I just had a bizarre epiphany about a traumatic childhood experience. I was waking up from a dream. The dream had ended with a scene of some adult men unloading gear from a car full of boys. One of the men found a backpack and asked mockingly who it belonged to. (I don’t remember the graphics, but it was something deemed unmanly.) I was an adult me standing nearby. He made an off-handed comment wondering if I as a child had been bullied for such things. As I began to answer, one of the boys asked about my current experience and I replied, “Adults are much nicer”, meaning that I no longer feel bullied by peers. In retrospect, that seems ironic, as it was an adult mocking and bullying one of the boys for his perceived femininity.
The dream took me back to one of my childhood experiences of bullying. I ran into three or four of my friends down by the lake, on my way to make collection rounds for my paper route. The guys saw me coming and thought it would be funny to throw me in the lake. They picked me up, carried me to the water’s edge, counted “one…two…three” as they swung me back and forth. On “three”, as they threw, I grabbed one of them tightly. I got one foot wet.
They dispersed and I made my way home, feeling humiliated, and feeling the squish of my waterlogged tennis shoe with each step. Collections would wait for another day. I thought these were my friends, and they had ganged up on me. On the way home, the gravity of the situation built in me. I then began to fear that my parents wouldn’t take my experience seriously. I took off my glasses and broke a temple piece, where it had previously (not that day) cracked. Now they’d take me seriously! These kids broke my glasses!
I got home and told my story. Because of the glasses I was taken seriously – mostly because of the expense (minimal, in retrospect) of fixing them. My father demanded to know who these bullies were. I wouldn’t tell. He didn’t push very hard. I think he admired my unwillingness to rat the kids out.
Until this morning I experienced this as bullying. I rejected the “boys will be boys” argument. I woke up this morning with a different experience. Was I bullied for being me? Or was it a spur of the moment thing? Had one of those four been the one walking along, would they have done the same to him? (One might ask, “would that make it better?”) Under other circumstances, would I have found it funny?
At any rate, this morning I realized that “bullying” may not be an objective thing; that it may be in the eye of the beholder. It was clearly my experience that afternoon. I felt betrayed. People I thought were my friends no longer felt like my friends.
I felt powerless, but was that “their fault”? What was so terrifying? I was not afraid of the water. I lived on and in the water. They weren’t trying to hurt me (nor did they); they were goofing around. (Does the concept of “goofing around” include the experience of the victim? Did they consider whether it would be “fun” for him?) What made that moment an experience of terror? Was it because I felt powerless in my family and, at that moment, the one place that felt safe felt safe no longer? How were they to know?
The today me (I hesitate to say “grownup me”, as it just changed today, at age 66) feels very differently than the 12 year old me (or even the yesterday me). It feels much more complex today. When I felt betrayed by friends, I turned to family for support – the very family in which I felt powerless and unseen; and which was the source of much bullying.
It seems to come back to the obvious(?) If we are going to label, we label the behavior, not the person. Were those boys “bullies”? I don’t think so. Was their behavior “bullying”? Yes, though it did not start that way. It was a “boys will be boys” moment until I reacted in terror and they did not stop. Was my terror about them, or about me? What might have happened had I named names and those boys been called out? Would they have been branded as bullies? Would my dramatization of the incident been brought out? Would I be victim or liar? Could I be both? Is our world big enough to accept both of those truths and deal with them?
I woke up this morning and checked the weather – thunderstorms blowing in around 10 and sticking around through mid-afternoon. The ride to Vermont Church for the Blessing of the Bikes looked unlikely. I wrote the post above, did a few loads of laundry, and prepared to settle in for a day at home. I checked the weather again and there was a big red blotch on the forecast map, blooming from the little green area moving up from Illinois. I did some other stuff but couldn’t resist checking the map one more time before it was too late – the big red blotch was now a bunch of scattered spots – scattered showers and thundershowers…what the hell, let’s go!
I headed to the starting point, thinking I was nearly ½ hour early – plenty of time to chat with the other riders and think about what we’d do about the weather. Surprise! surprise! The start time was ½ hour earlier than the website said. They were just heading out of town. I told them I’d catch up. The next surprise was that the road out of town was closed. They took a shortcut so I didn’t catch them until about 8 miles out.
We ran into scattered showers – chilly enough that I was glad I had shoe covers and a rain jacket on, warm enough that I was glad the rainpants were in the jacket pocket. We shortened the route to get to the pancakes faster. The folks of Vermont Valley Lutheran Church were waiting with a spread that included pancakes with choices: maple syrup, blueberry, strawberry, or rhubarb sauce – I guess someone out there has a sunnier rhubarb patch than mine. They had sausages for those of the meat persuasion, as well as OJ and church basement coffee. After we ate, the minister blessed our bikes. It was no hurried blessing – he blessed our gears for crisp shifting, our tires for smooth rolling with no flats, and our brakes for quick stopping, too. He asked for some sunshine, which arrived after about 15 miles.
After the blessing we retreated to the basement, as the worst of the weather was just arriving. We waited out the thunderstorm and I was glad to have rainpants for the trip home. At the edge of town, the sun appeared as a tailwind blew us home.