On bullies, or why I have character

Posted on Jun 30, 2021

I often joke with people that I am not as nice as my wife is. It’s a self-deprecating remark, but I do mean it. I am a nice person, just not as nice as my wife is.

I’m not as nice because I was bullied for most of my childhood. I never got beaten up (though I did get into fights), and I was never afraid to go to school (though it was a gauntlet and a crucible), but I was picked on mercilessly, incessantly, and for everything—my name, my weight, my glasses, and most of all for being smart.

When I was a young adult, I would say that the bullying led me to develop character—and, man, I wish I didn’t have character! As a middle-aged adult, I find myself wondering what that bullying really taught me. I think, in a huge way, it taught me to distrust people—especially people my own age. It taught me not to take what people said to me at face value, because venomous words are often preceded by honeyed ones. It taught me that others may switch from allies to enemies when the social situation changes, like when the bullies enter the scene.

One of my triumphs in life was when I finally made the bullying stop. After years of trying different things—there is a lot of well-meaning advice for the bullied out there to follow—what finally made the bullying stop was a 30-second conversation I had with one of my bullies, in the back of a classroom on the first day of seventh grade. After being on the receiving end of some stupid taunt, I had had enough. I turned to the kid, looked him in the eye, and said to him: “You can say whatever you want to me. You can call me whatever names you want. But you can never hurt me. You can never change my mind about myself, no matter what you do.”

For some reason I still can’t figure out, the name calling, the taunting, and the scapegoating stopped overnight—not just from that one kid; from everybody. I didn’t become popular or anything, but I was mentally strong, and everyone knew it. The bullies just stopped bullying me. I was no longer a social pariah. I made a lot of new friends that year. Even some of the kids who picked on me even became my friends before the school year was through.

That single exchange, by itself, probably did not cause the bullying to stop. Asserting that I was mentally stronger than my bullies probably would not have worked unless it were really true. It was the last of a series of defenses I developed over the years. It was the strongest one, but I may not have developed it if I hadn’t developed others before it, like wit, determination, and resilience.

Bullying has shaped me to be someone who, as I have been told, does not suffer fools gladly. It has made me wary of people and likely to question others’ intentions, which is a great skill in political situations and in some professional situations, but it isn’t that useful for socializing at a picnic. It has also shaped me into someone who has tremendous sympathy for the downtrodden, quiet underdogs of the world. I can empathize with the pain of others. I know that true friends are rare and precious. I know that inner strength is hard won.

I also know that I am not as nice as other people, because other people were not as nice to me. So I try, really hard, to be nice, even when it is difficult, because people deserve better than I got when I was a kid.