To commemorate October as “Bullying Awareness Month,” I bring you the following insights regarding the subject…
As a latch-key kid, I basically came home from school, made my meals, and did my homework until my adult “roommates” came home. (To amuse myself I’d drive across the local park, set fire to things, and make Super-8 movies, usually of me driving across the local park and setting fire to things.) So when I was bullied at school, I not only didn’t have any sense of conflict management or support tools of any kind, but I couldn’t even really talk about it. At the time, the notion of “talking about it” just seemed like it would make it all the more real. So I kept it all bottled up inside and quietly hated myself for being bullied upon. The bullying wasn’t extreme, really, in retrospect: hardly ever physical, mostly just name-calling, the threat of abuse, a few books knocked out of my hands, etc. I was never punched, never shoved, but I still felt like a victim. The bullying created a thick layer of malevolence and unease to my school day, which—in retrospect—affected my school-work, my relationships, and my self-esteem even today. I often feel like I put up with more shit than I need to, like the guy at the end of an incontinent elephant parade armed only with a shovel.
The bullying turned this outsider inside out. When people talk about how happy they were in school, I simply can’t relate. I had great friends and, equipped with a selective memory, I can create a fairly convincing scrapbook of happy times in my head. But, really, I only started to feel comfortable with myself in my 30s! Maybe that’s why my books are obsessed with the infantile. A part of me is still frozen in a state of arrested development. In the vicious, viscous amber of time. Despite being a boy named Dale, I was pretty popular in elementary school, doing plays and talent shows, etc. But, upon middle school, all my friends were sent to one school, while I was sent to another. I never really recovered from that. I was sent to, basically, an off-Broadway production of Lord of the Flies and learned to keep my head down (my, what interesting feet I have!).
I hated middle school. Hated it. So I find it supremely ironic that, after writing a bunch of books for middle-readers, I find myself having to go to schools for appearances. It’s like if I wrote a book about terrible prison experiences, then had to do a tour of maximum security penitentiaries. Yay. Maybe my next series should be about tropical spa vacations. Anyway, I don’t have a wide audience. My books are kind of cult-y. Niche. But the fan-base are really devoted. Half of the letters or messages I get are from adults, which is interesting. Also a lot of “spooky” teen girls, which I didn’t bargain for. I thought Heck would appeal mostly the pre-teen boys, but girls have really latched on to Marlo. Anyway, while I haven’t gotten any letters specifically about bullying, I can tell that my books are savored by outcasts: those that feel different. And that my stories, humor, outlook and way of writing appeal to them. They really enjoy the obscure references that make them feel part of an exclusive club. And I know that, when I was growing up, sci-fi and punk music really helped me through. It was very different then: media wasn’t so omnipresent. You had to actively seek out the things that you liked and, with the effort and intention that required, it made you feel like part of a club. Just knowing that there were other freaks out there that liked what I liked made school much more bearable.
The baddest bully in my books, Damian Ruffino— is actually named after a real bully I encountered in middle school. I forget what his first name was, but his last name was definitely Ruffino. He was one of those kids that was twice as big as the other kids, probably had facial hair as a baby…I remember he had the name RUFFINO on the back of the football jersey he’d always wear. He was just one of many. He never really did anything but make fun of me or threaten me. Anyway, in the first chapter of the first Heck book, Milton—the main character—has these horrible memories of his encounters with Damian flash into his mind just before his—SPOILER—death! While these scenes weren’t anything that happened to me, per se, they captured the feeling I would have of basically being “hunted” at school. Avoiding someone as if they carried the bully-bonic plague!
And, I have to say, adults weren’t much help at the time. At least not for me. I remember in middle school we had a PE coach for a while, his name was—get this—Tiny. And, of course, he wasn’t. One of those nicknames that bullies adopt to basically dare you to say something, I’m sure. Anyway, my friend Guy Himber and I were trying our best to play football despite our utter non-interest and complete lack of skill, and the boys who basically lived to play football as an excuse to hit each other would always plow into us with undisguised glee. So, I had headgear—of course—and after one particularly vicious play, Guy and I were pretty banged up and were either crying or were on the verge of crying, and I recall vividly Tiny, surrounded by a pack of snickering boys, just laughing at us. An adult not only thinking that it was fine for some boys to physically abuse others, but openly condoning, even celebrating it. That really pissed me off. I mean, what an awful, awful person. I’m sure there is an open position in Heck just waiting for Coach Tiny!
So that’s pretty much the fuel that feeds my Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go series. It was basically my middle school experience…a living Heck, though none of my teachers had hooves and horns, at least to the best of my knowledge. So, as irony has it, my book series often sends me back to school to do readings and workshops. My bowels still turn to jelly when walking down those shiny, institutionalized floors, hearing the exploding heart-attack bell, and swimming upstream through halls of impulse-control-challenged pre-teens. Maybe it’s a form of therapy. But it still feels like, inside, there is that nervous little kid with the headgear, wearing bellbottom cords and a Star Wars T-shirt, just trying to get through his day with as little fuss as possible. And I’m sure it is exponentially worse for kids today.
Being an adolescent is hard. Harder now than ever, actually. Especially with all of the adult tools nowadays that only kids have the disposable time to completely utilize for evil. The key to it all is perspective. Now, in retrospect, I know that that time was fleeting. Transitory. But a blip. Sure, it was awful at times, but now I know that it was just a patch of bad road. At the time, though, it seemed impossibly deep and impassably terrible. And it’s really hard to convince someone with no perspective to have perspective.
But does get better, as they say.
Just remember: A bully is basically no different than their victim, only he or she tends to keep their bruises on the inside. A bully is really only beating him or herself up……only you’re the one doubled over in agony, scrambling for your broken glasses and your shattered dignity. No joke (In fact, you should never joke with a bully, as they always finish up with a strong punch-line). Bullies are always on the prowl for a quick and dirty fight. It’s best to leave them to simmer solo in their own beastly juices. Trying to win is the surest way to lose. The battle they’re fighting isn’t with you. It’s with themselves. You’d just get in the way…