Here There Be Monsters
William Rivers Pitt, truthout | Op-Ed
Yet every distance is not near.
So I remember every face
Of every man who put me here.
- Bob Dylan, "I Shall Be Released"
I have a livid scar in the center of the back of my right hand. It is clearly visible, so I see it every day, and every time I see it, I am reminded of how I got it. One day, several boys in my junior high school class grabbed me and pinned me to the floor. They extended my right arm and held my hand flat to the floor. One of them took out a pencil and began violently rubbing it against the skin of that hand, until the skin broke, until little balls of my flesh stuck to the eraser, until the blood poured.
Press play to listen to author William Rivers Pitt read his column, "Here There Be Monsters":
I did not cry, I did not scream, and with four larger boys crushing down on me, I could not fight back. See, that was the thing. They wanted to see how long I could go before I wept or cried out. These boys, and several of their friends, had been attacking me on a daily basis for more than two years at this point, and I had stopped giving them the satisfaction of my tears. They didn't like that, so the eraser was meant to elicit the response they desired. They never got it, so they finally stopped ripping my hand open with the eraser, and the four of them settled for beating me up again.
For five long years, this was my life. It began toward the end of grammar school, when the first stirrings of puberty began to manifest itself within my classmates and me. To this day, I don't know exactly what the catalyst was; one day, I was just another kid in the group, and the next day I was the outcast, the butt of the joke, the loser. I changed schools after sixth grade, opting for a small private boy's school instead of continuing in public school with the same group that had made the last two years of my life a living hell. Within two months at the new school, however, the same pattern of harassment and rejection emerged once again, but with a far harsher edge.
You see, the leader of my group of tormentors was the son of the dean of students, and because none of the teachers or administrators wanted to get on his bad side, those boys were able to act out with little fear of censure or punishment. I was beaten up in the hallways, in the cafeteria, and especially during gym class. The beatings in the locker room became so severe that I took to sneaking into a teacher-only bathroom so I could change clothes. Once, I was shoved into the goal during gym class without helmet or pads while several boys fired rock-hard lacrosse balls at me while the teacher looked on. Another time, a boy ran up behind me during a gym-class basketball game and delivered a flying kick to my kidneys. I was on the floor for ten minutes, and there was blood in my urine that night.
Incidents like these were a daily occurrence until I changed schools again, this time to a large public school where anonymity was the best refuge. For whatever reasons, the torment ceased, and I became just another face in the halls. Behind that face, however, was a soul covered in scars. I had been the different one, socially awkward and unsure, sensitive, shy. Something in me had brought out the savage side of my schoolmates, and something in them had changed me forever. It took me years, decades, to come to grips with what I had been put through. To live in such a situation is to be in complete darkness. It is toxic to the mind, body and soul, and all too often ends in tragedy.
There is a kid like me in every classroom in America, a fact underscored by a recent story out of my home state of Massachusetts. A 15-year-old girl named Phoebe Prince was mercilessly bullied and tormented by her classmates, until she finally snapped and took her own life. In the aftermath, the local papers have taken to reporting on the reality of bullying in our society. A recent Boston Herald story reported:
Hundreds of angry parents, worried teachers and even terrorized kids are reporting ugly episodes of brutal bullying at schools across Massachusetts as the heartwrenching case of Phoebe Prince continues to expose a painful nerve. The abuse - detailed in e-mails and phone calls to the Herald - is emotionally jarring, often physical and spreading like a merciless virus in cyberspace. Kids tell of being forced to drink toilet water, getting pummeled on the bus and seeing themselves ridiculed for all to see on Facebook.
It's a toxic cauldron of abuse that callers fear could land their children in the same no-win corner as Prince, the South Hadley 15-year-old who apparently took her own life after being bullied. And, in a constant refrain, they all say nobody in power cares. "Nobody listens. It seems like you're talking to the wall unless you have $1 million," said a Cohasset dad who said his boy is picked on constantly. "Put that on the front page."
In one of the more touching exchanges, a 10-year-old Malden boy called this week to say the bullying is becoming too much. "Go ahead. Tell him," his dad coaxed him on the phone. "They won't leave me alone. They bully me," the shy youngster said.
A Boston Latin High School parent said the bullying was so bad her son had to leave the elite school. A teacher on the South Shore said she's sick over special-needs girls being photographed in the bathroom - only to learn it was all posted on Facebook. "The principal just glossed it over," the disgusted teacher added.
"Mommy help me," a Boston elementary schooler told his mom over the phone, she said, while he was being beaten up this week.
"I have bus video of my kid being attacked," added a weary suburban mom. "I'm trying to help my daughter from feeling helpless."
The story of the suicide of Phoebe Prince struck a deep nerve within me. I know exactly how she felt, and very nearly took the same path. When I was 13, the daily violence I endured had reached a terrible peak. My grades were failing, I was withdrawing even further from the world, and my school's response to the ongoing harassment was to give the students a lecture about chickens and the "pecking order." To wit, when one chicken develops a bloody spot from an injury, the other chickens swarm the wounded one and peck that bloody spot until the wounded bird is killed. The principal admonished the student body to not be like those chickens. The end result of the lecture was that my tormentors would punch me as hard as they could whenever they saw me and yell, "Peck!"
It finally became too much after one exceptionally savage day. I went home after school and gobbled a full bottle of pills. I lost my nerve a few minutes later, made myself throw up, and drank as much water as my stomach could hold, but the drugs had already entered my system. For the next two days, I laid in a semi-delirious stupor which my mother believed was a bad flu. I did not tell her about what really happened that day until many years later, and have told very few others about it until now.
