[Note: I was reminded of the story I am about to tell while watching the train wreck of a presidential debate with my 19-year-old son, Jax. I was almost at a loss for what to say to him. Almost.]
Unless you are my first high school sweetheart, it will likely come as a big surprise to you that I was once a victim of incessant bullying. It started on my fist day of seventh grade and lasted, painfully, until the last day of school. Then it ended and while people have tried to bully me since, no one has succeeded.
Unfortunately, Bullying is a Part of Everyday Life. It Has Been Around Forever
It was September 1975 and the Viet Nam War had just ended in April. My family moved from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Coronado, California and, other than missing my friends back home fiercely, I was excited about my dad being home for good (he was a Marine) and living on a real island! On top of all that, I was about to turn 13.
Much to my chagrin, my mom took me for a haircut the day before school started. Ugh. I had spent the last three months on the beach and clearly these California kids never cut their hair. Remember, it was the seventies. We did not need no stinking haircuts…
So, here I was on the first day of school, a new school, with a spanking new haircut, looking remarkably like Potsie Weber when just the day before I looked like Keith Partridge.
You Will Remember Key Moments in Your Life. Just Remember That
To hide my haircut, on the way out the door I grabbed my marine corps utility cap. Why not? My buddies back home were always asking if I could get them one. My dad had given it to me when he returned from Viet Nam and I hardly ever took it off.
Even though the island was small, my mom wanted to drive me. Starting junior high is a big deal, even for parents. As I watched mom drive away, I heard some kid yell, “Look at the jarhead.” Thinking nothing of it, I kept walking into the school when I heard it again. Then I heard a chorus of kids yelling, “Jarhead, jarhead, jarhead.”
As it turned out, the chants were for me. I was jarhead, though I had no idea why. Turns out, it was the hat.
A Bully Feeds Off Building Consensus. Find any Bully and I Guarantee They Have a Group
In my case, the bully was Chip Stump (name changed). Chip and I were in the same homeroom and when he walked in the door and saw me, he again said, “jarhead” igniting a chorus of laughter. Other than wanting to flee back to the relative safety of my friends in Grand Rapids, I figured the whole jarhead thing would pass. Still, it stung. It hurt.
Walking home that afternoon I tossed my previously prized jarhead hat into a trashcan and tried in vain to tousle my all-too-short hair. I knew the only thing that would fix my hair was time and refusing to go to the barber.
The next day the jarhead chants started over again and they continued throughout the schoolyear – I was jarhead all day every day. I never engaged with the kids, I just put my head down and went from class-to-class minding my own business, longing to be back home with my friends in Michigan. Not a day passed where I was not called jarhead at least 100 times.
Staying a Bully Takes a Commitment. You Have to Stick with It
Chip did stick with it. His status was driven by incessant bullying of me and others, though I took little solace in being just one of his victims. Every week someone would come up to me and say, “I hear Chip is going to kick your ass after school out on the grass.” So curious was I that I started to go out to “the grass” just to see. Funny thing. Chip never showed.
On the last day of school, in homeroom, I mustered the courage to point out to the class that not only had Chip never beaten me up, he had never showed up on “the grass”. That made kids laugh at Chip and for a fleeting moment, I felt like Chip. While unintentional, I had made everyone laugh at Chip. Well, this made Chip upset, so he punched me in the eye. Chip’s punch was so hard and on target that my eye quickly swelled shut. Now kids were laughing at me again while Chip was escorted to have a chat with the principal.
Clarity Comes at the Weirdest Moments, Even with One Eye
My parents had told me that morning that we were moving (again), so I knew heading into the day all I had to do was survive. Heck, a couple of hundred more jarheads was nothing. I could make it. Brighter days ahead. All I really cared about was my baseball game that night, though with my eye swollen shut I really did not want to play. My parents had other ideas. They made me play.
Baseball with one eye, while doable, is hard. I was the catcher, so I only needed the one good eye to see the pitches coming in. Still, hitting was challenging. My left eye was still swollen shut, so I was forced to use just my right eye to look past my nose to see the ball. I struck out my first two at bats, cussing my parents under my breath each time I walked back to the dugout for making me play.
The Best Way to Beat a Bully is to Ignore a Bully. I Had Done that All Year
On my third time up to the plate the other team put in a new pitcher. It was none other than Chip Stump, the bully who had dogged me all year. For crying out loud, he beats me to a pulp and now he gets to strike me out? Come on! “Open up your stance,” my father said as I left the dugout. Do what? “Open your stance, you’ll see the ball better,” he said again while physically demonstrating how. Hmm. What have I got to lose? Nothing. Open stance it is.
So, I walked up to the plate, ready to use my “open stance”. Strangely, Chip did not look directly at me. I suspect he had gotten into a bit of trouble for hitting me, though I do not know for sure. In the batter’s box I took my open stance. It must have looked ridiculous, but miraculously I could see Chip and the ball in his hand. Still, I felt silly up there one eyed and all, feet splayed as if I was stretching out a leg muscle.
Your Best Defense Against any Bully is Focus. Keep your focus on you
While I had cried myself to sleep every night for nearly a year, the bullies never saw me cry. That really bothered Chip. Now, up to the plate, it was me against Chip. It was a level playing field, though with one eye shut, maybe not so level.
By opening my stance, I was forced to focus in on the ball. The moment Chip Stump released the pitch, I focused on nothing but the baseball. Strangely, with my “new” stance the baseball looked as big as a beachball. Suddenly my brain, right eye, hands, and aluminum bat were working as one. The pitcher, Chip Stump meant nothing to me. The only thing that mattered as I swung, was the ball, was hitting the ball. Focus.
When the Game (or Life) is in Slow Motion, you are in Control
Things seemed in slow motion as I swung, made contact, and then watched the ball sail over the Baskin Robins sign in centerfield. Homerun. The only thing on my mind then was rounding the bases and getting my free Hot Fudge Sunday which came with clearing the sign. “Yes,” I yelled between second and third, Chip Stump fading more into my past with every stride I took, though he was only feet away.
In the end, Chip Stump had a bad day. Even all these years later, I remember feeling sorry for him as I watched him crying in his own dugout after the game. Try as he might, he never saw me cry. Focus.
Bullying is never right. Hard as it might be, the BEST thing you can do to beat a bully is just stay focused, keep your eye on the ball. This is your life, not the bullies. Own it. Focus.