Sunday, January 6, 2013

Bullies, Balls, Beatdowns

I tell this story.

I was a high school freshman. Stood about 6 feet tall. Weighed about 130 pounds.

Across the gymnasium floor stood the starting quarterback. About three years older and five inches taller than me. Lean, but muscular. He palmed a red dodgeball in one hand and patted it against the other.

I protected the cone.

The phys ed teachers at the school had embraced a variation on dodgeball in which a game could end when every member of one team was eliminated (hit with balls they could not catch, or had balls they had thrown caught by the opposing side), or when all three traffic cones set up on a team’s side had been knocked down by the opposing team.

The QB stared me down as I stood in front of the last remaining cone. He said, “I would move.”

I considered the options. I could bear brunt of his throw--a throw from an arm specifically trained to throw a heavier ball across a football field, hard and fast enough that it wouldn’t be deflected or intercepted. Or I could move and both look like a coward and singlehandedly sacrifice the game for my team.

I wish I could say that I made decision either way in that moment. In reality, I pondered long enough that the quarterback stopped waiting and let a rip. The ball hit my thigh. It smarted, but I could walk to the sideline without assistance, where I sat and waited for that game to end and the next to begin.

When I look back on that moment, there are plenty of takeaways. At my best, I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t abandon the cone automatically. It speaks to not only an inkling of courage, but an inkling of integrity. That as meaningless as a game of high school dodgeball may be, I cared about not losing.

But the truth of the matter is, winning, losing, and integrity were all pretty minor considerations in the moment. Far more significant and far more telling were the conflicting notions of fearing that throw and not wanting to look like a coward.

For shying away from physical pain would make a coward, right? A baby. A wimp. A pussy.

And what of the QB? Did he have a choice? Could he have thrown at a more evenly matched opponent? Could he have thrown at a softer speed, right at my chest to maximize the chance that I might catch the ball, and give me a rare moment of gym class glory?

Present day, I harbor no ill will toward that quarterback. While he didn’t show his best self at that moment, few of us do with much consistency, particularly when we’re 17 years old. And if we’re going to talk about bullying situations, trust me, like many of us, I’ve faced far more violent, severe, meanly spirited and longer term iterations.

When I think back to that particular gym class, I resent the situation. The confluence of a situation an educator contrived and the culture that dictated how we all of us acted under the circumstances.

I weathered the blow of that ball. And I didn’t speak my mind about it to the gym teacher afterward. Or to the principal. Or to my parents. To do so would only demonstrate further cowardice, right? Not fighting my own fights? Tattle-taling?

Let’s skip ahead.

I’m in my late 20s, visiting with an old friend. He tells me I have to see this show. He fires up his DVR and moments later, we’re watching Bully Beatdown.

The basic premise of the MTV series Bully Beatdown is that victims of bullying serve as corner men for professional mixed martial arts fighters, who pummel the bullies. (The bullies have an incentive to take the pounding because, if they last certain periods of time, they earn cash incentives.) In my limited experience with the show, each episode progresses in essentially the same fashion. The victim describes how he has been tormented. The arrogant bully talks about how he’ll hold his own in the fight. The professional fighter decimates the bully within 30 seconds. The bully apologizes and suggests he’s learned a powerful lesson.

There’s a certain catharsis to a show like Bully Beatdown as we imagine bullies from our own lives getting their comeuppance in the clutches of a gogoplata or a flurry of expert punches. And the show certainly taps into a public fascination with MMA.

If we think more critically, though, about the core of this show and its message, it’s a pretty empty viewing experience—not only predictable, but suggesting that situations of emotional torture and/or physical assault, rooted in power differentials, can be resolved in a meaningful way the smack is laid down upon the aggressor.

It doesn’t works that way.

As we watched the show, my friend went on to say that he doesn’t know why bullying still happens. How it seems like everyone has been a victim at one time or another, and how that victimhood seems to be at the root of so many stories with unpleasant outcomes--serial killers, shooters, sociopaths, and just plain sad people born out of more or less the same phenomenon.

I talked about the zero indifference policy my employer uses to confront bullying behaviors, emphasizing that adults address any situation that looks like it could be bullying or the antecedent thereto. And while I do think it’s a step in the right direction--an approach that I like to think has helped any number of young people--it’s far from a silver bullet.

At the moment you’re reading this, I have little doubt that some boy is getting a pushed around by someone older, bigger, or stronger. That some young woman is figuring out how she’ll face her peers at school after a “mean girls” stunt.

It’s troubling that we haven’t figured this out yet, and I can’t help but imagine a part of that has to do with our own desires to forget our lowest moments. To make peace with ourselves for having been victims.

To forget.

To dodge.

I feel its right and even important to forgive ourselves, and where possible, those who bullied us, as well as the people who facilitated the bullying process. Forgiveness does at least as much (and often more) for the forgiver than the forgiven party. It’s how we truly move on and how we grow from experiences.

But we shouldn’t forget. We, as a society and as a collective consciousness need to keep thinking and keep trying. We need to set positive examples. We need to recognize differences in power for what they are and talk with our children about what these differences mean. We owe it to our younger selves. We owe it to ourselves today, as survivors.

We owe it to the future.

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