Being Different Isn't a Disease

A boy holding balloons and floating above bullies.
My friends' son was having trouble with a bully. We are doing what we can to help him along while trying to let him work things out on his own. A tough balance. Not sure we are doing the right things but then what is the right thing? We are teaching him how to defend himself, but he is much smaller than they are. 

He felt like he was alone and the only one who has gone through this, like all kids do. I was bullied when I was about his age, too; he's 10. So, I thought I'd tell him about my experience. Not to give him a solution because the circumstances aren't the same, but to show him I really do know how he feels and that we will get this worked out. So, here is my bully story.


It was shopping day. Ugh! Not a fun shopping day for fishing gear or something. Nope. It was school clothes shopping day, and I was about to enter the fifth grade. I was at that age when you're stretching your boundaries and trying to figure out who you are and where you belong in this crazy world. At least that's how it seemed to a fifth grader-to-be. I thought the world was on my shoulders, or in this case, on my feet.

My Grandmother pulled my hand as we went by the shop windows. One by one, they whizzed by like a blurry picture, and I was bored stiff. I hated feeling confined and trapped, and shopping had to be the worst torture a guy had to endure. "Faster, Peter. If I have to keep dragging you, we'll never finish. We still have to find you some shoes." I felt like a loose cable on a winch truck, swinging back and forth, and then I saw them. With my free hand, I latched onto a bench outside the store window and, doing my best winch hook, stopped us fast in our tracks.

I pressed my nose into the front window glass and stared at the coolest shoes I'd ever seen. "Look at these, Grandma! Can I try them on?"

She glanced at the shoes and then looked back at me with a crinkled brow and eyebrows that looked like two mountain goats butting heads. "I don't think you want those. They look a bit... loud, don't you think?"

I looked back in the store at the shoes and bit my lip. "That's why I want them. They're different. I always get the same old kind and always brown ones. These are intense!" I looked up at her and smiled.

"I think a better word is gaudy." She shook her head slightly.

"Gaudy? What's that mean?"

"Oh, don't pay attention to me. I was just mumbling out loud. Come on, let's go in and get a better look."

I pushed open the door and rushed over to the shoes. I picked them up and admired them up close. They were white but had colorful splotches all over the souls and on the tips and some crazy racing stripes down the sides. It looked like impressionist art. They were the farthest thing from the ordinary shoes I always wore. They were completely out of character for me, but maybe that's why I needed them. They were different. They were cool. Or I thought so anyway. These silly, ugly shoes would cause me all kinds of grief, and if I knew then what I know now, I'd... oh hell, I'd still get them.

The afternoon before the first day of school, I put the shoes on; I called them my splotchy shoes and broke them in. I trudge up grassy hills and ran like the wind through the tree-lined running path, and they didn't let me down. The traction was great, and my feet felt like they were stepping on lily pads, but mostly I thought they looked bitchin'. I was proud of them as I looked down to get a better look.

The next morning, my friends met me on the school grounds, and they liked the shoes as much as I thought they would. We all laughed about how colorful they were, and everyone was having a good time. We went on our first day of school. A few kids in class whispered and pointed at them. I was loving it. I didn't think recess would ever come, but finally, the bell rang, and we all headed outside with the other grades.

It was a great day. That is until my shoes drew the attention of one of the school bullies who was a grade above us. His name was Keck. That was his last name, but everyone called him that. I don't even remember what his first name was. He was a cross between the incredible hulk and the terminator. He never liked me, but he never paid much attention to me before. I was always able to slip under his radar, but now I was wearing 2 beacons on my feet. I should have just carried the sign; I want to be beaten up.

I was rather smallish in grade school and didn't have a growth spurt until middle school/the beginning of high school. I ran a lot, hiked a lot, and did all kinds of chores around our place, so I was quite skinny and wiry too. Yeah... I was bully bait. 

Keck and his friends surrounded us and started shoving me between them. My friends looked terrified and latched on to my shirt, digging their fingernails into my skin. When Keck finally shoved me down, my friends went down too and piled on top of me. There we were, on the ground like a giant pretzel. I whispered to my friends to get out of there, and I got up and dusted myself off.

"Where did you get those sissy shoes, Petey?" Keck had that sneary smile on his face he always had when he was taunting kids smaller than him. It's funny how bullies never pick on anyone that could take them down.

"They aren't sissy shoes. I just liked them. And they are good for running." I glanced around to see if I could make a dash for it, but I was surrounded. I looked down at my splotchy shoes and tried to remember why I loved them only minutes before. 

