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How a Notebook Changed My Perspective on Bullying

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

How a Notebook Changed My Perspective on Bullying

Stephen H. Provost

A couple of years back, I wrote a book titled Undefeated to illustrate a simple principle: that the abuse of power is wrong. Period. No one person or group has a monopoly on cruelty, and those who dole out abuse in one culture or time period might wind up on the receiving end of abuse under different circumstances.

I learned that lesson early.

When I was a child, I was bullied. They say middle school (aka junior high) is hell, and I can attest to that. But, to be candid, there was a time when I was a bit of a bully myself. In sixth grade, some "friends" and I started giving another friend a "hard time" by knocking his notebook out of his hands when he was walking down the corridor to his next class. It was all in fun, supposedly. That's what I told myself to justify it. In reality, it was vicious and cruel.

Then, one day, everything turned on its head, and for some reason I became the target. Suddenly, it wasn't so much fun anymore.

Initially, I took it as a challenge. I'd outsmart them. I asked my parents to take me to the store and buy a "bully-proof" notebook. I thought I'd found one: one with a zipper to keep everything safely inside so that, the next time they knocked it out of my hands, none of my homework would come spilling out onto the pavement.

Except it did. Because the first time they knocked that slick new forest-green, zippered notebook out of my hands, they picked it up off the concrete, unzipped it and proceeded to shake out the contents until they were strewn all across the canopied corridor of A.E. Wright Middle School. Game, set and match. I was beaten. And to this day I remember how I felt when it happened: utterly defeated.

It wasn't because of anything I'd done (unless you believe in karma). The reason they knocked that notebook out of my hands wasn't because of who I was or what I'd done; it was because of who they were - and who I'd been when I did the same thing to the other kid in the first place. Mean. Selfish. Brazen. Willing to rationalize doing something hurtful by saying we were "giving someone a hard time"  or that it was all just "good, clean fun." It may have been fun for the notebook-knockers, but it wasn't fun for the person on the receiving end. It wasn't clean, and it certainly wasn't good for anyone.

There wasn't anything special about me or the other kid who wound up on the receiving end of these "pranks." We weren't minorities in any sense of the word; we weren't bad kids or layabouts or troublemakers. We were just there. A couple of years later, after I'd put on a bit of weight, some of the bullies took to calling me the "great white whale." It seems I had committed an unpardonable sin by being out of shape and pale as a scoop of vanilla ice cream (my Danish ancestry) in sunny, surf-obsessed Southern California. But that was just an excuse. If it hadn't been that, it would have been something else.

Because it wasn't about me. It was about them.

"It" is never about the victims. It's never about their sexuality, their gender, their race, their religion, their ethnic background or any of that. The bullies would like everyone to believe that it is, because they're under the warped impression that it will justify their abusive behavior. If something is wrong were their targets, it would mean something must be right with them. And this argument, if we accept it, blinds us from realizing that the wrong lies wholly with the perpetrators. 

There's nothing wrong with being gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, cisgender, lesbian, asexual, Asian, Native American, white, Pacific Islander, Aboriginal Australian, black, Indian, Ainu, Inuit, Latino, Norse, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, an atheist, a polytheist, a woman, a man, a child, a senior citizen, a monotheist, a pantheist, a deist, an agnostic, a Gnostic, a poet, a scientist, an artisan, a cultivator, a merchant, a musician, an author, an engineer, a mathematician, a philosopher, a historian, a teacher, a chef, a healer, an advocate, a tailor ...

There is something terribly wrong with treating anybody as inferior because they belong to any of these groups, any one of which might be on giving or receiving end of abuse. Christians have been persecuted, and they've also been persecutors. So have atheists (remember the Soviet Union?). Name any ethnic group, and chances are they've been on each end of the stick at one time or another during their history. Power can be abused by anyone for any "reason," and the so-called "reasons" are never rational. 

The abuser-victim dynamic can flip in very short order, just as it did with me in middle school, as it did with the Christian church in the fourth century, or as it did with the Soviet Union in the early part of this one. Race, ethnicity, gender, etc. are never more than excuses for abusers to inflict their cruelty - and they're always bad excuses, at that. Regardless of the differences that we use as a foundation to build up barriers, one person's life is intrinsically no more and no less important than anyone else's. Human dignity recognizes none of these barriers and demands to be recognized despite all of them. Anything less is unacceptable.