Never downplay the significance of bullying

Published 10:39 am Monday, October 14, 2013

When I was born, my family lived in the little town of Southampton, N.Y. Yep, the same place you read about in the tabloids and see on the entertainment shows on television. But when I was a kid, Southampton was nothing like it appears today. It was a small town, even smaller than Franklin, with a downtown shopping area and a bigger retail district like Armory Drive. We had some wealthy neighbors and a few super-wealthy residents in town, but by and large it was inhabited by normal, working-class people. Of course it was right on the ocean, which is why a bunch of Hollywood knuckleheads and Manhattan bankers make the 100-mile trek from New York City each summer and take it over like it’s theirs. But back when I was a kid, Southampton was still relatively undiscovered by the social elite, and it was a great place to live. It was quiet and safe, and I went to school and church with the same friends I had known since the day I was born. And I only remember ever being in one fistfight prior to the age of 10, and that was with my best friend. I’m not even sure we were even mad at each other. We more than likely wanted to see what fighting was all about. Whatever the reason, I don’t have any real recollection of being afraid of anyone or anything at school for the first part of my childhood.

Until we moved.

With only a few weeks of school remaining in the fourth-grade, we packed up and moved closer to the city to a place called Levittown. Levittown was, well, different. Very different, in fact. It was crowded, with houses packed right on top in neat little rows and neighborhoods that seemed to go on for miles. The people were different, too, specially the kids. They just had an edge to them that to which I wasn’t accustomed. They also really seemed to enjoy fighting. A lot. Some kids seemed to enjoy it so much they would go out of their way to provoke one. And it was about this time that I started to learn what it was like to be bullied.

In the beginning, it wasn’t too bad, usually just an older or bigger kid bumping me into the lockers as they walked by. Rarely would I acknowledge them for fear it could get worse. I never spoke up because I knew that if I did, it definitely would. And the day in fifth-grade I got sucker-punched in the hallway and told a teacher, I learned that I was right.

The kid that punched me was a popular sixth-grader. The punishment he got for hitting me was losing his hall monitor status. My punishment for telling my teacher was to get punched a lot harder that day after school.

Of course, that afternoon wasn’t the end of it, but just the beginning. I spent the rest of the year knowing that if I didn’t make a hasty getaway from school, there was more punching to come. On the days I did make it to my house safely I was usually sweaty and out of breath for having run the whole way home. On the days I didn’t, I tended to be covered in grass stains and bruises.

Having learned my lesson the first time, I knew better than to tell my teacher what was taking place every day after school. I also never told my mother, because I knew the meeting at school the next day would surely be followed up by beatings on the way home which were far worse than the ones I had endured to that point.

It wasn’t until months later, when I came home with dog poo all over a new winter coat, that I broke down and told her what had been happening. Sure enough, she and I were sitting in the principal’s office the next day, and when my sixth-grade buddy came back to school from his weeklong suspension, I paid the price.

Needless to say, I didn’t look forward to going to school much in the fifth-grade. I didn’t like going to lunch, and I didn’t look forward to recess. And at about 2-o’clock every afternoon, my stomach would tighten into a knot knowing I was less than an hour away from the last bell.

Bullying certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been going on, I can only imagine, since the beginning of time. But the awareness of the effect it has on children is only just now beginning to be understood and made public.

According to the website, it is estimated that nearly 160,000 children stay home from school each and every day because of the fear of attack or intimidation from other students. The effects on those being bullied can include anxiety and poor academic performance, and worse.

I’ve heard others say that bullying is just a part of growing up, and that kids learn toughness by having to deal with it. I’m guessing that most who hold that view were never on the receiving end. Bullying doesn’t teach toughness, it instills fear and insecurity in children who are surrounded by adults who don’t see the signs or choose to turn a blind eye. October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Take the time to learn how to learn the signs. You could make a significant difference in a child’s life.

TONY CLARK is the associate publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at