Bullying: An Infectious Disease

bully (2)

October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month and I have a true story to tell.

I have been bullied, and I believe as a result, I have also been a bully. My siblings and many of my friends know that as the oldest of five children, I often bullied my “underling” siblings. But though it’s no excuse for bullying, I blame it on being too young and immature to carry some of the responsibilities I had as a child. Still, it’s something I regret to this day.

The bullying story that none but a few know, however, is a memory that shames me, even fifty years later.

I think I was maybe six or seven years old, perhaps even younger. I don’t want to say who bullied me, that’s not important. But I remember being made to stand still while I was criticized and chastised for how I looked–sloppy, unkempt, dirty. In particular, I was criticized for my dirty knees. I’m not surprised my knees stood out as “dirty,” knobby as they are. 🙂

I was hurt and scared at the same time. I wanted to leave that room, to hide from my hypercritic.

Who knows how long it took me to morph from bullied to bully-er, but I’m sure it didn’t take long. Sometime later, I took a walk around the block, and I came upon a red-headed girl, a little younger than I and began to yell at her about how she looked. In particular, I criticized her dirty knees. I remember feeling badly about it, even as I got uglier and uglier with my criticism. Yet, I couldn’t stop.

I don’t recall that I ever saw this little girl again. I’m sure she ran and hid any time I approached. I do wish I could apologize to her, even fifty years later.

So, here’s my first thought on bullying:

Bullying is like an infectious disease. When a person is bullied, he has been “infected,” and the chances are good the “germ” will spread through his contact with others.

I see varying degrees of bullying almost every day on the news, social media and even in real life. Each time, I think about what’s behind it. Here are a couple of other thoughts I’ve had:

  • Social media is an incubator. It’s made bullying covert–easier and safer. A bully can remain anonymous. But perhaps even worse, sometimes the bullying may not be intentional. I’ve seen instances where snarky, sarcastic comments are taken personally and the receiver feels bullied. Sadly, this often leads to an escalation of emotions and shuts down communication.
  • We’re losing our ability to empathize, to put ourselves in another’s shoes. What is behind someone’s bullying? How does bullying make someone feel, whether it’s in jest or not? Again, much of the blame goes to social media, where we comment without the benefit of knowing a person, without the benefit of seeing their physical response to our comments–a look in their eyes, a gasp, a wince, a turning away.

Bullying impacted me enough that I included several instances in The Red Kimono. In the following excerpt, Pearl Harbor has been attacked, and Sachi reflects on being bullied:

The school yard was crowded with kids waiting for the bell to ring. Sachi hesitated to get out of the car.

They will all stare at me.

That was just one of the things she hated about fourth grade. She didn’t like homework either. Or grumpy Mrs. Nelson. And she especially didn’t like the kids who called her slant-eyes.

One day at lunch, a boy in her class had moved to another table, all because she sat next to him. Snickers and whispers had surrounded her like moths around a porch light. She left her tray on the table and ran out of the cafeteria. But those moths flitted and batted around her all the way out.

I would love to hear your stories. Have you ever been bullied? Have you ever been a bully? Were the two related?

IThe Red Kimonon recognition of Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, anyone who leaves a comment (hope you’ll share a story!) will be entered into a drawing for an autographed copy of The Red Kimono. Drawing will be held November 1. (NOTE: If the winner lives outside of the contiguous United States, I will send a gift certificate for a Kindle version of The Red Kimono.)

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12 Responses to Bullying: An Infectious Disease

  1. When I was in kindergarten my mom bought me a new school dress and the night before I wore it we curled my hair in those pink sponge rollers. The next day I had two of the curliest doggie ears and felt so pretty in my new dress. I went to school and one of the older kids (2nd grade probably) said, “That dress used to me mine. My mom gave it away to the poor. You’re poor.” She completely zapped all my happiness and self confidence in that moment. And I swore, even as kindergartener, that I would never make someone feel as awful as she made me feel. Aside from sisterly squabbles (which were always followed by apologies) I don’t think I ever have. I believe in being nice to people and it is important for me to teach my child to be a nice person.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Jennifer, my heart sank when I read your story. I wish I had made that same promise to myself. Unfortunately, I succumbed to being a bully. Fortunately, it was only once, and after that I also swore never to do it again. Well, okay, maybe to my siblings. 🙂

  2. Donna Greene says:

    There were girls in high school always looking for a fight. The fact I ignored their ridicule probably angered them more. I couldn’t have a better outcome than for my life turn well compared to theirs. I believe bitterness inside manifest on the outside.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      I completely agree, Donna. That kind of bitterness only eats at the person who harbors it. Sadly, meanness seems to be a bonding factor, makes some people feel a part of the group. Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. gilmiller says:

    I’m actually ambiguous about this subject. I was bullied, but in the long run it made me a stronger person. I think it’s also partially responsible for my turning to reading and, eventually, writing.

