It wasn’t called “bullying” when I was in school. We called it “picking on.” The b-word may have been popularized by the film Bully (2001), or maybe two years earlier in the aftermath of Columbine High School killings. The concept of bullying is now politicized. I won’t dwell much on that aspect here except to note that anti-bullying campaigns don’t do much to protect White or Asian kids from race-based attacks in Black schools. But what I want to look at here is the dynamic of bullying among boys on its continuum that spans from legitimate in-group correction or rite-of-passage hazing, on to its destructive excesses.
Here is an anecdote: I made friends easily at age 13, having just arrived in the United States. It was a neighborhood with blue collar families and young couples with starter homes. There was also a tall 14-year-old mesomorph Brady (all names have been changed) and his sidekick Darren. We were on guard around Brady. He’d ride up on his dirt bike — sometimes alone, sometimes with Darren — and joke around, and then look squarely at one of us, for example at Jason, crack a grin and tell him that his mom is a fat pig. Jason wasn’t stupid so he lowered his eyes and kept his mouth shut.
Brady was a fact of life, like the elements. It was validating when he rode up to us because he was cool and the high school guys liked him. He in fact mostly hang out with them. But his visits were also tense because you did not want to say the wrong thing, and he baited us to say something wrong. One day his buddy Darren mouthed off to me with an ethnic insult. I ignored it and that’s how trouble started with Brady. Darren thought I was afraid of him, so he then repeatedly challenged me to a fight (but only when Brady was around). I blew off the challenges as comical because he was smaller than me.
My being scared of Darren was not in the realm of the possible. Back in Poland boys fought all the time. We had these gangs with formal rank structures and at one point parents intervened because a boy was karate-kicked in the throat. It was a retaliatory ambush that I organized, though the potentially lethal strike wasn’t part of the plan. What I was afraid of though, was my family getting deported. My parents warned me to stay out of trouble in America and I took that very seriously. So hell no, I wasn’t going to beat up a weaker kid.
The interval of time between Darren’s first challenge to a fight and my eventual response, a period of several weeks, was what you could call “being bulled.” Or picked-on. It was just Brady’s physical intimidation and Darren’s name-calling, I got along well otherwise. But my pacifism was starting to look bad and people were letting me know it.
“Fine, we’ll fight when we get off the bus,” I told Darren. We got off, the school bus left and everyone formed a wide circle around us. This is ridiculous, I thought, sizing up the boy’s puny frame. I squared up to Darren as he’s dancing around and taunting me. I swung halfheartedly, grazing his face as he dodged my strike. He then ran screaming — and my predator instinct switched on. I caught him, took him down like a baby gazelle and started pummeling. An adult pulled me off him and the crowd laughed at Darren as he paced in circles sobbing.
I didn’t get deported, but I did graduate to Brady. He sticks his finger in my face and says: “You and I. Tomorrow morning. Bus stop.” This was serious. I couldn’t sleep that night and intentionally missed the bus in the morning. Wuss move… I knew it then and rightly took flak for it that afternoon on the bus ride home. So, next morning it is.
The ground was hard and covered in frost. Brady and I faced each other on someone’s lawn. People from two neighborhoods had come to see the fight, even the girls. I’ve only known his eyes for their mocking glint when he wasn’t otherwise laughing about something else. Now, they were cold and deliberate. The jackets come off.
As it goes with fights, you don’t remember much. It’s all tunnel-vision. You don’t hear anything because your brain regresses to reptilian form. We’re on the grass, elbows pumping as two-way punches bruise the gut, sides, ribs, face and head. Somebody separated us. I stand in a daze, a warm stream flowing from my nose. I rub my lip and my fingers are covered in red. He’s facing me, face crimson and crumbled. He’s wiping the blood from his mouth and chin… and crying.
He cried, I won — the older guys called it and so it was. The next day I was walking and a man leans out of his front door and shouts from across the street: “Hey PA, I heard you kicked Brady’s ass! Way to go man!” Let me tell you folks, the sun was shining bright that day. I’ve had successes in the decades that followed, but that kudos stands out above most to this day for me.
Soon after the fight, Brady and I became friends. For the next three years until he moved out, we hang out at each other’s houses and during the summer took our ten-speeds out on long rides. His parents once took me out on a trip where I first smelled pot. In the summer of ’85 we rode bikes to a construction site where his older brother worked and hung out with the contractors during their lunch breaks.
Bullying serves a valuable function of regulating wrong behavior and keeping boys sharp. An example of a simple correction: I once saw a group of guys bust their friend’s balls because he was absentmindedly eating a banana like he was giving a blowjob. He caught on and stopped.
Brady did me a favor. He found my weakness and hammered on it until I did something about it. To earn self-respect and the respect of others, you have to face your fear and walk through it. Anti-bullying campaigns, in short-circuiting White teenagers’ system of hazing and censure, are a reason why there are now so many Gammas — weaklings who deign take a shortcut to status by running their mouths like fiat currency.
But — bullying can spiral out of control and indicate adult intervention. Healthy boys have more aggression than wisdom so things can became a Lord of the Flies jungle. Examples:
1. Some instances of bullying do not offer the mark any avenue of redeeming himself. The kid hadn’t done anything to deserve being a target of cruelty for sport, and fighting back only makes it worse. For a boy to go through that is comparable to a girl getting gang-raped. There is a reason why survivors of wartime interrogation never talk about the experience and some later commit suicide.
2. A lost-cause like Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. Some can’t be helped and for them, a USMC boot camp becomes a tearing-down, but with no prospects of then building-up. Sure, Pyle didn’t need to smuggle in that jelly doughnut… but would he have had it any other way? Just cut him loose. Otherwise you’re destroying a human being and pushing things toward murder-suicide.
3. There are videos from schools in Germany. Smaller, younger native boys getting slapped around by Muslims. That’s not bullying — that’s lambs in a labyrinth. It’s the nation itself being bullied, being dared to do something about it. Will the adults do what needs to be done or will one of these boys step forward as their Theseus?
There is either a metaphorical or a real moment in a boy’s life when he approaches a ball field. Maybe he’s in a new school. The guys notice him. One chucks the ball at him. A sharp kid will catch that ball. He who drops it, might have a hole to dig himself out of. And if honor is challenged, it comes down to prison rules: throw a punch.
TL;DR: Sometimes you’ve got to fight when you’re a man.