Friday, January 18, 2013

I was a Bully. By Cici Kitten for Suddenly Fem

I recently learned that a childhood friend has died.  I’ll call him Billy. The newspapers say that he “died suddenly at home.” But it is widely known that that phrase is used to describe a death by suicide.  I have not been in touch with Billy for a great many years – most of our adulthood.  But a few years ago when I was back home visiting, I ran into Billy’s father.  His Dad told me, with great pride, of how well Billy was doing and how successful he’d become in the corporate high-tech world.  Billy was literally traveling the world.

The fact that Billy’s Dad talked with pride of his son’s success would be pretty typical of any dad.  But I knew there was more to it than that.  You see, when we were kids, there were times when Billy felt bullied by some of the other bigger, older children in the neighborhood.  And I, I am sad to say, was one of those older kids.  Billy’s Dad wanted me to know that the kid we once picked on had bested us in the end.

I’ve told many times that I had a very typical childhood as a boy – despite how my femme side has evolved today.  Playing sports.  Rough housing.  And basically competing at every single thing we did.  There is a stereotype that girls are cooperative and boys are competitive, and that certainly played out in our neighborhood.
  This was the 1960’s and ‘70’s.  Girls still played house and dressed up their dollies, while the boys played kickball and football and board games – competitive games with the emphasis heavily on the competition.

My mom once joked that our backyard wiffle ball games were long arguments punctuated with moments of actual play.  Why did we argue so much?   Well, partly because we never had umpires or referees.  But mostly because we wanted to win.  More so, apparently, than we wanted to play.

If this sounds like an awful childhood, I can assure you it was not.  I have many happy memories of those days… and I’m sure Billy does too.  Of long bike trails through the rural New England woods and farm fields, of catching tadpoles and salamanders in the streams and ponds, of shoveling off those same ponds for hockey matches in the winter, and late night summer games of hide-and-go-seek when the sun would stay out as late as our 9 o’clock bedtime.

It was a great childhood… as long as you got to be the bully and not the bullied. In our neighborhood, as I suspect in many, those roles shifted constantly.  Some days you were one of the cool kids, some days you were the butt of everyone’s jokes.  It’s funny now, looking back on all of those games, I can’t recall any of the wins and losses.  What I do remember is how much fun we had.  And conversely, the humiliations. 

Humiliations are worse than losses.  Losses are part of competition, and any athlete or game player learns that quickly. But humiliations cut deeper.  Personal attacks.  Insults. Days when actual fights broke out over who was “out” or who was “safe.”  Times when two-hand touch football sometimes meant a two-handed sucker punch rather than a two-handed tag.

There were no anti-bullying messages back then.  Cruel insults and taunting the loser were considered part of the game.  Part of being a man.  Even if you were still just a boy.

It’s pretty easy to look back and remember all those times when I was bullied. To feel like a victim.  When I felt picked on.  Put down.  Insulted.  Looking back now with somewhat newly aware eyes, I can see how mightily I struggled to appear strong and athletic and boyish and male.  But I had female tendencies as well.  Sadly, the better part of my nature was often out-dueled, and, when an opportunity arose, I sadly must admit that I joined in the “fun” and bullied smaller kids too.

I’m sure that I did it for all the typical reasons.  To feel strong and powerful in a world where I usually felt powerless.  To feel more like a man.  And, most curiously, just out of curiosity -- in that way that most young people have of trying on different roles as they struggle to mature and find their own identity.

I have no idea whether bullying played a part in Billy’s early passing.  I know that in addition to his career success, he struggled with alcoholism and was fairly recently divorced.  But I do know this.  I haven’t forgotten too many of the humiliations I experienced way back then.  So I’m pretty sure Billy didn’t either?  If he was like me or you, then some of those pains are as real today as when they first happened. Sometimes even more so.

As I’m typing this, I just happen to be watching the History Channel series, “Mankind: The Story of Us.”  It’s a fascinating series… a condensed history of the world.  But once again marked by competition.  Of winners and losers.  Mongols. Incas.  Spaniards.  I know it wasn’t, but it all seems so meaningless now.  These people took this land and ruled for a while Then these people took that land and ruled for a while.  And people died. And people cried.  And along the way, new weapons were created.  Iron.  Horses.  Gunpowder.  The printing press.

If you’re surprised to see the printing press on a list of weapons then you’ve totally underestimated the power of words.  Ask any child bullied on the internet today.  Words can be weapons. In the days when Billy and I were kids, we were taught that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  Today, we’ve learned that quite the opposite is true.  Broken bones heal.  Emotional wounds sometimes never do.

