Being born skinny with shocking red hair wasn’t a personal choice. Otherwise, I’d have opted out.
Being bullied wasn’t a choice either. If it had been, I’d have deferred on that too.
My mother constantly told me she prayed for a red-headed boy (to which I thought, “What were you thinking?).
There was a time when, on many mornings, I’d stand behind our front door, a nervous actor about to take the stage before a really mean audience.
Dread lodged in my chest as a car horn honked outside.
Mom said goodbye, smiling, no doubt seeking to infuse me with hope, as if I were headed for war.
Opening the car door, three or four guys waited, certified child piranhas whom I actually now like, and who like me back. But then, when the car door shut, a fearsome finality fell over me.
Imprisoned with bullies, I felt like fresh flesh. Game on.
“Hey Carrot Top!” one chirped.
“Maxwell, can’t you turn that off?” another added.
Then the inspired “Toothpick.”
Bullies are generally uncreative and crassly cruel, so it was the same lines each day. Thankfully, Google search didn’t exist then or the litany would have grown. And they weren’t old enough yet to know the phrase “Red-headed stepchild.” By the way, can’t someone say “Brown-headed stepchild?” Or better yet, say nothing?
During their teasing, I tried to think about Archie—Archie Manning, whose hair was red at the time and whose coolness factor was beyond reproach.
Back then, though, that didn’t help much when the bullets were flying.
Each word felt like a blow, a literal stomach punch. In those childhood moments, I wilted in my seat. Some days, I came home and cried myself to bed.
* * *
Late this November, a Houston, Texas-area youth, Brandy Vela, fatally shot herself in the chest as her family watched. Her family said the harassment focused mainly on Brandy’s weight.
Brutal kids “would make dating websites of her, and they would put her number and they would put her picture (on the sites), and lie about her age and say she is giving herself up for sex for free, to call her,” said Jacqueline Vela.
Today, it’s not just words that inflict pain. I had it good. Today, it’s images. It’s organized in websites, not just carpools. It’s remote, with no wisp of conscience. The news breaks nearly weekly, and it breaks our hearts.
Today, child suicides due to bullying are a scourge on this land. People and experts today seem to focus most of their attention on spotting the victim’s signs of depression and suicidal tendencies. On spotting the scars on the hearts of victims. And that’s vital.
But I’m joining those who are also wanting to say, “What about the hearts of the bullies?” How do we vet their hearts? Who is responsible for that?
Back in my day, our mothers rotated driving us to an explicitly Christian school where we competed in “sword drills” and Bible memory work. (I loved them!) Neither exercise, however, seemed to bear fruit within our carpool.
And the carpool's moms? It was mostly “hear no evil, see no evil.” Perhaps they felt that stopping their sons was a futile endeavor. Or perhaps they didn’t care.
I would look at a mom gazing out her window. Surely she heard. Surely she knew. The moms’ passivity felt almost like abandonment, almost as bad as their sons’ acidity.
It hurt then. When I linger on it as I am now, a hollow ache still emerges. Ironically, today I have no color in my hair and am certainly not skinny, but memories don’t change. Still, I got over it. But some don’t. Some even kill themselves in the midst of the pain, or in the pain of later years after the world has continued to pile on.
I still can’t fathom kids intentionally being so mean. Even to a dog or guinea pig.
The good news for me was that—after an ugly daily lock-down to and from school—I retreated to Bonanza and Gunsmoke each afternoon.
Bonanza—where Little Joe, Hoss, Adam and a kingly father, Lorne Greene, kicked bullies’ teeth in, roped them up, or chased them away.
Gunsmoke, where the manly Matt Dillon and the quirky Festus reigned with hearts of gold and guns of silver. Festus—himself a seeming candidate for bullying—didn’t take nothing. Bullies always underestimated him, and I loved it.
Oh for the Ponderosa. Oh for Festus.
Today, however, Ponderosas and Festuses would solve nothing, as if they ever did.
Kids like Brandy Vela can’t hide. It seems there are no safe havens. No heroes can destroy web attackers. No matter how Brandy and her family tried to address the bullying, it never stopped. School administrators say they tried to no avail. Brandy changed her phone number more than once. But, said one report, “The bullies always found her.”
Today, there is virtually no place to hide from the bullies. “Virtually” is the operative word.
Cells phones are today’s pistols and fists, firing bullets of words and images so ubiquitous and unrelenting that a kid finally grows tired of dodging and then the blood runs. Lorne Greene couldn’t stop ‘em. Heck, Superman couldn’t.
Bullies lurk in purses or pockets, like ghosts on the haunt within cell phones. Kids today are bullied 24/7.
Who can help them? There's someone who isn't called out enough: a bully’s parent(s).
Too often, like those moms in my carpool, such parents look the other way. I actually believe some today are clueless due to the virtual nature of bullying. They have no idea what their kid is spewing on his or her phone. But bullies are bullies, and no parent willing to be really honest can miss spotting their children’s dispositions. Sadly, I think sometimes today parents cave to Darwinian impulses and simply think, “Better your kid than mine,” or “It’s a tough world and only the tough survive.”
News flash for these parents: You were probably a bully too. Behind many bully kids are bully parents - or lazy ones. But the reality is, bullying is a parenting issue first and foremost. It's the parents who are behind bullying.
Parents, we know if our child is mean. I say this because I know when I’m mean, and it isn’t hard to spot when my children are either. If it gets chronic in any of us, at least in my family, it becomes nearly impossible to miss. So I don’t know any other way to say it. You know if your child gives it out more than they get it. Heck, your kids may even bully you!
Here’s the bottom line as I see it. The guys who bullied me were wrestling with a heart issue, and their moms and/or dads either wouldn’t take the time to address their hearts or just couldn’t handle the thought of what they may find.
So a bully’s heart grows with gnarls and knots. And today, packs of hard-hearted bullies grow gang-like with an internet pile-on mentality.
Where are the parents of these bullies? Surely at least one of you per school can see the pack that your bully child runs with—can’t you? One of you will hazard addressing not only your child, but also the parents of others on your child's “bully team.”
* * *
Standing Up and four more short stories takes on the issue of bullying in a great way that teens and young kids can digest. It was just published by Mississippi Matters's sister organization, The Well Writers Guild, and authored by Lauren Hill, a 16-year-old student at The Guild. Click to read an article on Lauren and to learn how you can purchase copies.