Author: Leesa Collett
With all the attention focused on the issue of bullying in recent times, I feel compelled to come clean. You see, I was a bully. My time as a bully was short-lived and early in my life, but I still have some vivid memories. I am moved to reflect on lessons learned and, hopefully, wisdom gained.
I don’t remember my first act of bullying, as it started when I was quite young. When I was about two years old my mother and I were standing in front of my grandparents’ apartment building in downtown Chicago. I munched on a pretzel as we waited for the car to be brought around. A dog came by and took the pretzel out of my hand. Its owner didn’t have time to react before I bent over and bit the dog. My mother tried to make nice, saying, “I’m so sorry. She’s never bitten a dog before.” The story never involves any consequence for me. To be fair to my mother, this was the mid-1950s, a much different world, and I was her first child. I’m sure she had never considered the possibility of needing to discipline her two year old for biting a dog. I’m not sure if this qualifies as bullying, but I became a biter, so I tend to see this as at least part of the picture.
Actually, I did more than bite. By the time I was three my family moved to the suburbs. It wasn’t much of a neighborhood back then, mostly fields and gravel roads. This was my domain and I ruled without regard for the feelings or rights of others. The neighbors created a petition and presented it to my parents. They didn’t want me outside when their children were out playing. In those days children routinely played outside unsupervised. Seems the other kids weren’t safe around me. I hurt them. I don’t remember much from this year of my childhood; however, since the social life of the neighborhood revolved around my parents, I doubt the neighbors pushed for any punishment.
By the time I went to kindergarten I was the leader of a gang. It was a small gang, but feared. Two of my best friends, Joyce and Robin, were in it. So were a few other girls. There were five or six of us. Did they join the gang because of my powers of persuasion or because they wanted to be the bully rather than the bullied? I will probably never know for sure.
My last day as a bully began like every other day in kindergarten, at least for me. When it was time for recess my gang and I checked our pockets for our ray guns. Weeks before, under my direction, we made ray guns during art class. They were finger-painted paper we cut out to resemble a gun. Once the paint dried we folded them to fit into our pockets. (These were the days of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.) The other five year olds believed we had real ray guns. Remember, I was rather persuasive. On the playground I would decide what to do. Did I feel like swinging? Sliding? The jungle gym? Or did I want one of those wonderful red rubber balls? Once the decision was made, we got into formation and approached the kids in our way, threatening to blast into oblivion any child who didn’t move fast enough. They always ran. However, on this particular day things didn’t go as planned. We approached the swings. The kids ran, screaming in fear. I loved that. Then I heard, “Leesa!” The teacher appeared and quashed my victory. I don’t remember what she said, only “The Look.” I know she didn’t say much. She didn’t need to. And that, I believe, made all the difference.
“The Look” was unequivocal. If she had lectured me, my mind would have gone on the defensive. I couldn’t defend against the power of “The Look.” Her energy, not her words, created a powerful impression on me. So powerful that I remember it more than fifty years later. So powerful that I went on to defend many against bullies. I even wound up in the emergency room two years later when I took on a really big bully. Ouch!
My days as a bully ended when my teacher, a woman I adored and respected, gave me a look that made me feel bullying had cost me what I was trying to gain. Her opinion of me mattered. It mattered more than my opinion of myself. In that moment I knew my actions were unacceptable. At a young age it was just that simple. I wanted to feel loved and thought of as special by the people who mattered most to me. I wasn’t the classic bully who felt small and bullied others in a vain attempt to fill a deficiency of self-esteem. I had a sense of superiority and entitlement. At that time in my life, adults, especially those who mattered most to me, treated me like the special little princess I had come to believe I was. I deserved to have what I wanted and I deserved preferential treatment. If the other kids didn’t recognize my position at the top of the kindergarten hierarchy, then I would assert my power. “The Look,” however, made me feel vulnerable and small.
Much has been written about bullies and bullying. It is not my intention to review the literature or offer a miraculously simple solution. But years as a high school teacher and my brief foray into bullying have given me some insights I would like to share.
If you witness bullying, here is something to try. Move in, not away. (I’m not advocating putting yourself in danger. I’m addressing common bullying scenarios.) Bullies expect people to recoil with fear. They thrive by creating fear in others. Moving in, toward the victim, surprises the bully, supports the victim, and changes the dynamics of the situation. Your presence and calm, self-assured demeanor are powerful. It’s not necessary to say anything to the bully, but if you do, use a calm tone, nonthreatening message, and few words. Ask a question, “Why are you doing this?” Make a statement, “You don’t need to do this.” Or say something supportive of the victim, “I like Tommy.” Responding with fear or anger feeds the bully and disempowers the victim. Do something to break the tension, not create more. This may only be a short-term fix, but it’s a start.