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02 December, 2011

I'VE HAD FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE WITH BULLYING AND ITS INSENSITIVE UGLY SISTER -- TEASING

The subject of "bullying" is currently a very hot news item.  As if this unthinking act of adolescent meanness is something new.  Bullying is an age-old act of insecurity compounded by the need to impose power over others who are not in a position to defend themselves, and unfortunately it does not necessarily end with childhood.

I was particularly interested in a story by Catherine Porter in this morning's Toronto Star.  It was a revealing piece about how Catherine, as a grade-schooler, was taunted and made to feel ugly and unwanted by a group of her peers, one of which apologized to her after a chance meeting 30 years later.

School bullying was once considered a character-building rite of passage for children, but now it is seen for what it is -- a form of victimization and abuse.  The results of bullying can be devastating, frequently leaving lasting psychological scars, even resulting in recent cases of "bullycides" (suicide).

Back in the day, I experienced bullying of the worst kind  -- physical abuse by a group of "toughs" in my hometown.  These guys were two or three years older than me and a couple of grades ahead in school.  I really do not know why I was singled out, but they just seemed to get a kick out of intimidating me and seeing me quake and cower in their presence.  I do not recall words ever being spoken, just blows to my torso, torn clothing, and me running from their gauntlet.  For several years, between Grades 3 and 6,  I had eyes on the back of my head while walking home from school and sought cover whenever I saw them approaching.  I became quite adept at finding hiding places on the spur of the moment.

The great bullying equalizer came with a spurt of growth and some self-defense training by my father.  After a few incidents of responding in kind, the bullies suddenly lost interest in me.  Life took on new perspective...I was free!  No more fear as I walked home from school.  I survived the rite-of-passage, 1940s style.

If they were still alive today (they are not), I doubt that those bullies would remember giving Dick Wright a hard time all those years ago. In fact they probably would not remember me at all.  But believe me, they left a lasting impression on me and it was not necessarily a positive one.

I have often wondered too, if I myself may have been guilty of a type of bullying.  Oddly enough, I tease people that I like but through one incident about 60 years ago, I learned to curb the impulse because it is not always appreciated.  Most people have been teased about something -- wearing glasses, or the style of their clothing, but in all honesty I think that is is a form of bullying too, albeit more subtle.  I have come to understand that, like bullying, teasing can undermine a young person's self-confidence and cause feelings of sadness or embarrassment.

There was a point in high school where I fear that I allowed myself to be carried away with the impulse to tease.   I teased one classmate in particular, often without knowing it.  I just thought it was funny and that he knew that I did not mean anything bad by it because, as I say, I really liked him and felt sorry that he was being raised by a single mother of limited resources during a difficult time in our history.  I don't recall him having many close friends and I was under the mistaken impression that he appreciated my paying attention to him, as ignorantly mean-spirited as it may have been.

My last memory of (we'll call him) Donald, was struggling to control him in a shop class after I had "poked fun" at him for some unknown reason.  He just snapped and lunged at me, wielding a drafting compass in one hand.  Being considerably bigger, I was able to fend off his attack by wrapping my arms around him as he kicked and flayed his arms wildly.  I released him at one point and he came back at me again, even more frenzied.  It took a good five minutes in a bear hug for Donald to cool down sufficiently for me to finally let go of him.

I remember the encounter like it was yesterday, and still feel badly that I had incensed Donald to such a degree.  After reflecting on the incident for a few days, I did not have an opportunity to apologize for my insensitive teasing and the hurt that it had obviously caused him.  In several weeks the school term of 1954-55 was over and we went our separate ways in life.

In a perfect world, I would hope that Donald forgot all about that shop class incident soon after it happened, but reality suggests to me that he did not.  He no doubt thinks unkindly of me for my incessant teasing and that is a shame because as I said before, I always liked him.  That's why I naively teased him.

I pray that by some strange quirk of fate, Donald will ultimately be able to read this post and accept my apology.  I'm sure he will know who the real Donald was and is. I hope he has had a good life!

Like most bullies, I had no idea...

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