The following story is true only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Even at forty one years old, I still cringe a little each time I walk into a school building for the first time. You see, we moved around quite a bit when I was younger. I wasn’t any Army brat or anything like that. My folks were a bit like “The City Mouse and The Country Mouse” my Dad is from Massachusetts, a Viet Nam vet. and a biker; my Mom is from Vermont, a farm girl who had married and divorced her high school sweetheart, and lived with her parents. I think that they both struggled to find a place they could be happy raising their family. As a result of that struggle, I found myself as “the new kid” more often than I really cared to.
At Rundlett Junior High I was sure things were going to be different. This time I was going to have lots of friends, and there wasn’t going to be a bully to push me down the stairs after third period, like that horrible Bertram Hickman did every day. Did you know that if you close your eyes and take a deep breath, one school smells and sounds just the same as the last? It’s true. The shuffle of books and papers being transferred from backpack to locker, the distinct clang of locker doors being slammed shut, and the “snick” of combination locks being locked, mingle with the sounds hundreds of sneakers squeaking across polished linoleum as kids scramble in, trying to make it on time for first period. You can even catch snippets of the same conversations. “Did you finish that homework?” “Can you believe she wore that dress?” ” I know: he is sooo cute!” The cacophony is steeped in the aroma of locker-room and whatever it is they poured out of a can and are planning on calling lunch in the cafeteria. This time I thought maybe, just maybe, when I open my eyes, Derek Steele will be standing there asking me if I’m coming over after school. Derek was my best friend at Hood Memorial Junior High. He was one of the few people who didn’t ignore me completely or actively humiliate me.
But this wasn’t Hood Memorial and that blond haired freight train barreling down the hall towards me wasn’t Derek. His name I would learn later; what he had in mind I already knew. I had learned two schools ago that it didn’t matter how you carried your books because one of two things was going to happen. You were going to be called a fag, fairy, sissy, or something very much like that, for clasping your books to your chest like the girls did, or you were going to get your books swatted out of your hands by some brute trying to impress the baseball team. It turns out this brute’s name was Curt Campbell, and he wasn’t trying to impress the baseball team. Curt was just a bully, from a long line of bullies. His older brothers Chris and Corey were legendary. Corey had gotten into an actual fist fight with the assistant principal and had been expelled. Chris still held the school record for consecutive days spent in detention. This meant Curt had some big shoes to fill. I wasn’t Curt’s only target, but at Rundlett Junior High we had classes according to a team assignment, and I was on Curt’s team. This meant that I was at hand for Curt to humiliate for most of the day. Curt didn’t have much imagination and relied on the old standbys of stuffing me into which ever was more convenient: a locker or trashcan, pulling my chair out as I sat down, the book slapping game and his incessant name calling. God forbid you should end up in the bathroom at the same time as he did. I can tell you that having your head stuffed into a toilet is every bit as unpleasant as it sounds.
Curt Campbell wasn’t my first bully. I was kind of a shy, little guy, who didn’t make friends all that easy. Combined, these traits didn’t exactly scream winner and made me a pretty good mark for the Curts of the world. I have already mentioned Bert Hickman, who would wait after math class every day so he could shove me down each of the three flights of stairs to the café for lunch. There was also Scott O’Brien. Scott would wait for me each day after school so he could kick my “geeky little ass”. My new friend Curt, however, was the largest bully I had encountered. I don’t know what Mrs. Campbell was feeding the kids at her house, but Corey had not been expelled for losing a fight to the assistant principal. I expect that if Curt had wanted to try, the results would have been the same. Curt had a nickname for me. He called me “slick”. There was something nearly wicked about the way he said it, hissed it really. He pronounced it with a lowercase s like it was a descriptor not a name and it felt as if he were physically beating me with the word. All together it had the effect of making even me think less of me. This result was, I assumed, just fine by Curt.
