorced parents. I can attest to that fact from personal experience. It is a pathetic sign of the moral degeneracy of our self-centered culture that divorce has become commonplace, even among many who call themselves Christians. Marriage should be regarded as an inviolable covenant. When people pledge to love and cherish one another “’til death do us part”, they should take those words seriously. There may be extreme conditions (specifically, adultery) in which divorce is biblically acceptable, but God’s word makes it plain that divorce is never less than a tragedy and an abomination.

Subsequent to the announcement of my parents' impending divorce, I began to regard my father as someone who was spiritually deluded. Yet, I also regarded him as someone who might conceivably repent of his sins against his family and return to the God he had once served. I therefore prayed for him on many occasions, although in all honesty, I probably could have done so far more often than I did. I spoke with my father, on a number of occasions, in an attempt to persuade him to turn back to God. But he’d never much respected me or my opinions, and my appeals seemingly fell on deaf ears. He remained obstinate until the day he died in 1999. Even after his life had become a mockery of his former life as a result of his alcohol addiction (to the point that I once saw him so drunk that he couldn’t put his own pants on when I went to visit him), he continued to maintain that he had been justified in making the choices he made, and he continued to treat me as if I was his inferior --- never mind that I had successfully resisted the temptation to repeat his mistakes in terms of the sexual sins and the alcoholism.

My mother believes that God has shown her that my father eventually experienced a “deathbed conversion”, similar to that experienced by one of the two thieves which died on a cross alongside Jesus. I don’t know whether that’s the truth, or just wishful thinking.

In the Bible (I Corinthians, Chapter 13), it says that love “hopes all things”. That, to my mind, means that we are morally obliged to give people the benefit of the doubt whenever it's feasible to do so.

Even though I said some pretty harsh things to my father on a few occasions when he was alive, I did love him. Therefore, I would like to think that he got saved and went to Heaven when he died. I never really saw any evidence of such a conversion, but anything is possible. One thing I do know: If I see Dad in Heaven, I hope that he will be a radically different man from the father I remember. I have no desire to repeat the painful episodes of the past.

When I became a Christian, it definitely made a positive difference in my life. Nevertheless, the years of abuse I suffered at the hands of fellow students and my own father left their mark on my personality. To this day, I strongly resent people who treat me in a manner reminiscent of the bullies of my childhood.

I try not to walk around with a chip on my shoulder. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. However, it has become abundantly clear to me over the years that people who were bullies when they were children typically remain bullies as adults, unless something radically changes their way of thinking. Some former schoolyard bullies go on to commit serious crimes, landing them in prison or worse. Most simply find a way to bully other people in a more socially acceptable way. Many of these people become authority figures (such as police officers, bosses, teachers, politicians, military leaders and even pastors) because doing so enables them to delude themselves into thinking that they are entitled to treat other human beings with contempt. I would not wish to be in their shoes on Judgment Day.

How should a Christian respond when subjected to verbal abuse? Ideally, he or she should respond as Christ did when he was arrested, falsely accused and crucified; namely, by accepting such abuse as a necessary aspect of a life of obedience and discipleship. But I have not achieved that level of perfection in my life. I am still capable of anger when I feel that I am not being treated fairly.

It bears mentioning that even though God is longsuffering (meaning that he endures our rebellious ways even though he has no obligation to do so), and even though his love for mankind is infinite, his patience is not infinite. If God’s patience were infinite, there would be no final Day of Judgment. The Bible makes it clear that Judgment Day will come. It may be unpopular to say so, in this age of moral relativism, but Hell is real.

Therefore, just as God’s patience is finite (even though his love is unlimited), so also my patience with those who would abuse me is finite. I am not in rebellion against all human authority, but I do rebel against people who act as if the fact that they are currently in positions of authority over me entitles them to disregard my feelings and needs, and to level accusations against me which have no merit.

Dr. Phil McGraw has stated, on his very successful TV show, that you teach other people how to treat you, by the way that you respond to their treatment. If there are no negative repercussions attached to the abuse of others, then that abuse will most likely continue --- and that is not acceptable.

Because God loved me so much that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for me, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my life has value. I will not allow others to treat me as if that is not the case.

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