On Bullies, Zebras, and Axl Rose

Axl Rose, in my opinion, is severely underappreciated as a poet.

Well, he was. I haven’t heard “Chinese Democracy” yet.

“You can have anything you want, but you better not take it from me.” There are few quotes that so perfectly capture the zeitgeist of a playroom full of toddlers.

We’ve made the choice for Mama to stay home and have been fortunate enough for this to be possible, so far. So Little Man hasn’t been in daycare, and this shows in the playroom scrum. There’s an aggression, a sort of desperate hunger that characterizes kids who’ve had to hustle for the good toys. They’re quick, opportunistic, like coyotes or meth addicts.

So when we’re in the Tot Lot, or in the Kidzone at the Y, Little Man will sometimes have toys snatched away by those toddlers operating under Jungle Law. He usually is unfazed by this, and just moves on to the next thing, but sometimes, he’ll be put off. Never to tears, but nonetheless.

Enough about my kid, let’s talk about me.

This may or may not be objectively true, but I’ve always considered myself something of a push-over. Not standing up for myself, avoiding conflict, trying to appease all parties –  these are all tactics I’m familiar with and wish I wasn’t. My daydreams and revisionist autobiography are full of decimating comebacks, good fights fought, and lines in  the sand most ominously drawn. I try to avoid having too much of my own agenda for my son’s development, but one giant point that I can’t seem to get off my to-do list is for him not to be the coward I sometimes feel myself to be.

And this is why, when toys get snatched away, I have to restrain myself from delivering street justice to a 3 year old.

It seems absurd to think about now, but in the moment, the urge to get all Steven Seagal on some little cheerio-faced zebra-thief is a very real thing. You parents out there know of what I speak.

I want to protect my son, of course, but if I’m honest it’s also about redeeming myself by saving my son from my own past failures.

And it’s standing up to a bully, right? That’s wicked noble. That’s all kinds of memes. I mean, yes, the kid who filched the rubber Zebra (that actually belongs to the playroom, not us) is maybe 3, tops. But putting that aside, dishing out to a bully is striking a blow for justice. Am I right?

I’m fairly cynical by nature, but I can’t help but get a little excited by this movement to end bullying. I was bullied, like most nerds. Not as bad as some, not as bad as the ones we hear about. But that experience makes all this publicity resonate with me. It makes me cheer and give victorious crotch-chops with every video, every article, every gif that brings the fight back to the bullies. That rumbles over the web, raises the virtual fist in defiance, screaming the message that they won’t get away with it any more.

These things all make me very excited. And then I remember that I was a bully.

In middle school I bullied a kid. Never physically, I never beat him up, and I didn’t make a habit of it- it was only the one kid.

Listen to me try to qualify my way back towards some kind of innocence.

I was a bully. To whatever degree. A bully is a bully.

I couldn’t have told you why, not in any satisfying sense. The guy had done nothing to me, nothing to deserve it – no one ever does. But I teased him, picked on him, pranked him through 7th grade.

With 20 years to look back on it, I can lay it on my own self-esteem problems, my own struggle towards identity. It was almost like it was a persona I wore for a year, wondering if it was mine.

It’s odd, also looking back how no one stopped me. No teachers, no other kids. I’m not shifting blame away from myself. As much as it mortifies me to, I’m owning what’s mine. I’m just observing. Bullying is an act of cowardice, and cowards only operate when they don’t think anyone’s watching. If a teacher had confronted me, I would have stopped, I’m sure. Again, I’m not shifting blame here, just observing.

I try to approach life without regrets – enjoy it or learn from it, bad or good, experience makes you who you are. But this is a regret. The biggest, probably.

I regret what I did.

I’m sorry for what I did.

I’m ashamed for what I did.

The knowledge of my own capacity for cruelty, the depth of the darkness in me, I do actually value. I feel it actually makes me kinder, but how I wish, how I so dearly wish that knowledge wasn’t paid for with someone else’s suffering.

This is a terrifying post to write. Not many people know this about me, and perhaps my deepest, howling fear is that I won’t be loved. But truth is necessary. I have to be honest with myself, with my son, with you. I’m sure the little man will find countless things to resent me for, but hopefully being false won’t be one.

I tracked him down, by the way, the kid I bullied. A few years ago, before becoming a father, I found him on facebook. It was before everybody was watching their privacy settings, so I could get a sense of how he was, and he seemed as fine and well-adjusted as anybody else. I sent him a message, an apology. I never heard back. I didn’t expect to.

I really, truly hope this anti-bullying movement takes hold. That it filters into the public consciousness so people will stand up and call bullies out when they see one. I can’t get as outraged as the headlines want me to be, though. Not because the behavior of these kids isn’t outrageous, but because they’re kids. The bullies are kids, too. They don’t deserve the sympathy that their victims do, not by a long shot. But every kid deserves some understanding. Bullying is a serious, systemic problem that needs to be stopped, but maybe helping the bullies understand what they’re doing can be part of the solution. I hope that I’m proof they can change for the better.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to talk to a 3 year old about sharing zebras.

Blog Epilogue (epiblog?): ahem. Of course, in the time between my writing this, and my posting this, my son has swung the opposite way, and now lives by the code of Axl, purloining toys with impunity. The moral of this post has now changed from “Magical Rainbow Understanding Heals the World,” to “Don’t Get Comfortable, Even With Your Problems.”

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