Keck pointed at me, "little Petey looks so cute in his little girly shoes, doesn't he?" One of Keck's friends, a shorter but bulky kid, shouted a slur I won't repeat, and the other 3 laughed. They started taking turns pushing me but not hard enough to knock me down. Keck always carried a rubber ball around. I never saw him play with that ball, but instead, he used it as a weapon. It was the size of a basketball, and I'd seen him throw it at kids before, so I knew what was coming. "Hey guys, don't you think Petey's shoes would look better shoved up his ass?" 

I felt the blood rush up into my cheeks. Maybe if I'd kept my big mouth shut, he would have tired of the whole thing and left, but no..., not me. "Sorry, Keck. But you really aren't my type." Wham! The ball came hurling in my direction, but I was able to jump sideways and thought I'd avoided it, but the sharp, stinging pain in my calf muscle dashed my brief feeling of relief. I saw an opening and ran for it, but Keck got to the ball before I could get away. I felt the ball slap into my back, and I went down on the ground. It stung like hell, but thankfully Keck and his friends left me there, laughing at me as they walked away. My friends ran over and helped me up. It felt like someone had pulled the skin off my back.

My friend Doug looked at it for me. It was just red but no broken skin. "I'm sorry we ran away, Pete." 

"Don't be. I told you to leave. I don't want you guys getting beat up because of me." I looked down at my shoes. They were dirty now and no longer bright white and colorful. I didn't feel the same way about them anymore, so it didn't matter.

"You should run home and get some other shoes, Pete." Doug was probably right.

I thought about it, though, and decided to keep them on. "I like these shoes. They're just stupid shoes. It's not like they're radioactive or something. I'm not going to take them off just because Keck doesn't like them. He's such a jerk."

I spent the rest of the week dodging Keck's rubber ball and getting shoved around. I was growing tired of it, and I started thinking about ways to get even. All sorts of wild fantasies went through my head, but nothing practical. Other kids had told teachers or their parents, but it only seemed to make things worse. Usually, he would get bored with picking on someone after a while and move on to a new victim. If I just stopped wearing the shoes, but why should I? They were different, yes, but so what? If I gave in, I knew I'd feel worse than what that ball could do to me.

It was finally Friday, and I was looking forward to a weekend away from Keck. Doug caught up with me on my walk home. "Hey, Pete. I'm starting Tae Kwon Do tomorrow morning. Why don't you come and watch and see if you want to join too? Maybe we can learn how to kick Keck's ass."

It actually sounded like a great idea, so I agreed to meet him at his house in the morning and ride with his family into town to the class. Next week would be different!

The class was fun, and Mr. Andrus, the instructor, was cool. He talked about the basic customs, techniques, and stances. Then some warm-ups, stretching, and onto some basics. He showed how to tie the belt properly, how to bow the right way, the terms used, and the customs involving the dojang. He showed how to make a fist, punch properly, and start on a basic raising kick. I was disappointed. I thought we'd learn how to pummel bullies. During a break, I went over to Mr. Andrus. "Um... I was wondering when we get to learn about how to fight someone?"

Mr. Andrus smiled at me and sat down. "Tae Kwon Do isn't about fighting people. Martial arts is about peace, harmony, and diplomacy. It teaches you how to avoid fights, not pick them. It's about developing a person's character, discipline, self-control, and sense of responsibility to help and respect all forms of life. It's more than just self-defense, and it takes time and patience to learn. We'll be learning the basics over the next few weeks."

"Oh," I looked down at the floor and made circles with my splotchy shoes. "I sorta need to learn it by Monday. I just want to keep from getting beat up."

"Oh, I see. I'm sorry that's happening to you. Have you told your teacher?"

"Not this time. It never helps very much. They'll just wait till after school to beat us up. I need to learn how to fight back, but they are a lot bigger than me." I was feeling discouraged, and it must have shown.

"Yes, Peter. Sometimes you have to fight back, but often it's better to find another way. Let me ask you, what do you do when the bully starts bothering you?"

"Well, I usually try to run, but sometimes I can't get away. I can run fast, but if I can't find an opening, I just have to take it, I guess, so I usually duck or drop on the ground." 

"And then they laugh and call you names?"

"Yeah, always. Then they usually leave, finally."

Mr. Andrus pulled out a blank pad of paper and a pencil. "Most bullies do this because they're looking for some kind of reaction they can laugh at. It makes them feel superior. They need to feel in control of the situation, so when you or whoever they are taunting runs away, they feel like they won. You might try not to run away if you can. I know it's hard when you have kids bigger than you threatening you."