It is a national epidemic, and has been for a very long time. Search Google News under the word "bullying" and nearly six thousand stories appear. One such story, out of Tennessee, underscores the horrific consequences that can come from such unrelenting torment:
A lawsuit has been filed against Murray County Schools by a family who says bullying led to their son's suicide. Tyler Long committed suicide in October. The 17-year-old suffered from Asberger's Syndrome, a social anxiety disorder. His family, and their attorneys, say it was unbearable bullying at school that forced him to take his life. The lawsuit says the boy's parents made "countless efforts" to meet with school officials to discuss their son's safety at school due to the constant bullying.
The lawsuit says the school system violated the boys rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and that school officials exhibited "deliberate indifference" towards the bullying. In a Murray County school board meeting last year numerous families made similar complaints. Veronica Gearhart says her child is bullied as well.
"My baby is missing school because a gang of boys is waiting for him and it was reported to everyone and no one did nothing," she said.
Others like Carleen Mcatie worry about what might happen next. "It'll be like Columbine because it will have festered so long," said Mcatie. "Something needs to be done about it now, before something major happens in our school."
It is impossible to quantify the insidious effect the phenomenon of bullying has on our society. Those who bully can and do become monsters in adulthood, but all too often, those who are bullied can become equally monstrous. The mother in the story above said the magic word: Columbine. The Columbine killers were bullied, and lashed out against that bullying in a frenzy of violence that beggars imagination.
One of the ugliest aspects of my experience with being bullied is the fact that, nauseating as it sounds, I know exactly how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold felt; on many occasions, after I had been pummeled in the locker room before gym class, taunted by a Greek chorus of tormentors in the cafeteria, or been set upon in the bathroom, I would sit at my desk and fantasize about raking the room with machine gun fire to settle the score with those who found their fun through torturing me.
For a time, I carried a large knife to school because I needed some sort of equalizer in a world where violence waited around every corner and nobody in authority seemed to give a damn. I never found the courage to use that knife, thank God. But I could have. I remember wanting to, but I never did. Had I used it, I could very well have killed someone. Just brandishing it would have had dire consequences. I escaped my personal hell without lashing out violently. Harris and Klebold did not, and the simple truth is that bullying will eventually create more kids like them.
In the end, the perpetrators of bullying become indistinguishable from the victims. It is equally damaging to all involved. Take, for example, Dick Cheney, the most repellent public figure in modern American politics. It is easy to assume that he was a bully during his school days, given the manner in which he conducted himself in public office. But who is to say he was not the victim of bullying? It takes no great leap of logic to imagine how a person subjected to constant brutality can be transformed into a sadist by it, someone who reflexively needs to inflict the same pain they themselves endured. In the end, the bully and the bullied can, and all too often do, become the same noxious breed of monster.
What is the cause of bullying? Was it my fault that I became the object of so much terrible treatment? Was it the fault of those bullies, and the parents who so completely failed to raise them properly? Were the teachers and administrators to blame for allowing such unconscionable behavior to flourish under their noses?
Perhaps, I could have dressed better, been more socially adapted, but in the end, blaming the victim of bullying for getting bullied smacks of blaming a rape victim for getting raped. Responsibility for this phenomenon falls upon parents, who must raise their children to understand early in life that such behavior is abhorrent and forbidden. Furthermore, teachers and school administrators are duty bound to root out such behavior whenever it appears and deal with it seriously and severely.
Any teachers or administrators who claim ignorance or an inability to address this problem are lying through their teeth. I spent several years as a high school teacher and a dean, and know for a fact that it is nonsense to claim this problem is difficult to locate in a school environment. On my first day, I was able to spot which students were "in" and which were "out," and was immediately able to take steps to thwart bullying whenever it appeared within my sight or knowledge.
One of my proudest accomplishments as a teacher and administrator, in fact, came during my second year in the classroom. Like any group of students, my crew was divided between the "in" kids and the "out" kids. The "in" kids wore the right clothes, had the right looks and knew how to play the high school social game. The "out" kids were not as fashionable, not as physically developed and tended to get the best grades. Through slow and steady pressures, counseling conversations and meetings with parents, I was able to transform the social dynamic that separated "in" from "out." By the end of the year, my "out" kids were the most popular ones in class, and my "in" kids thought hitting the books and getting good grades were the keys to the coolness kingdom. This pattern held until the day those kids graduated.
Disrupting the patterns and social constructs that lead to bullying can be done. I know. I did it.
"The world breaks everyone," said Ernest Hemingway, "and afterward, some are strong at the broken places." I was broken, and deliberately so, day after day, week after week, year after year for five long years, until I could take no more and tried to break myself, finally and forever, to be free of it. I am stronger now in those broken places; in the process of making peace with that past, I finally came to the conclusion that all those years of wretchedness were the most important of my life. I came through that crucible a better person, sensitive to injustice and ever on the side of the underdog and the victim.
But that, in the end, is a rationalization. In truth, there was nothing good about what I was forced to endure, and the echo of it resonates within me to this day. Sometimes, I have nightmares. Sometimes, I react irrationally to seeming slights, especially if one of my many internal scars gets tweaked. For years, I was prone to depression, which led to self-medication through alcohol.
Ancient maps of the world once marked unknown regions of ocean with the words, "Here There Be Monsters." The phenomenon of bullying remains an unknown and unexplored region of our society, and this must change. Here, indeed, be monsters. I am still not fully recovered from my experiences, and may never be. I remember all the faces, and all the names, of those who tormented me during that time of unutterable darkness. I can never forget.
You see, I have this scar on my hand.
Feb. 8, 2010