The sad case of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old gay kid who committed suicide after being bullied, has inspired Lady Gaga to try to get involved in the situation. She’s insisting that bullying be made illegal. Since she’s a spoiled pop star suggesting an idea that’s about as sensible as wearing a meat suit, she probably won’t have much luck with it. And she certainly shouldn’t.
That being said, I have more empathy for Jamey Rodemeyer and other kids like him because I was bullied in high school and can tell you that it’s a horrible experience. Not only are you afraid that you’re going to be physically attacked, you flinch from the terrible things that are said about you. Worst of all you feel badly about yourself for allowing it to happen. It turns run-of-the-mill experiences — like walking from class to class, getting on a bus to go home, or finding out who’s going to be in your homeroom — into anxious nightmares.
You know why I was bullied? I was a quiet, meek, non-confrontational kid who liked to read and had zero interest in getting in fights. In other words, I was an easy mark. There was really nothing more to it than that. As I look back at it now, I can’t think of a single thing I ever did to merit being bullied. I didn’t mouth off, I didn’t pick on people, I didn’t want any conflict (as opposed to the present, where I’ve learned to revel in political warfare). This is one of the many reasons that to this day I roll my eyes when people say, “Why do they hate us?” I damn well know from personal experience that there are a lot of evil people who will try to hurt you for no other reason than because they think they can get away with it.
Let me also note that the tactics most people advocate to combat bullying are laughably ineffective. If you get bullied, go tell your teacher! Call a bullying hotline!
The reality is that if the teachers were really keeping a close eye on everything that’s going on around the school there wouldn’t be any bullying going on in the first place. The biggest reason bullies can exist is because teachers don’t pay attention to what’s happening most of the time.
Moreover, what does occur if you tell a teacher? The bully gets called into the principal’s office and he’s told not to bully you. Then you’re in exactly the same situation you were in before, but now the bully is really angry at you because you ratted him out. Now he’s really interested in getting a piece of you and there are dozens of little ways he can intimidate you. He can threaten you, he can pretend like he’s going to hit you, he can say mean things about you on Facebook, he can stare at you with a menacing glare — and keep in mind that this is someone you’re already afraid to deal with. What are you going to do? Go back to the principal and tell him the bully was looking at you funny? Give me a break. Additionally, you have to keep in mind that schools are extremely reluctant to expel students. So unless a bully goes completely over the top and brings a gun to school or knifes somebody, he’s probably not going to get kicked out. That means you’re going to see him almost every day, all year long.
So, what do you do? Call Lady Gaga? Lobby Harry Reid to make bullying illegal? No, of course not. There’s actually a time-tested, extremely effective way to deal with bullies that has worked for thousands of years.
It’s called punching them in the mouth.
It’s what I learned to do. I had to learn it because much to my dismay at the time, my father insisted on it. He took great pride in telling me a story about my brother who was pushed around by a bully at our local low-end country club. My father told my brother that the next time that bully started something, he had better hit him back. My brother was apparently more scared of my father than the bully because the next time my father took him to the country club and he ran into the bully, he fought back. My brother and the bully went at it man to man for a good five minutes. My father wouldn’t let anyone break them up. When it was over, the two of them went their separate ways and the bully never laid another hand on my brother.
Incidentally, that’s how it almost always worked with me, too. Inevitably, since bullies like to pick on people who are weaker than they are, they were always bigger than I was. So, when I fought back — and that happened several times over a two-year period — I won some and I lost some. But in every case, the bullying stopped right there.
There was one thug, for example, who picked on a lot of people. Most of the kids were a little afraid of him. We happened to both be at the Boys Club. (How much good would telling a teacher have done there?) He tried pushing me around. I decided I’d had enough and told him so. He ran at me to try to punch me and somehow or another, I bent down and actually managed to flip him over my back. He landed weirdly on the floor and didn’t get up for a few minutes. His arm was in a cast the next day. And that was the last time I ever had a problem with him.
Another time, there was a kid who was probably two years older than I was, 3-4 inches taller, and he outweighed me by 100 pounds. He had been picking on me. We were both on the basketball court at school. He walked up behind me and then out of the blue, he just put me into a headlock. The moment he let go, I turned around and slugged him in the face three times. He was so surprised and stunned by the punches, he didn’t even get off a single shot. Both of us were then sent to the principal’s office and we were both paddled (Again, this is what happens when the school gets involved. They didn’t see and hear every second of it; so the bully and the victim are treated as though they are equally at fault.) After that, bizarrely enough, that kid bent over backwards to be nice to me.
Eventually, I got to the point where I didn’t want to fight, but I didn’t walk away from any fights either. I can still remember a guy running his mouth to me. I responded, “F*** you, let’s fight!” He then said, “Uh, I was just kidding.” My response to that was to look him straight in the eye and say, “I wasn’t kidding at all.” He then found reason to make himself scarce. You want to talk about “building self-esteem”? Having a moment like that will do more to build a teenage boy’s self-esteem than any class he can ever take. Starting high school as a kid who’s bullied and ending it as someone that bullies are afraid to lay a hand on will change how you view yourself for the better, too.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that this is easy advice to give to a kid, especially one who’s intimidated, scared, and conflict-averse. What I will tell you is that it’s the right advice to give to kids, especially to kids who are being bullied.
There’s an old line from a Kenny Rogers song called “Coward of the County” and it goes, “Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.” Some people will deny that, but it’s true, and no matter what they may tell you, boys who are being bullied know it’s true. That’s a big part of the reason that the bullying bothers them so much.
The good news for kids in that situation is that it doesn’t matter where you start; it matters where you finish. As timid as I was at the beginning of high school, by the time I was in college, I was taking Southern Long Fist Kung Fu and engaging in raucous sparring sessions. I came away from more than one of them with a black eye. Another time, my instructor kicked me in the chest so hard that the next day — and this is not an exaggeration — there was a bruise in the shape of his shoe imprinted on my body. Sound scary? I came to love it. There was just something exhilarating about taking a huge shot and continuing to move forward or delivering a crushing punch into another human being’s body. I got into it so much that to this day, I still have a heavy bag in my bedroom so I can get a little exercise driving it across the floor with punches, kicks, and knees.
Now, that doesn’t mean you should look for fights. To the contrary, you should avoid fighting if you can. You could get hurt, which is bad. You could hurt the other guy, which isn’t bad at all if he deserves it, but there could be legal ramifications. So, if possible, it’s always best to walk away from a fight. But, you should walk away with your pride intact. No one is allowed to put his hands on you. No one gets to threaten to beat you up. No one gets to physically abuse a friend, family member, or someone who’s under your protection. If you can dissuade people from doing that verbally, that’s for the best, but there is a time and a place to use violence against other human beings. That’s why, when kids are being bullied, you don’t tell them to call Lady Gaga; you tell them to use their fists.