As a child, I was an easy mark for playground torments: smart, insufferably rule-abiding, decidedly unpretty. The tormenter I remember most distinctly was not my first bully, nor my last, but his attacks would turn the others into footnotes.
He was in my class for years. His mom was my softball coach, driving me to and from practice when my single mother could not. In class photos his face is round and almost cherubic, but I remember it contorted in anger as he spat insults at me, telling me to shut the hell up, flailing his hands against his chest and moaning — an approximation of what he said I sounded like. We were seated next to each other in class, year after year, and when I finally complained about this arrangement, one of my teachers said that maybe I’d be “a good influence.”
My proximity to his mother did nothing to protect me. Sitting in the back of her van after my team lost a softball game, he snapped: “It smells in here. Close your legs.” Reflexively, I did as he instructed. When his mother climbed into the driver’s seat a few moments later, oblivious to what had happened, he was still doubled over with laughter. I was 10.
When I returned home, tearful and broken down, I comforted myself with the idea that one day, I would be happy and successful and my bully would not. I received the advice that all bullied children of my generation were given: The universe would mete out some sort of karmic justice. This idea is everywhere: Biff Tannen waxes George McFly’s car at the end of “Back to the Future,” having been beaten into submission (literally) years earlier. In “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie Parker finally snaps after years of torment and attacks Scut Farkus, who is left tearful and bleeding.
Now, as an adult, I realize how problematic and how ingrained that thinking is. In the past few years, our culture has started to see bullying as a serious problem, one whose victims need help, support and protection. As for the bullies? They’re the bad guys. Why they bully doesn’t matter — only that they get what they deserve in the end. But this paradigm only further stigmatizes children who need help.
Studies have found that as they grow up, bullies tend to have more trouble keeping jobs, have more problems with alcohol and drugs, and are more likely to have criminal records. A large number of bullies are also bullying victims, meaning they face some of the same pathologies that they induce in others.
“These kids have been told that they’re worthless, that they’re stupid. They’re dealing with trauma, and they don’t have the social skills to process it. Punishing them just makes it worse,” says Julietta Skoog, a school psychologist with Seattle Public Schools. “It’s never just ‘I feel like being a jerk.’”
I never could have imagined feeling empathy for the boy who made my life hell, or for any bully.
I occasionally searched for him online, to relish all the ways my life was better than his. In 2010, I learned from a friend that he had been murdered in his home not far from where we grew up. He had been dealing pot and was killed in a robbery gone wrong. One of the murderers had been his childhood friend.
I read that he had anticipated an attack. His friends said he was so terrified in the weeks leading up to his murder that he’d slept with a hammer under his pillow. I was haunted by what I imagined his final moments were like, by how scared he must have been. I cried for the boy who had made me so miserable.
What kind of fate would I have considered sufficient retribution? Would I have been satisfied if he was merely unsuccessful or unhappy? What sentence are we comfortable bestowing upon a fifth-grader for his crimes?
I think of my bully’s anger, his struggles in school, his unhinged rage, all at the tender age of 11. I see the error in thinking that a troubled child somehow deserves a terrible fate. “Ignore him, and he’ll go away,” adults told me. In the end, they were right.
Geraldine DeRuiter is author of the site Everywhereist.com.