Last Call

Bully Pulpit

Is it still okay to put bullying in some kind of historic context?

By From the November 2011 issue

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You may have noticed that this year's trendy trauma is bullying, which replaces last year's obesity. The year before that it was ADD syndrome and I think the year before that it was dyslexia, or maybe it was lactose intolerance and peanut allergies. Suddenly, it would appear, every kid is now being bullied -- maybe for being overweight, antsy, and anti-peanut. In any case, bullying now joins the ranks of fad conditions. Whatever happened to hypoglycemia and mononucleosis, which plagued us all years ago?

To quote an old boyhood classmate, "Everyone got bullied where I went to school in New York." It was part of going to school. In return, you got off a good zinger or maybe you even beat up the bully; I preferred the withering retort to fisticuffs myself. Before it was labeled "bullying," it was known as teasing or taunting. Perhaps it didn't qualify as full-fledged bullying, which conjures up being set upon by two-fisted schoolyard toughs, but it could still sting. I was terrorized by a neighborhood bully, Russell, who delivered nasty noogies to my upper arm, grabbed me in half-nelsons, and tackled me from behind.

I was heckled from 6 to 16 for my oversized nose ("The Nose knows!"), for my skinny frame ("Here comes Ichabod Crane!"), for my name ("Hey, Napkin!" was considered a hilarious bon mot all through grade school), for my gap-toothed grin, for my stammering and for my geeky bucket-cuffed Levis ("Hey, Napkin, where's the flood?").

Somehow I survived. My face sort of pulled itself together, I gained a few pounds, nobody thought my name was funny after several joke-filled years, I stopped stuttering and rolling up my pants (I didn't get the gap filled in until I was 40, beyond the bullying age -- only to learn too late that girls thought it was sexy). To quote the new mantra devised to soothe the bullied: It gets better.

Before it gets better, though, you have to put up with this otherwise routine rite of passage that nobody paid much attention to until nervous, over-protective parents and excitable child psychologists began treating bullying like bubonic plague. Just to make it an official new social danger, there's now even a book about bullying and anti-bully protest marches; I expect soon to see people wearing ribbons or wristbands and perhaps in time a telethon to combat schoolyard bullies ("Take back our playgrounds!").

Terming school ground run-ins "bullying" turns every childhood confrontation into a dreaded condition that calls for cries of outrage from schoolroom watchdogs. Indeed, a New Jersey school has just instituted seminars for teachers and students to fight this hideous social menace in our midst--yet another enlightened use of classroom time that might otherwise be squandered on math, geography, or grammar.

By all means, let kids learn to read and write on their own damn time instead of taking up valuable class hours more wisely used to teach them how to guard against unwanted slurs and wisecracks that might injure their feelings. Should a loudmouthed classmate shout, "Billy Smithers is a wimp!" (or in my day, "a spaz"), students within earshot need to rise up against the bully and call for a seminar to deal with his uncalled-for accusation.

The accursed bully can then be taken in hand and asked to explain the underlying reasons for the nasty taunt. It's highly likely that, with a little gym class intervention, Billy and his bully will shake hands and become fast friends for life.

Bullying, however, is just the tip of the childhood trauma iceberg. Much more damaging, I contend, is being turned down at a school dance by the girl of your dreams, being razzed unmercifully for striking out in a softball game, or for not being invited to a party you hear about from a friend who got invited. This kind of stuff can scar you for life, or at least through the eighth grade, but chances are pretty good you'll survive intact. Back in the day, it was called growing up. If they're still mocking you at your 35th high school reunion, maybe you better see the counselor. 

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About the Author

Gerald Nachman is the author of Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here On Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America. He is currently working on a book about the great Broadway musical show-stoppers.