I was bullied mercilessly in elementary and high school.
I spent countless recesses, lunch hours and even classes looking for somewhere to escape the seemingly endless torment from my fellow students who, for whatever reason, had made me their chief distraction from whatever exercise our teacher had planned for the day.
As with so many kids heard back in the day, I was encouraged to stand up for myself, stare down those bullies and tell them to back off.
Yeah, stellar advice.
Nothing makes a kid looking for validation by beating the snot out of another double down on their efforts quite like being publicly told that what they’re doing doesn’t make them cool.
At my elementary school in the early-to-mid-90s, there was a troubling lack of concern about the widespread bullying and the violence that grew year after year. Kids like me where victimized not only by those who teased, ridiculed and beat us up, but also by the double whammy of indifference — “oh, boys will be boys you know” — and active denial by most teachers and school administrators.
The odd time that school staff intervened, without fail, I would be questioned — to call it an interrogation would not be hyperbole — to determine what I had done to cause whatever damage had been done to me that day.
The pattern was to blame the victim, sweep it under the rug, and pretend that all the bad things that were happening to me and others were isolated, unrelated incidents and not indicative of a systematic failure by the adult guardians who were supposed to be keeping us safe.
I remember carrying the compass and protractor from my geometry kit in my coat pockets during breaks in order to fight off anyone who might come at me. More than once I came close to stabbing a kid or slashing them across the face, and only a fear of having to live with what I’d done caused me to pull my punches.
I remember making a mad dash across the gravel soccer field to the giant pile of landscaping refuse that perpetually lived at the far end of the school yard, trying to get my hands on a stick big enough to keep my abusers at bay. Some days I made it; most days I didn’t.
I was in Grade 12 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two kids my age, walked into Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 and shot 37 people. I remember being horrified by the news as I sat in class that morning, but also thinking to myself, “I get it.”
Five years prior, had I had access to a firearm, there’s a good chance I would have brought it to class, if only as a last resort. From there, it’s a small leap to imagine the gun going off, be it accidentally or on purpose.
I’d be lying if I said the thought back then of taking out my tormentors didn’t give me a fleeting moment of guilty pleasure.
So when I get the alerts of code yellows at local schools, of kids posing with firearms on social media or bringing air guns to class, I can completely empathize with the impulse. I don’t condone it, but I understand it.
What ultimately saved me from the physical and emotional toll of all that bullying was I found my people, a group of kids that had similar experiences, similar interests, who I could confide in and draw strength from. We were in the trenches together, helping to build each other up. I was lucky to find them, needles in a global haystack, and we’re all still friends 20-plus years later.
Many aren’t so fortunate.
One thing kids today have that I didn’t is community. They have access to the internet and social media and can find other like-minded people to bond with. These relationships, every bit as real and concrete as those I forged in person all those many years ago, even have the potential to open kids up to different cultures and ways of thinking that I, at their age, didn’t know existed.
And while the internet certainly come with its own minefield of concerns — cyber-bullying, phishing scams, online predators, et al — it can be a lifesaver for kids like me who feel isolated, misunderstood, unappreciated and unloved.
I’m not a parent, and I don’t work in schools. But I see a conversation happening that was never even conceived of in my day. Bullying and violence, both physical and emotional, are no longer tolerated or ignored. Outreach services, school programs and other tools exist to help students at both ends of the fist deal with the issues they face at school and at home, and learn to behave and communicate in a more civil and effective way.
There was a time where I honestly believed that there was no fix, that there was no hope of it ever getting better, for me or for those who followed.
Obviously, bullying still exists. Perhaps it always will.
But at least we’re talking about it. At least we’re trying to deal with it.
With any luck, we can catch kids like me, like the kids who tormented me, and help them before they fall.
James Smith is the editor of the North Delta Reporter.