It was sixth period on a Friday, which meant I was in Art class. I loved Art class, not because of an interest in Art but because it was the only class I did not have with Curt. Curt had taken Art last quarter and now had to take Home Ec.. He was none too happy about it, but it usually meant that I did not have to see him from after fifth period science until Monday morning. Most Fridays Ms. Hynes, the Art teacher, would let me hang out a few minutes after class while everyone else made the Friday afternoon dash to the door. Then I could just stroll out and off to my Curt free weekend. It had been a tough week. I had been stuffed into two lockers and a trashcan. I had had my lunch stepped on twice, all in addition to the daily verbal abuse that I had just come to expect. We were finishing a still life, the classic bowl of fruit in water-colors and pastels. I was done. It would never hang in the Louvre, but I was pleased, and I was sure Mom was going to love it. While I was at the sink cleaning up my brushes, Scott Hathaway walked up in line behind me. Why did you have to bring your work to the sink, Scott? Why? Scott had never actually been nice to me, but he had never been mean either, which was about as close to a friend as I had. Before I had time to react, the high water pressure at the sink was spraying water from my brushes all over Scott’s painting. He was positively enraged and shoved me into the sink, causing me to jam both of the paint brushes I was holding into my stomach. He screamed at me, “What the hell, slick! Watch what you are doing!” The paint brushes in the gut hurt, but hearing anyone else call me “slick” with the same contempt as Curt Campbell was more than I could take. I barely held back the tears as I asked Ms. Hynes if I could go to the bathroom.
Sitting there on a toilet, in an open stall, sobbing into my hands, I never heard the door open. As I looked up and focused through the tears, I realized my worst fears had come true. Curt Campbell had just found me alone, crying in the bathroom. When I stood up and pushed past him, I was amazed. Was I just walking away from this? Was he really just going to let me go? There really is a God! He’s just going to let me walk out the door! Wrong! I could feel the strength in his grip as he grabbed one of my shoulders and spun me around to face him. The look on his face was terrifying. He pinned me there in his gaze, like some feral beast that had just found its first meal in weeks. “What’s the matter, slick? Are ya crying?” he asked, poking me in the chest to punctuate each word. I ‘m not sure if Curt heard it or not, but I did. Something inside me snapped. That was it. That was all I could take. After so many years and so many bullies, that was absolutely all I could take. I can’t tell you what happened next. All I can tell you is that by the time Mr. Vesirus, our gruff and grumbly science teacher came into the bathroom, Curt was in the corner holding a bloodied nose and I was standing over him panting like the very same beast I had been face to face with just moments ago. Mr. V. was a Judo instructor. The man was one tough cookie, and he tolerated no funny stuff in his classroom. He was a “grab you by the back of the shirt and haul you out of the room kind of guy”, and I knew I was in for it now. You see, no matter what had happened, my folks were not going to be O.K. with my being suspended for fighting. Mr. V. took one look at the situation and told Curt to get to his feet, get himself to the nurse and then to the Principal’s office. As Curt shuffled by us still holding onto his nose, Mr. V. gave me the once over and told me to get myself together and get back to class. With that said, he just followed Curt out the door. I was stunned. I wasn’t going to be suspended? I wasn’t even going to go to the office? I had in all likelihood just broken someone’s nose, and I could just go back to class? Maybe Mr. V. wasn’t so bad after all.
Something changed that day. Curt left me alone for the rest of the year, and Scott Hathaway apologized for yelling at me. He said he was sorry for calling me “slick”. He hadn’t realized it was hurtful. He even admitted that it was his fault for bringing his painting near the sink. Something inside me changed that day, too. I still got more chances to play “the new kid”, and kids still tried to pick on me. But their words carried no weight; they didn’t cause me the same pain. Anyone who shoved me got shoved right back. I wasn’t going to be anybody’s target anymore. It would be years before I would meet another Derek Steele, and making friends still didn’t come easy, but I would never again suffer at the hands of another Curt Campbell.
Today, I am a father two school aged boys and bullying is a regular topic at our house. My personal experience with bullies has, without a doubt, affected my view of it as a parent. My wife and I try very hard to give our boys the tools to deal with witnessing bullying as well as the distinct possibility of being bullied. I think the reality is that there are most likely always going to be bullies and always going be those who present as a desirable target for them, it is up to us parents, teachers, society in general to shed light on it when it happens and to stop it from being acceptable through our indifference. My struggles have made it so that there is a scared little boy inside of me who just screams at the injustice when I see it and I can no longer just pass it by. I want for everyone to have a little of that anger and feel just as keenly as I do the injustice, in the hopes that the bullies are the ones who are afraid and maybe just maybe in someone’s lifetime a Bully will be a thing that used to be.
By: Kyle Burditt
Kyle is a 42 year old devoted husband and father currently residing in small town Vermont. He doesn’t have a lot of spare time to devote to a blog, but look for his work of fiction “The Rift Walker” on a bookshelf near you soon(ish)!
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