Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bullies to the left of me, outcasts to the right.

Have you ever been bullied?

Have you ever been a bully?

Have you ever felt so ostracized that you wanted to devolve into an amoeba and squirm back into the earth's primordial bisque?

Have you ever humiliated someone so badly that you felt as if someone else were actually inhabiting your body, manipulating the controls like an evil, goatee-wearing anti-you?

This morning, my ten-year-old daughter and I embarked on the first leg of Middle School Rush, 2011, where we visit a few schools and then make a choice. Upon entering the cafeteria at one of these sixth, seventh and eighth grade facilities, we were assaulted by the biggest non-freeway sign upon which I've ever focused my retinas.

The banner read, "I will report any bullying to an adult at school and at home. Our school does not tolerate bullying of any kind." The letters were hand drawn, but had they been digitally rendered, we're talking 4512 point, Helvetica Nueue Extra Bold Extended.

I stared at that sign. I focused on it while I should have been listening to the presentation. I thought about all the times I've been the victim of intimidation or have dealt it out myself.

There was that eighth grader who, every time his saw my chubby, seventh grade body walking down the junior high hallway toward him, conjured up a different creative way to terrorize me. Whether it was hawking a mouthful of his DNA into my face, slugging me in the stomach or sticking his foot out as I rounded a corner, in my dreams and conscious thought, his image personified dread.

I can't remember singling out my own victims back in those days, but I certainly never came to the defense of the exploited, nor did I avoid pointing out an individual's physical or intellectual anomalies to them... face to face, for all the minions in my mob to appreciate.

I, and so many others, wore both faces of bullying. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, half of all school age children have or will be victims of bullying, and ten percent will suffer repeatedly. Most bullies have also been subject to physical abuse or bullying themselves.

Even if we don't recall being overtly bullied, who doesn't remember moments feeling ostracized, whether it was lining up to choose teams at recess and being picked last, or being the only kid not invited to a slumber party.

So many degrees.

Nothing beats a good Hollywood outcast story, where the social pariah defies the odds, defeats his oppressors and pumps his fist in slow motion to end the movie. I'm not sure real life follows suit so closely.

Both Karate Kids—Jaden Smith and the forty-two-year-old-who-played-a-fourteen-year-old-Ralph Macchio—portrayed outcasts who emerged successfully, but had to learn to kill flies with chopsticks first. The same held true for David Carradine in Kung Fu. He had to kick ass to get respect. I always thought he was the epitome of cool...right up until that last part.

Some movie outcasts emerge victorious with no talent or skill, just grit, determination or luck. Examples of this category are The Bad News Bears, Rocky and any role awarded to Keanu Reeves.

Others gained acceptance, but only due to a freakish attribute, such as Rudolph, Rain Man and John Holmes.

And finally, scores of cinematic misfits have typified the dark side of rejection, where insecurity morphed into angst, which exploded into psychosis. Cases in point: Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Sissy Spacek in Carrie and Charlie Sheen in Winning.

As I sat in that middle school cafeteria, I finally commanded my brain to hail a mental taxi and return to the present moment;  I needed to cease with the ruminating about bullying. After all, I never spoke with my parents about it, and look how I turned out.

I think it's time to have a talk with my kid.

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