“I think people need it — trouble… I think people need trouble, fret, a little frustration, to sharpen the spirit or toughen it. Artists do; I don’t mean you have to live in a rathole or gutter, but they have to learn fortitude, endurance; only vegetables are happy.” – William Faulkner, 1950
With all of the publicity out there regarding teen bullying, I thought that I couldn’t let this moment pass without sharing how and why I discovered that it had in fact, gotten better.
Though my teenage years were mercifully bully-free, I did receive my fair share of taunts in or around the 6th and 7th grades. I went to a middle-upper class Catholic school comfortably situated on Peoria, Illinois’ north side. For the most part our school didn’t perform well athletically, but that didn’t stop kids from participating, soccer being the sport of choice. I made an attempt at joining them, really not out of desire to fit in or even out of any vague interest, but just because that was what you did. Being a rather “full” kid myself, I was always put in the position of fullback, making sure that the quicker, skinnier kids didn’t get past (what I had been brainwashed to be told to have been) my large shadow. Painfully shy about my body, I was, during one especially traumatic practice, forced to play on the “skins” team. It was that moment that I decided to give up sports for the rest of my childhood, promising myself that I’d never be forced into such a humiliating situation again.
Once the other boys started realizing what gender norms were all about, they must have started to notice that I didn’t talk, act and walk like them. Though I was adequately smart, I was not exceptionally so. Besides, being smart at my school wasn’t a strike against you. That I was rather “expressive” that must have caught them off guard. I liked playing with the girls much better, and while it provided me with a shield from bullying for a time (“Oh, Brad’s such a pimp!”), after awhile they started to catch on. But no one in my grade ever seemed to bother me; it was the older kids who would call me names.
“Faggot”, “Big Boy”, “Fag”, etc, were all the exceptionally creative names that they called me. And there was one bully in particular who seemed to have been the leader of the pack. Let’s call him Bob. Bob was the class clown. Everyone thought that Bob was just the funniest person on the planet, including, as I painfully observed, some of my best friends. One morning I arrived late to a school assembly after auditioning for the solo of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the spring musical. Without looking at where I was sitting in the full auditorium, I took a seat right in front. Much to my chagrin, I was sitting right in front of Bob and his cronies. Throughout the entire assembly, they flicked the side of my back, saying “Hey guys! It jiggles!” They talked to me in that effeminate voice that they always used when calling me by the name that they had given me — Big Boy. (It’s OK to laugh, I understand the dark comedy of it all.)
After that class had graduated, most of the bullying had stopped. Thankfully, Bob had gone to a different high school. High school was a remarkable place — no one seemed to care about anyone else. Though I do remember during the Freshman mixer, a future friend of mine (and, it turned out, a fellow astrology enthusiast) found himself to have been the object of a taunting version of “Y.M.C.A.” with the lyrics altered as they were at a Yankee’s game in 2006 — “Why are you gay?!” Upon reflection, I realize that many of the taunts are the kids “acting” as if they are gay, in a rather, well, gay fashion. Bob would act gay so as to tease me, but, seen psychoanalytically, I would say that he was in fact acting out a fantasy, one where he were the gay one.
So, as per zeitgeist, I would tell my bullied self that it does, in fact get better. Thankfully, I never wanted to kill myself as a kid, but if I were to tell my 12-year-old self anything I would share two future antidotes:
1. At the age of 19, you will meet one of Bob’s ex girlfriends (with Bob…this will make your blood boil) outside of a Death Cab for Cutie show in Chicago. You will then learn some news that will erase all the pain that he’s ever caused you: He never wanted to have sex with her. She concluded that he was “probably gay.”
2. At the age of 27, you will have signed up for this new invention called Facebook. In a rather masochistic moment, you will search for Bob to see if any of your friends are friends with him (mostly to see if he’s either gay or fat, if you have gotten your vengeance). You will then find that, out of profound self-realization, Bob decided to go as Hitler for Halloween last year.