Emotional wounds are sometimes hard to locate.  Like that brave wiry little kid in your neighborhood who is really good at hiding in hide-and-go-seek.  The kid no one could find.  The kid who delighted in staying hidden and quiet until whoever was “It” had to give up and holler, “Ally Ally in come free.” 

The publicity of the bullying problem in America over the past few years has really touched me.  As a member of the LGBT community I know firsthand how many have been hurt – emotionally as well as physically – by bullies.  But you don’t have to be LGBT to have been bullied.  And if you’ve grown up in this society, chances are, you’ve not only been bullied, you’ve probably also done your share of bullying as well.

And that, to me, is what makes this issue so emotional.  I’d love to take back all the words that hurt me.  But even more so, I wish I could take back all the words and actions I took that hurt others.

Billy wasn’t the most or least bullied of the kids in our neighborhood.  He was a pretty typical kid actually.  But when I think of him, I am hit with pangs of guilt.  Especially today.  I wish I could take back the things I said.  I wish I could take back the things I did.  But it’s too late for all of that now. 

I’m an atheist, so I don’t pray. But I still hope that death brings some kind of peace. For you.  For me.  And especially for guys like Billy.

Ally ally in come free.

Take care out there.
Be safe. Be smart. Be sexy.


Anonymous said...

Such a well written message. It made me think and cry. Think of all the times you have said a hurtful thing to someone else. Kids and hurt and they do remember.

Anonymous said...

ssiossa 46CiCi,

YOu just do not know where you are going to stumble upon a golden gem. Not all gems are that, that you wear. I do not always read your blog, but I find myself doing so more and more. I just wanted to say that the story touched my heart. I could have written the same scenarios, myself. I can relate on so many levels. You are a good writer. The tag on the end welled up tears in my eyes.

Michellewhois said...

This article brought back so many memories of growing up in a time before the kinder gentler generation took over. I remember those games that supposedly made you look and feel stronger.

I remember how I felt when I couldn't live up to the expectations of others because I acted like a sissy only to find that because of my size my taunters hid behind me when a fight would break out.

I also remember picking on smaller kids to try and make myself look more masculine in the eyes of my "friends" only to hear them say what a jerk I was.

I also remember those that have passed on to another world living with those torments still deeply embedded in their minds. People that I must have hurt back then so that I could make myself feel better.

I hope that one day, they will forgive me for what I did and will see me for the person I have become.

FLSunShine said...

I was bullied and when I could (which was rare), I bullied just to "get even". Get even with who or how, I don't really know to this day. I was just lashing back out.

I'm lucky I'm still here, like you, wondering how to fix the times we bullied in retaliation to our own humiliations. I got hit with sticks and stones but the words still do hurt. I don't imagine they'll stop hurting, will they?

Great column as always and one we all need to read and, at least inwardly, apologize for the insults we threw to make our own hurt less. Maybe by asking for forgiveness, even though the 'target' is long gone from our lives, we can forgive those who hurt us or make our own hurts at little easier to bear.

Sandra Gibbons said...

Really nicely written post, Cici. I can relate to so much of what you say. My older brother was this awkward kid who got picked on mercilessly; being his little brother I caught some of the bullying too but found ways to hide from most of what he endured.

But yes, there were also those few times when I regret that I took it out on weaker kids. All those memories, from both sides of the bullying, can still hurt decades later. They often fade into the background with our busy life but never fully go away. ...Excellent post - thanks for sharing! ~Sandra

Anonymous said...

I was a skinny little kid. They called me "The Zipper", because that's what I looked like in profile. (Later I grew a pull-tab, but that's another story.)

I was bullied into high-school; but like others I did my share.

One day I found three boys in my grade (the sixth) picking on the kid nobody liked. His nickname was "Stinky". His family had nothing, and he had never been taught to wash often.

He was on his knees in the schoolyard, tears washing clean streaks down his cheeks. The other boys were throwing pebbles at him, calling him names, taunting him.

I picked him up by the shirt front and whispered: "When I let you go, run like hell and hide at home".

He did, and for a moment I thought I was his hero. Then I realized ... I was still bullying him. I hadn't the courage to stand up to the other boys.

I was only a very weak bully. Stronger than Stinky? Perhaps.

Or was that just the "cooperative" part showing itself for the first time?

That was nearly 60 years ago. I still feel the shame.

And still ... the pride.

Sometimes the best you can do is to pick a side. The difference between 'right' and 'wrong' is how you feel tomorrow.

CiCi said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments. and i know bullying will never be wiped out completely. neither will being mean. and i also know that we can't all beat ourselves up for things we did as kids. being a kid means learning who you are and who you want to become. and it also means not having the maturity and the sensitivity necessary to make good decisions. i'm just going to try to make sure i make better decisions in the future -- with an eye to how my words and actions might affect others.