How I Survived Bullies in High School

gggIMG_20170429_000850 I used to be in a romance with a girl whose son is exceptionally sweet and benevolent. Another boy would pick on her son, and bully him on the school bus. For reasons I don’t understand, his mom advised her son to put up with it. He did, and the bullying continued and got worse. Finally, she told him to fight back vigorously next time. He did, and that ended the bullying. That story happened in the US.

My school-time experiences were outside the US. I went to school in Britain and South Africa. The school system in the latter was especially bad. Things that would be abhorrent by current US standards were considered okay in South African school culture, though I understand there are some common problems.

The teachers totally failed to address bullying. Practically speaking, anarchy reigned. Much bullying was done in a gang context, but we also had one loner bully.

In our senior year of high school, he was probably 18 years of age, but he had the facial expression of a hardened, cynical adult aged mid-to-late 20s. His facial skin was red and tanned, as if he’d already spent decades under the African sun. His facial features and skin better fitted someone perhaps 10 years his senior — someone who smoked so much that it had affected his skin texture. He was of medium height, but he had a very stocky, compact kind of muscular structure, more befitting an adult than a teenage boy. His nickname, appropriate to Africa, was “Game Tamer” as in “wild animal tamer” — not in a “horse whisperer” sense, but rather as in “overpowering and intimidating.”

He was immensely strong, and he moved in a way that suggested he was accustomed to fighting. He’d shown up at our school shortly before my senior year. I didn’t know where he came from previously. The city I was in had more than a dozen large high schools, and the school I was in was in the most well-to-do area with the most elegant buildings, highest academic and athletic standards, and so on. The Game Tamer bully was an anomaly almost as if he’d shown up from a hard-core rural anything-goes high school, which was probably the case. It’s probably safe to say that everyone, including every ringleader bully, was wary of him.

The Game Tamer bully had the simple amorality of a savage. He bullied without malice. For example, our science class had cacti on the windowsill, planted in ceramic vases. At some point someone, perhaps Game Tamer, broke one of the vases. He picked up a large ceramic shard, and focused on one of the other boys who was nearby. The other boy was relatively high on the social scale, and physically quite strong too. He had done nothing to provoke the bully. He just happened to be nearby, and he got picked on for that reason. Using the sharp edge of the ceramic shard as if it were a knife edge, the bully calmly and methodically carved the other boy’s skin open, and expressed delighted amusement at how the wound gaped. It was so severe that the other boy needed to go the to emergency room to get stitched up.  I was surprised that the other boy had allowed it to happen.  There were no adverse consequences to the bully. Life went on.

Relative to the Game Tamer bully, I was on the other side of the scale, as to looking intimidating. Even when I was 26, 10 years after the time this story played out, I was told that I looked 15 years old, so I must have looked really young when I was in my senior year in high school. I’d also gone to school a year early, so all other things being equal, I was younger than everyone else in the class. I was also very slender and slight of build. Besides, I am also a trans girl. In South African school culture at the time, boys tended to not beat up girls, but they made an exception for trans girls so I needed to be continually vigilant.

As to dealing with bullies, I’d tried to reason things out, first. One day I found the worst ringleader bully alone, and I confronted him and engaged him in a candid conversation exploring the moral merits of his behavior toward me. He could, of course, not justify himself, and he admitted that. He looked sheepish and resolved to start behaving in a reasonable way. I was encouraged, but the next time he was exhibiting his bad behavior, he gave me a special smirk as if to say, “I’m aware of our discussion — and I’m consciously dismissing it. I’m choosing to be unreasonable.” At least, then, I knew where I stood. I couldn’t reason with the bullies, so I would have to be ready to defend myself. I wasn’t all too happy when I was looking at the gang bullies’ biceps and shoulder muscles, and contrasting their muscles with my own. Even though I had a blue belt in Judo, I wasn’t looking forward to having to use my skills in self-defense.

One day, in science class, for no apparent reason, the Game Tamer bully focused on me. I don’t recall how the conflict began but I’m sure I didn’t initiate it. Anyway, the bully had me pushed backward so that I was lying on my back on a bench, and he was looming over me, choking me. Perhaps thirty other kids were standing around, watching.