"You mean just stand there and let them hit me?"

"Hopefully, if you stop reacting, they will have no further need to harass you. You won't be fun anymore. They won't know how to react to you not running away. I don't know if this will work, Peter, but it worked for me a long time ago."

He put the pad of paper on his lap and began drawing a fence post. "I visualized myself as an unmovable fence post, and I stood there and didn't say anything. When they didn't get me to run away, they left."

I didn't have much hope in this, but I was running out of options. "I guess I could try it, Mr. Andrus. They're going to hit me anyway, even if I run."

"Would you like me to talk to your teacher, Peter?"

"No. Please don't. I got to find a way to do this. If the teacher stops him, he'll just get me off school grounds."

"All right, but please, if this doesn't work, tell your teacher or your parents. Promise me?"

"Thanks, Mr. Andrus. I will if it gets worse."

Monday came too fast. A sinking feeling in my chest came over me when my alarm went off. Another week of dodge ball. I wasn't very hungry, so I rushed through breakfast. I reached for my old brown pair of shoes. I started putting them on, but then a feeling of defeat entered my body. I took them off and grabbed my splotchy shoes. I looked at them and tried to get the feeling I had when I first saw them, but it was gone now. Still, I wasn't going to let anyone tell me how to be. I had to be who I was, or everything was a lie. I put my splotchy shoes on and went to school.

I dreaded that damned recess bell all day, which made the day seem to go on longer than usual, but it was finally time to go out. Nothing happened for a few minutes, and I was starting to think it might be over. Maybe Keck moved on to another hapless victim, but unfortunately, I was wrong. Off to my right, I heard the voice that was now ingrained in my brain. "Oh, Petey! You have your sissy shoes on again. Aren't they pretty?"

I slowly turned around to face him as he and his friends made their way over to where I was standing. The kids that were standing around me slowly backed away. Everyone was watching me, and I felt like I was about 2 inches high. Doug whispered, "Let's go back to the school, Pete." 

Keck stopped about 15 feet from me. He bounced the rubber ball off the ground several times. "Why are you still wearing those girly shoes, Petey? Maybe I should take them off you."

I didn't say anything; I just stood there with a determined stare. I could feel my heart thumping so fast.

Keck raised the ball like he always did right before he threw it at one of his victims. Mr. Andrus's voice echoed in my head, I was an unmovable fence post, and I wished he were there. Images flashed across my mind like a flashing slide show, and then... I was a tree. A large fir tree with my roots going deep into the earth like huge clawed spikes anchoring me in front of the bully that had tormented me and made me feel small and helpless. I took a deep breath.

Keck threw the ball. I watched it as if it were in slow motion, and I tensed my body, closed my eyes, and braced for the pain that was coming. The ball struck me in the face, bouncing off my right cheek. I saw stars and heard that weird hollow, almost tinny sound a ball makes when it hits a rigid surface. I opened my eyes to see Keck and his friends snickering, and he picked up the ball. "That must have really hurt, huh? You want another one?"

I stood there, motionless and rigid. I was a tree. I stared at him without blinking and said nothing.

Keck threw the ball again, and it hit me in the face. I opened my eyes after I heard the ball hit the ground. I stood there with no expression, staring at Keck. This time only, he was smiling. No one else was snickering or saying a word. He picked up the ball and threw it a third time, again hitting my face. There was no sound on the playground other than the distant noises of cars. Everyone just staring at me. I continued to glare at Keck, expressionless and still.

Keck looked around at all the other kids, who were now looking at him. His friends were looking at him too, but no one was smiling, and no one was taunting, and you could have heard a pin drop on the pavement. Keck's smile was gone, and he clearly looked confused. It seemed like he wanted to say, "why aren't you running? You are supposed to run now." But nothing came out of his foul mouth. He looked at me with an expression I had never seen before or since. I can't even describe it. He picked up his ball, and his friends followed him to the other side of the playground. I stood there for a few moments more. I felt relief. Keck never bothered my friends or me again.

That night my Grandmother was horrified when I walked in. The side of my face was red, and I had a slight black eye. "What happened to you?" she asked.

"I'm fine, Grandma. It's nothing. We were playing dodge ball, and I forgot to move."

"Don't tell me fibs. What happened to you?"

Suddenly waves of emotion caught up with me, and I started to cry. I ran to her, and she held me tight. "I just had a problem, Grandma, but it's okay now. I just had to be a tree for a while."

© 2015 Peter Noah Thomas ~ All Rights Reserved

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