    In a pragmatic sense, I believe bullying is simply a fact of life. We are a competitive species and this is one of the ways we compete. I also think we’re bullying the bullies. What’s the first thing an adult does when they see a bully in action? They begin castigating the bully. They’re getting revenge by proxy for the kid who’s being bullied. Does that make me sound cynical? Probably, but I freely admit to being a bit of a cynic.

    We’re addressing the whole issue the wrong way. Think what could happen if we could turn all that energy into something positive. There’s actually a study out there somewhere (and I wish I could credit it but it’s hard to find) that talks about just that idea and how bullies have a strong confidence that should be harnessed and encouraged in different directions.

    I don’t consciously remember bullying anyone, but those who are bullied usually find someone to bully, so I probably just didn’t realize what I was doing.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Thanks for your perspective, Gil. I agree that bullying may be a fact of life, and that’s an interesting thought about bullies having a strong confidence that should be fostered–maybe redirected.

      That’s why I mentioned the part about being empathetic, even to the bullies. Sometimes, I think it’s just a cry for attention, for someone to understand. A way to cover up fears.

  4. Linda Apple says:

    “Social media is an incubator.” Bravo, Jan! I hope all who read this will choose to incubate kindness, encouragement, and empathy instead.

    I don’t remember a time when I was bullied, except for the time I had my fake ponytail yanked off at school by a girl named Dixie. It was embarrassing, but I pinned it back on and went on my way. That said, I believe there is a covert type of bullying—indifference. Being aloof as a passive-agressive way to express bad feelings leave the person on the receiving end feeling just as lost and humiliated.

    Thank you for this timely, and important post. As usual you nail it! Again I say, “Bravo!”

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Thank you, Linda. Your ponytail story needs to be a Chicken Soup story. Sweet and sad at the same time, but with a positive outcome. Does Chicken Soup have a bullying book out yet? Hmmm…I’ll have to look into that one.

      And your thoughts on indifference are right on…and they remind me, I have an email I need to answer. 🙂

  5. Jan,

    What a powerful essay. I can relate so well.

    When I was in the 9th grade – days before graduating from junior high – me and another female student vandalized a classmate’s yearbook. We got sent to the office and paddled and threatened that we might not graduate if we didn’t make amends.

    It all started in 7th period when we were allowed to pass around our yearbooks to get signed by our classmates. Another girl and I took Sherry’s year book and erased her photo, marked it up, and I stuck a big wad of grape bubble gum between the pages, then we waited until the bell rang before giving Sherry her yearbook. The next morning during homeroom, the other girl and I got called down to the principal’s office. We had to go home that night and use our own yearbooks to repair Sherry’s damaged yearbook. I have no idea what happen to my copy now but rest assured it’s missing pages because I had to put them in the damaged copy.

    Why did the other classmate and I do this? I asked myself that for years! I FELT SO GUILTY and I couldn’t understand why we picked on this certain girl. She was rather quiet, kind of mousy, and she lived with her grandparents. I don’t know what happened to her parents. She was the underdog. Anyway, long story short, I started trying to track her down years ago but to no luck. I told trusted friends and they all tried to help me find her. Finally, I was able to track her down through school directories and I called her at her job I will never forget how nervous I was. I knew in my heart she would REMEMBER the incident. When she finally came on the phone, I told her who I was and why I was calling. There was a LONG pause. Then she accepted my apology. I told her how I’d told my own sons the story when they were young. I used myself as an example of how NOT to treat people. I am a nice person but one time I did something awful to another human being. Not proud of it but I am so thankful I found her and apologized years later. The incident happened in 1973. I found her around 2009.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again, but I’m glad I found her and tried to let her know I was sorry. Most people would never believe I was capable of something like this. What I think was happening in my own life is this: my beloved 30-year-old uncle died suddenly and my parents were having marital problems. I’d just lost 15 pounds and was feeling good about myself for first time in years. This was all around the time I became bulimic. NO excuse whatsoever though.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Kathleen, thank you so much for your honesty. It goes to show how we are all affected by things going on in our lives, and sometimes a little empathy might go a long way to explain why someone is the way she is. It says a lot that you tried for so long to find her, and when you did you actually called her and apologized. I admire you for that. Also, it’s great that you used yourself as an example to your sons of how not to be.

      I admire your courage to admit you were wrong and then to do something about it.

  6. Jan, I don’t have bullying story to share but I was interested to read the comments above. I agree Gil that bullying is a fact of life and that it can, but doesn’t always, make the bullied person stronger. I wonder whether things we used to consider simply “unkind” are now often lumped with true bullying, something I think of as nasty, escalating and ongoing. I daresay most children have been unkind to other children (and adults have done the same), but that, at least to me, isn’t always bullying. There’s a difference between making a nasty remark or even breaking a toy or something similar and continually harassment which seems to be more prevalent now than it used to be. I sometimes think that if the bullied person were able to just clock the bully-er without consequence, there would be less bullying. 🙂


  7. Jan Morrill says:

    Donna Greene is the winner of an autographed copy of The Red Kimono! Thank you to everyone who commented and shared their stories!

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