A young boy named Jack, slight of build and mildly bookish, has a very serious problem. It dominates his school days and colors nearly all of his social life. He has a hard time escaping his problem because it seems to be nearly everywhere he turns. It’s in this class. It’s in that class. It’s in the hallways and at lunch, and sometimes after school too. It’s always in the back of his mind, and sometimes it literally slips up on him and terrorizes him. Jack is too young to understand that all problems are temporary, and that this too shall pass. All he knows is what he knows from the first dozen-odd years of his life.
Jack is dealing with a bully. The bully is larger than he is, is obviously stronger than he is, and he threatens Jack every day at school, every chance he gets. What does Jack do?
Jack has no idea of it, but he is at a fork in the road of his life. If he follows one path, he suppresses his problem. If he has a father living in the home in which he is growing up, and it’s increasingly common that boys don’t have that, he may say something to his father about it. But chances are, the father has been raised in the modern American way of thinking, which is that fighting is never right. He offers Jack no clear or effective way to deal with the bully. “Talk to him” and “avoid him” are equally ineffective options. At school, Jack knows that his teachers know that he is being bullied, but there is nothing that they can do about it. In fact, no one in his immediate community can help him at all. The bully is just smart enough to avoid getting into any serious trouble at school, while he is also just smart enough to know which of Jack’s buttons to push to hurt him in ways that leave no marks on the outside. Jack is trapped. This is his life.
This goes on for years, well into Jack’s high school years. The bully has become more and more arrogant and more and more contemptuous of any attempts to curb his behavior. Jack has become more and more withdrawn, and feels more and more alone with each passing day. These should be some of the most carefree days of his life, but Jack is miserable.
Jack is growing into a bitter, passive-aggressive young adult who cannot bring himself to really trust anyone. When he needed help from the adults around him, none of them had any answers for him. His grades suffer. He simmers with anger all the time, though he mostly hides it well. He has to submit to counseling and is soon put on a drug regimen to counter his moods. In his dress and appearance he exudes a dark image that belies his inner terror and weakness. His only outlet, the only way he finds any equalizer in his life, is when he goes online to play first-person shooter video games. He prestiges up the ranks faster than anyone. He knows his way around every digital battlefield. His kill-death ratio is ridiculous.
The bully’s arrogance grows and grows into a life of violence and eventually petty crime, then more serious and more violent crime, but society never stops him. Jack will probably never be a truly happy, fully functioning adult. And that’s if he doesn’t do what he is secretly planning to do. This Jack cannot imagine being free of his bully, ever.
If Jack follows another path, though, things may turn out differently. Suppose that Jack talks with his father when the bullying first begins, and his father tells him that if it comes down to Jack having to defend himself, and he takes that action, he won’t face any punishment at home. “You may have to stand up to him, son, but you shouldn’t be afraid because most bullies are weak inside. I guarantee you, they’re scared that you’ll fight back. And I’ll back you 100 percent no matter what.” Suppose that Jack comes to understand that not only do his teachers know about the bully, but they also realize that sometimes the only way to deal with such boys is to stop them from growing into worse men. One day in the seventh or eighth grade, the bully menaces Jack as he always has, but this time for whatever reason, Jack fights back.
It’s all over quickly, and Jack is shocked that he won the brief fight. The bully is on the floor, equally shocked, looking up at little Jack through a swelling eye. Nearby, the other kids are looking at both boys in a new light. Jack is terrified about what will happen next. His heart must be beating a million times a minute. Will he get kicked out of school? What will his dad really do? Will the bully try to get revenge later? Jack knows that he crossed a line with everyone. His life may never be the same again.
If Jack follows the first path, he suppresses his natural instinct to defend himself until it boils over into armed rage. One day he brings a gun to a fight with his bully, ending and ruining and scarring lives until he finally takes his own. Jack is the author of another modern American tragedy, and joins the ranks of the villains.
If Jack follows the second path, his life at school begins to change. The bully tries confronting him again a year or two later, but all Jack has to do is get that look in his eye, the same one he had the day they fought, and Jack never needs to throw a punch again. That’s a good thing, because inside, Jack still knows that he won mostly by taking the bully by surprise. The bully would probably win a second round. The bully doesn’t have to know that.
The bully’s life changes too. He learns from the humiliation of losing a fight to little Jack that he isn’t as invincible as he thought he was. That fight cost him his rank in his own clique, but it also weakened the bully boys’ clique itself. No one gets out of their way in the hallways anymore. Some kids who used to fear him even laugh at him for a week or two.The clique know they’re not above the system, especially after the school chose not to discipline Jack in any way for defending himself. The bully group still runs on the edge of the rules but they no longer think that they’ll get away with everything anymore. That little kid proved that they can’t. The school backing the little kid made the little kid bigger, and made the big bullies a little smaller. Jack’s punch was an equalizer. As for Jack, he and his friends play first-person shooters, but they’re not the only things in his life. He’s good at them, but he’s good at several things and bad at several other things, like every other kid in school.
Years go by. Jack and his former tormentor graduate from high school and go on with their lives. They never see each other again after their school years, but neither of them turn out to be anything other than normal adults.
More years go by. Jack is married now and has kids of his own. He finds himself living in a decent neighborhood, but one summer night well past midnight he hears noises outside. He peeks out his window and sees an altercation going on in the street. He can’t tell how many people are involved, but he can see in the streetlights that there may be eight or a dozen of them, a mix of men and women. They’re arguing, he hears punches thrown and car doors slam and insults fly, and it looks like one man is moving his car to block the cul-de-sac. No one will be able to get in our out of Jack’s part of the street.
Jack doesn’t know or care what the man is up to. He doesn’t care how many of them there are out there. He only cares that his family and neighbors are not going to be blocked in by anyone.
Jack is not armed, but the people out in the street don’t know that and they don’t need to. They don’t need to know that he’s scared, either. They only need to know that he exists and will not be bullied. He grabs his phone and a hefty Maglite and goes outside. Standing in his front yard, he turns on the light and shines it directly at the man in the car. The man blinks and shields his eyes with his hand, blinded. Jack loudly announces that he is calling the police, and he dials, and standing there in the yard in full view of everyone, tells the dispatcher what he is seeing.
The man reverses and moves his car out of the way. The fight breaks up, and within a couple of minutes a police cruiser arrives just as the last of the disturbers are driving away.
Police step up their patrols of the area for a few weeks to make sure none of the brawlers return. Criminals get word that the people who live on that street will not sit by. They will step up. They won’t be bullied into accepting a building threat to themselves, their families and their property.
If we trace the events of that summer night back to their origin, it all turns on how Jack dealt with his bully, and just as importantly, on how the society around him framed his response to the greatest problem he faced in his most formative years.