I have a number of thoughts I plan to share on Oprah’s latest foray into the nether regions of false religion, but that’ll have to wait. All I’ll say for now is that, in her enthusiasm for the next johnny-come-lately New Age guru, she’s leading a lot of people astray. More on that later.
Today, while doing some research, I stumbled across Jodee Blanco’s Web site. Ms. Blanco was on the receiving end of some extremely ruthless, savage bullying as a high school student. She recounts gut-wrenching stories of being beaten, pelted with rocks, having snow stuffed in her mouth until she gagged, and other such horrors — all experienced on an unrelenting basis at the cruel hand of fellow students. Her experiences led her to write an anti-bullying curriculum for schools, entitled It’s Not Just Joking Around. According to Ms. Blanco, her anti-bullying campaign prevented sixteen bullying-related suicides, a school bombing, and a stabbing in its first year alone.
I’m very glad to see Blanco’s campaign, organization, and books succeed. Bullying is a blight on our nation’s schools, and it shouldn’t be tolerated by teachers, parents, or students — ever.
“Gee, Rob,” you say, “isn’t bullying a bit off the beaten path for you? Why are you writing about this?”
Because I was a victim of bullying as well. Not just an isolated instance here and there, but consistent and merciless bullying that continued for the better part of my 7th grade year. Nothing as extreme as what Jodee Blanco experienced, but it made bus rides to and from school a miserable experience. And since I felt both likable and generally well liked throughout my elementary school years, the experience of being bullied was a huge shock to my psyche.
At the back of the bus were some guys who decided I made a good torture subject. In some ways I suppose I was; although I had gotten in some scraps as a kid, I wasn’t particularly adept at fighting (despite the fact that I was nearly my present height of 6’2″ by the time I was twelve). Moreover, I didn’t really want to fight with anybody — getting along was just simpler and more fun. I imagine that they instinctively knew I was unlikely to fight back.
In any case, an 8th grader I knew from elementary school had always been friendly before. But now, he threatened to beat me up on a daily basis, showering me with expletive-laced insults. I was flummoxed by the intense anger and hostility he exhibited and just didn’t know how to deal with it — to my knowledge, I had never wronged him or given him cause to dislike me. I suspect it served him somehow in terms of image enhancement to jump on the Rob pig pile like everyone else.
Then there were the guys on the back of the bus who loved to flick my ears, punch my arms, steal my belongings, and give me wedgies that were so bad I swore I could feel my underwear in my throat. I know, it sounds relatively innocuous in the grand scheme of things, but the humiliation of it all was significant at the time. I did everything I could to avoid the back of the bus, but the other kids were not very helpful. When the bus was full, most of them were unwilling to let me sit in a seat with them. I would go from seat to seat trying to negotiate a place well forward, only to be met with flat refusals to scoot over and make room. Before long, the bus driver would be hollering at me to hurry up and sit down (why he never stopped the bullies, I’ll never know), and there were plenty of times that I would have no choice but to fall into the arms of my tormenters.
At school, there were threats and insults from the people I sat in band with. I was overweight, so they thought it was amusing to suggest I wore a bra. One of them decided it would be fun to beat me up, and on the way to lunch one day he shadowed my every step, punching away. Since this aggressive kid was something of a pip-squeak, his blows didn’t really hurt physically, but when we passed someone in the hall and they cheered him on — that definitely hurt inside. On top of it all, this same pip-squeak bragged to everyone he could that he had thrashed me, which only brought more disdain.
I shan’t bore you with additional stories, but suffice it to say that my middle school experience was punctuated by innumerable instances like these. Looking back, my daily existence was rife with inner pain and desperation. I wasn’t friendless by any means, but I lived in abject fear that the friends I had would desert me if they witnessed me getting bullied. And somehow, my sense of value and identity got entirely wrapped up in who I was friends with and how popular I was with them. It’s a frightening prospect to have your fragile sense of value and utility determined by the fickle and fleeting predilections of a bunch of pre-teens. The pressure of procuring their favor while fending off bullies was too much to bear at times, and so I have the distinct memory of walking from class to class in a self-induced mental and emotional stupor — checked out, numb, withdrawn.
My grades tanked as a result, to the bewilderment of my parents. They were oblivious to what I was going through, and I was too ashamed to tell them about it. Report card days were full of dread and self-hatred. I’d be angry at myself for getting D’s, and once my parents got over their own shock and anger at my poor academic performance, they would sit me down and attempt to ferret out what had gone haywire in their boy’s brain. Of course, I didn’t understand what was going on myself, so these conversations usually went like this:
“Robbie, you know it’s important to get good grades and work hard at school, don’t you?”
“And you know you’re a very smart, very capable boy. Right?”
“You could get straight A’s if you wanted to.”
“Then why are you getting D’s?”
“I don’t know.”
I can only imagine how frustrating these conversations must have been for my parents. I genuinely felt bad about not being able to give them better answers, but I was being honest. I really didn’t know what to tell them. It was only after being introduced to healing ministry paradigms in recent years that I was able to piece together what happened — and to sort out how the darkness of my middle school years still affected me as an adult.
And that brings me to the point of all this. It’s cathartic to just to share this information, but I need to note something important. Looking back, I have been amazed that I didn’t thoroughly self-destruct during my early teenage years. It would have been such an easy thing to seek solace and acceptance by falling in with “the wrong crowd.” How did I avoid getting enticed by the drug and alcohol abuse that were commonplace among my peers?
I recall a day when the weight of all I endured each day was too much. When I got home from school, I ran upstairs to my room, closed the door, and proceeded to weep. For a time I just sobbed, and then, through my tears, I began to talk to God. Every last bit of grief, pain, anger, and confusion came gushing out. Why, God? Why do these boys on the bus take such pleasure in my pain and embarrassment? Why am I going through this? How did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve all this?
I didn’t get any answers, but after that day I came away with two convictions that could only have been experientially rooted. My nascent spirituality lacked the depth or sophistication to contrive or give voice to these convictions, but they were engraved on my heart nevertheless: God was listening intently as I told Him of my pain, and He had drawn near to me in genuine care and concern for my plight. Psalm 34:18 puts it this way:
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit (RSV).
But for this living truth finding expression in one of the deepest moments of pain I’ve ever had, I shudder to think of the darkness I could have fallen into as a kid. God simply preserved me by His gracious hand.
If you’ve been bullied or are being bullied now and you’re reading this, your pain doesn’t go unnoticed by Heaven. And you need to know that there is no ally or friend like Jesus Christ. I’d welcome the opportunity to pray for you or help in any way I can. Just shoot me an e-mail.
aka The MonT-SteR