I knew an effective Judo chokehold, and so I applied that to the bully. As a result, we were choking each other. I recall his face getting redder yet, and I recall feeling calm. I had an intense tolerance for distress, such as when my joints were being strained or I was being choked. One of my advantages in combat was being able to outlast my opponent. This got me yelled at by my Judo trainer during a tournament; he was concerned that, for example, my arm was about to break and yet I didn’t give up. Aside from being incapacitated or dead, I know I can lose only when I give up. I don’t like giving up.

So, while I was on my back and being choked by the bully, choking him right back, I felt a quiet satisfaction at how I was handling it, and I enjoyed observing that he wasn’t handling it well. For a while, we each tried to outlast the other. The bully seemed to be losing control, and I expected him to switch to another tactic imminently. He pulled away and slammed his knee forward, aimed at my privates. I had expected that, so as soon as he slammed his knee forward, I rolled out of the way and his knee drive was harmlessly deflected against my other thigh.

At that point I think he felt embarrassed, having failed twice while everyone was watching. He decided to leave me alone.

The incident had been useful for me. The Game Tamer bully started being more deferential toward me. This helped my social standing enough to give pause to the other bullies who were themselves wary of the Game Tamer bully.

Shortly afterward, the end of senior year approached, and it was time for our final exams. These were held in a massive hall with three hundred students’ desks aligned in rows and columns. with teachers and monitors walking around to prevent cheating. An exam lasted three hours and one exam could make or break one’s final grade; it made up half of one’s total final score, for that subject.

Due to where our last names fitted in the alphabet, the Game Tamer bully sat behind me. Even though he was dangerous, I considered him more annoying than dangerous. I didn’t feel any fear toward him. To me, he had all the moral significance of a dangerous natural phenomenon such as being hit by lightning or bitten by a snake. It would be unpleasant and best avoided but not something on which to dwell. Even so, I was aware that his actions were based on choices he was making, and that he bore the moral responsibility for his choices. I didn’t think highly of his choices, and my attitude conveyed that. Ironically, my sincere condescension somehow inspired the bully to be nicer to me.

I had prepared well for the exam, and I was looking forward to taking it. My preparation had included buying a small bottle of white-out, a sort of liquid paper by which I could paint over my mistakes, which I considered neater than crossing them out.

The South African version of this product had chemicals that were generally known to have severe respiratory consequences. In the same way as one depended on gasoline for convenient transit, but knew better than to go take a deep breath at the filler hole of a car, one depended on this product for error correction but knew better than to take a deep breath when the cap was off. It was to be uncapped, used and swiftly re-capped, ideally while holding one’s breath. This was fairly common knowledge.

The bully, as it turned out, was unaware of the product. Sitting right behind me, he asked what the stuff in the little bottle was for. I recall feeling mildly annoyed by having my pre-exam concentration disrupted. I reached for it, opened it, and turned around in my chair. I held it out to him and said, “Take a deep whiff.” He leaned forward, and did. Apparently that satisfied his curiosity since he didn’t say or ask anything else. I turned around and focused on the exam that was about to begin. I did so well in the exam, and other exams that I took in that same three-week time-span, that my grades were high enough to get my picture on the top center of the front page of a major city newspaper. That the Game Tamer bully was quiet behind me was a welcome development for my ability to concentrate.

Three hours later, the exam was done. I got up, and so did the Game Tamer bully. He was exultant. Unbeknownst to me, after he’d inhaled the fumes of liquid paper, he’d become groggy and he had passed out, collapsing on his arms as if he were resting on the desk, or praying — so the teachers left him alone. He’d been out cold, for two and a half hours. Just before the last half-hour of the exam, he woke up and did whatever he could in the time remaining.

I was surprised and a little embarrassed that the effect had been so severe, but the bully reassured me that there was no need for me to be concerned, since his grades were going to be in the toilet anyway, and he was delighted that I would pull such a cool trick on him. He had all the benevolence of a good sport having lost a good tennis match or chess game to a superior opponent.

From that day on, my bully problem consisted of the Game Tamer bully being friendlier toward me that I liked. All in all, that was a better problem to have.

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