You know how Oprah has a tendency to invite people onto her show, get them all loosened up, and then hit them with a question they didn’t see coming that sort of rips their heart out? That happened to me a little bit in a recent interview for a project that may or may not see the light of day, so I can’t give you too many details on it. It did kick off a chain of memories, emotions, and thoughts that I’d like to share.
If you’ve been on my journey for very long, you know that I’ve been the poster boy for childhood obesity since practically birth. I was 165 pounds in the third grade. I was 209 pounds in the fourth grade. One does not simply sail through childhood as a big kid without attracting the attention of bullies, mean kids, and, well, everyone. While bullying has been a buzzword in education for a while, it was something that we just lived with when I was a kid.
“Mom, the kids pick on me. They call me names.” Nowadays, this would prompt a phone call to the school, a committee meeting, and some “norming.” What was the response in my day? “Yeah. They used to pick on me, too. ‘Sticks and stones,’ Danny. ‘Sticks and stones.'”
In the fifth grade, I moved to a new home in a new school district. This meant learning a whole new set of bullies. One particularly nasty kid, we’ll call him Rodney, nagged, harassed, and verbally exhausted me relentlessly. One day at the tether ball pole, he said something that incensed me. Without thought, my fist was making contact with his nose. What was happening?
I am not a violent person! I never have been, and I never hope to be. That day on the playground, though, something “came unglued,” and Rodney took a direct hit to the face. Minutes later, we were both sitting in the principal’s office with our heads hung low. Rodney had a tissue collecting the blood dripping from his nose. He was the first to go into the principal’s office.
I heard some quiet conversation through the door, some very loud paddling, some exclamations from Rodney, and then silence. Rodney left the principal’s office with tears running down his face, reconstituting the caked blood. If this was what they did to the “victims” of violence in this school district, I was going to be mutilated.
Very timidly, I entered when called into the principal’s office. “Tell me what happened.” I told the principal about the history with Rodney and how something just snapped. The principal told me about his childhood. He shared with me that he had once the victim of relentless teasing. He understood. He then stood up with his paddle. “The handbook says the remedy for hitting someone is that I have to paddle you. The handbook doesn’t say how hard.”
He swatted me gently and sent me back to class. Elementary bullying was solved that day when the kids saw what happened to Rodney. As an older student, though, bullying was much more subtle, and corporal punishment wasn’t viable in middle school and junior high. Cliques, exclusion, and pranks replaced name calling. I’d rather have been punched in the face than punched in the heart when told that I couldn’t sit at a particular table or join a particular study group.
I looked at popular kids who weren’t skinny. I analyzed them. I noticed that each and every one was humorous, happy, and full of laughs. At that time, I did not comprehend correlation or causation. It didn’t really dawn on me that because they were popular they were happy and full of laughs. I deduced that because they were boisterous, they were popular. So, I set out to reinvent myself as the clown.
I was quite good at beating bullies to the punchline of many put-downs. I “owned” being big, and made it a part of my personality — my brand. I leveraged my size whenever possible in humorous ways. For the most part, that worked for me. Even as a teacher, I referred to my last name as a unit of size. “That door is less than one Moix wide.” It hurt less when the person doing the name calling was me.
Speaking of being a teacher, name calling and bullying are actions that I’m particularly in tune to. When I see it, I stop it. When I hear it, I intervene. Whether it’s about size, fashion, perceived sexuality, or anything else, I stop it. Ayn Rand is quoted as saying, “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” In retrospect, it’s the bullies asking, “Who’s going to stop me?” and those being bullied asking, “Who’s going to let me?” It’s unclear to me exactly when I switched from asking to telling, but I’m there, and in full swing.