Monday, July 21, 2008

Naming the Bully


Last Thursday, around 2:30 pm, I got a funny call from 13-year-old Little Babe in the middle of his camp day.

Funny, as in strange.

"I'm bored," he reported, totally unconvincingly.

"Bored," I repeated. "What is everyone doing and why aren't you doing it?"

He sighed. "No one's doing anything."

"That's not possible," I said. "It's camp. There's always an activity. Where is your group?"

"Hanging outside the pool."

It was about a million degrees outside. "Why aren't you swimming?" I asked.

"Because I have a mark on my right side."

My maternal radar instantly shot up. "A mark?"

"Yeah," he admitted and then proceeded to whisper the story which involved a run-in with the group gangsta, a rather oafish, and in my estimation, intellectually-challenged kid with a penchant for beating up on smaller kids, including Little Babe.

Whose own penchant for Japanese calligraphy, cello-playing and letting our Pomeranians nibble on his toes render him a less-than-alpha young male, the last person to retaliate with physical violence.

Little Babe's sweet, artistic temperment is more often rewarded with respect from his peers. In all the years of his childhood, I can count only two or three other times when aggressive boys tried to bully him and in one of the situations it was merely an inappropriate gesture of affection from a child with boundary issues (the child had a multitude of behavioral issues, was sent to a special school and Little Babe did not have to fear the bathroom anymore.)

Getting back to last week's incident...it turned out that Little Babe accidentally splashed water on his feet and the thug-in-training retailated with fists in Little Babe's ribcage.

Not cool.

Though Little Babe had been taken to the camp nurse by a counselor who found him writhing on the ground, he failed to report the bullying to her. A couple of clarifying phone calls to the camp administration later, where I was assured that the situation was being monitored and that the kid would be out on his ass if it happened again, I couldn't help but note the coincidence of timing.

You see, just the previous week, I, Bungalow Babe, Princess of PR, fearless she-warrior, had been bullied by a thuggish fellow with a long and horrible reputation for such tactics.

The bullying was not, thank God, physical. It was communicated through text messages and in the course of phone conversations. It aimed to halt my efforts on behalf of a client because it shed an unflattering light on the unethical and possibly illegal business practices of the bully in question. It wasn't coming from a 300-pound guy named Rocco or Bugsy, though it certainly sounded like it. The exchange constituted the single most shocking incident of my entire professional life.

The bullying happened at the tail end of the work day, when Little Babe had already returned from camp. And though I refrained from sharing the text messages with my young son, he (and half the bungalow colony) certainly heard my entire end of the cellphone screamfest as he patiently waited for me to finish "work"... so that I could take him out for Chinese food that evening, as planned.

As I held the phone to my incredulous ear, there were threats, accusations and screams coming at me. Incensed, I threatened to make the creepy text exchange public, reveal the content of the phone conversation, go to the cops, the FBI, the press.

Indeed, when I did drive to my local police precinct a short while later, Little Babe was by my side.

He saw me seeking recourse. He saw me outing my bully. He saw me reacting with anger, outrage and an effort to seek help and protection.

What he did not see were tears or helplessness. What he did not see was the mantle of the victim. I like to think of myself as an alpha female, a self-image formed in childhood. As a young Bungalow Babe, I fended off bullies with my street-fighting skills, ambushing the tormentors of my little brother and sister, using SAT words to convince mean kids that their quality of life would be improved by leaving my siblings the hell alone.

If anything, being a mother has only sharpened my protective instincts. And though I know that we are supposed to train our kids, especially our sons, to fight their own battles, sometimes the battles are unfair, or the tactics are extreme or the other kid is truly a bad seed whose parents are MIA or complete jerks.

So when Little Babe found himself at the wrong end of a fist flying into his ribcage, it was a zero-to-sixty reaction on my part. I sprang into action, knowing even as I did that he would need to develop his own inner warrior, figure out how to exude that aura that warns, "Do Not Mess with Me," or, in the absence of that ability, learn how to name the bully for what he is, thereby transforming himself from helpless victim to crime-fighter bent on putting another bad guy behind bars.

Naming the bully is key because bullies rarely strike once. Bullies are to bullying as vampires are to blood. And once a bully is so identified, others inevitably come forth, telling tales similar to your own. This builds a network of support and outs the bully for what he is. The fist-loose kid at camp, I assured Little Babe, is a behavior problem at home and at school. You are not the only one he bothers. That's right, Little Babe affirmed, proceeding to list a series of hair-raising offenses against other kids.

Indeed, what I was sharing with Little Babe were the fruits of what I had discovered in the course of my own bully-naming. Yes, I named my bully and suddenly others came forth telling similar tales. Some of the stories were far worse than my own; some verged on hilarity because they were so out of the range of professional conduct. Emails began pouring in. My cellphone started ringing. I started doing research and found reams of evidence that this particular bully operated, typically, in broad daylight, leaving messy footprints behind.

There was a pattern of thuggery, ruthlessness, foul language, intimidation, verbal abuse and threats. It existed well before my own encounter. And if left unchecked, would persist into the foreseeable future.

It is a Monday afternoon and I'm blogging instead of eating lunch. Little Babe is on a trip with his group and the fact that I'm writing provides an index of my anxiety. Yeah, I'm a bit worried about his safety and yeah, even when I was being an alpha female, yelling on my cellphone a couple of weeks ago, I was a bit worried about my own safety. But the word is out. Both of our tormentors have been called by their true names -- Bully -- and everyone knows that bad guys always lose in the end.

1 comment:

Ethical Optimist said...

As one of those who knows your tormenter and shared a story or two, I commend you for facing the pit bull of PR! Good for you, letting your son see that bullies need to have a light shed upon them. I have found that professional bullies are no different than those encountered in the school yard as children. Like their childhood counterparts, professional bullies feed upon those that show weakness and fear...never upon those who fight back. And never, ever, underestimate the power of Karma...what goes around comes around and bullies usually wind up getting their due.