Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Muncie Boyhood-Bullies and Bumblebees

I’ve been hearing a great deal in the media these days about bullying. It seems to be a popular drum to beat, and it’s played up as if this were something new or as if it were a problem unique to a certain subset of society. The fact is that bullying is as old as humanity. For as long as there have been people, I’d be willing to bet that there have been bullies.

As a boy of the sixties and seventies in Muncie, Indiana, I interacted with any number of bullies. In elementary school, the kids to avoid lived down on 24th Street, east of Hackley. A good punch in the gut seemed to be Kenneth’s favorite game. I avoided him at all costs.

In those days, I walked to school. It was only five blocks straight up 21st Street, but I was only about six or seven years old at the time. One day, I headed off to school, and being wary of the bullies that were lurking in the area, I didn’t take the direct path. Instead, I slipped over away from the road to cut through people’s yards, hoping to make the trip unnoticed. My dad noticed because he tracked me down after a couple of blocks to find out what I was doing.

Besides the fear of the brutal punch in the gut, there were the insults…

“Hey fatty!”

“Are ya chicken?”

“Your hair looks like somebody put a bowl over your head before they cut it.”

“You’re stupid!”

And, the list could go on.

How about always being picked last for….just about everything?

That was elementary school. Then middle school arrived with gym classes that included locker rooms and showers. The athletically insufficient meets the sports stud. Not a good combination.

One example of being bullied stayed with me for about thirty years. Let me paint the picture: 8th grade at Wilson Middle School. Math class. I’m at the heaviest point of my life to that date, and haven’t yet hit my growth spurt. We get a new kid in class. Jimmy.

I remember Jimmy from Roosevelt Elementary. I hadn’t seen him in years because he gone on to another school, but he was memorable because he was a bully and was good at fighting. He was like that old Jim Croce song: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with Jim!”

Of course, the teacher rearranged the seating chart and put me right next to Jimmy. I thought I was safe because we were basically two feet from the teacher’s desk, but that was not the case. He turned out to be oblivious to the situation, and Jimmy had become an expert at subtle, covert terrorizing and humiliation. His favorite tool was a little synthetic bumblebee attached to an elastic band, and he sat there everyday flipping me with it…constantly.

Flip, flip.

“What ya gonna do ‘bout it? Huh? Am I bothering you? Ah, too bad.”

Flip, flip.

"What's the matter?  Can't you concentrate?  Having trouble with that problem?  Too bad.  Hahaha!"

Flip, flip.

I tried ignoring it. I tried to make friends with him. I didn’t dare complain to the teacher because that would be grounds for an after school sneak attack. I had two choices, either I could sit there and take it or I could turn around and punch him in the face. In retrospect, I should have drilled him. There would have been consequences with the school, with my dad, and with Jimmy, but it would have ended the situation, and maybe gained me some personal self-respect and the respect of my classmates. Instead, I just bore the burden…for weeks on end. I just put up with it, and inside I struggled with hating him.

Of course time changes all circumstances. Eventually, that school year ended. Jimmy and I parted company. I saw him rarely through the high school years, and I can’t even remember if we went to the same high school. In high school, I grew enough that I finally got bigger, and the direct bullying ended.

The problem was that I carried that pain for years afterward. On the one hand, I gained some strength of personal endurance by bearing the situation, but on the other hand I suffered for years from a lack of self-respect, AND I couldn’t shake my anger with Jimmy. As a Christian, I wanted to forgive him, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t find the way to get there. I tried. I failed. I kept trying, but the pain kept creeping back in.

Fast forward about thirty years. I’m now in my mid-forties and a successful industrial sales leader in my industry. I’ve matured past my youthful insecurities, and have gained a measure of personal toughness I didn’t have as a kid. I live in Indianapolis, but I’m in Muncie on business. It is lunchtime, and I’m enjoying my Ham-n-Cheese sandwiches at Mac’s Restaurant on south Madison Street. At the table next to mine is a face I recognize, but I can’t quite place. He looks so familiar. We must have gone to school together. We start to talk.

It was Jimmy!

It is interesting how time changes people. My mind still had him in eighth grade, and still an obnoxious bully. Now, he’s a middle-aged man just trying to live life like everyone else. Despite the image in my mind, time had not frozen him in place.

Jimmy starts to tell me how his life has changed. He’d had some rough times in his life, but he had found God. He was a Christian, and he was doing his best to live right. He was oozing with humility. He knew he’d done a lot of wrong things back when he was younger…

“Yeah, you were pretty hard on me,” I interjected.

He looked me in the eye. “I’m really sorry about that.”

Two things happened at that instant. 1. I found that place of forgiveness, and my entire burden of anger toward him had dissipated. 2. I gained a much better understanding of the meaning of GRACE.

I can tell you this….Grace feels much, much better than hatred and resentment combined. No wonder God is so eager to give it out.

All that said, I don’t like bullies. Bullying is wrong no matter the target or the reason. It causes a great deal of pain, pain that lasts for years and even decades.

If you are the target of a bully, it won’t always be like it is. Talk to some folks and get some help, but don’t despair. Time changes things, but be proactive. Maybe society would frown on you taking direct action like punching someone in the face, but still you have other options. Go to a person in authority and get help. Confront the situation head on.

And, if you are an idiot math teacher who is sitting two feet away from a kid who is being terrorized with a synthetic bumblebee on an elastic band…do your stinkin’ job!

Maybe I’ve got someone else to forgive now. What do you think?


  1. do I since some anger there, I think we all have some of those feelings, some of my friends had a rough time of it I didn't know until later in my life, but still some of the greatest friends ever, this life can be trying

  2. Anger? Nah. Not anymore. That last line is really more to make a strong point with an undertone of humor ("terrorized with a synthetic bumblebee on an elastic band..."). Any real anger I had dissolved during my lunch conversation with "Jimmy." But, as you said, life can be trying.