Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Bully

Every day after school on the way home it was the same thing. I sat quietly at the back of the bus for the twenty minute ride. John - I don't even know his last name - sat somewhere in the middle with two friends. They'd laugh and make fun of someone. It didn't seem to matter who it was. When their target ended up in tears, they shifted their attention to someone else. As often as not, that someone would be me. He kept coming back to me, I think, because I refused to give him the satisfaction of crying or groveling. In fact, I almost never said anything to him. So every day it was more of the same and every day he tried harder, got meaner and more threatening.

Now I'm sitting on my bed, waiting for my dad to get home. I've got to tell him what I did. I think I'm okay, but I can't quite tell with him. He might smile and say well done. Or he might whip me with his belt just to remind me what it feels like. Trouble is, I'm not sure what I did. I might have killed him for all I know.

The bullying had gone on for weeks and recently it had gotten a lot worse. The bus driver could see what was happening. I could see his eyes in the wide mirror above him, glancing back at us. He wasn't afraid of John, of course. He was an adult, much bigger than any of us, and he could have stopped it. But it would mean stopping the bus and making everyone late and he'd have to explain that to someone and maybe it would get him in trouble. He looked troubled, even sad, like he wished he could stop it somehow, but he didn't know how. To his credit, he'd tried yelling at John and Benny and Joe when they got loud and especially when they jumped out into the aisle to get into their victim's faces. But it was no good. It helped for maybe five minutes, then John would start up again.

I complained to my dad about it, once. He didn't hit me but he looked like he wanted to. "Why do you let him do that?" he said. "You can stop him. Are you a coward?" That's when he looked sore at me and I figured I might be in for a whipping. Then he stopped himself and said, "Look. I'm going to tell you how to stop this kid. The next time he does this to you, here's what I want you to do. You listening?" I was, but he must have thought I wasn't because I was looking down. I felt humiliated and a little scared. "Look at me. Look at me!" He hunkered over in front of me. He's a big man, very strong, an ex-green beret who fought in Vietnam. "Son, you need to pick your moment carefully. Let him get in your face. Let him get agitated. Maybe he'll push you - all the better if he does, but you've got to keep your balance and above all, you've got to stay calm. Whatever you do, don't show fear. Just watch him carefully. There's going to come a moment when he thinks he's won, when his guard will be down. He'll probably grin and taunt you even more. He's showing off, see. He may look back at his friends. He'll need their approval. That might be your moment. If he looks away from you, he feels like you can't do anything to him. He's vulnerable then. You got that? You listening?"

I was watching my dad then. I knew he knew what he was talking about, that his advice might be good, might be just what I needed. So I calmed my breathing and held his eyes. "Yes," I said.

"Okay, like I said, you're watching for a certain moment when he's least expecting you to do anything to protect yourself. That moment when he thinks your'e beaten and he can do anything he wants to you. Then, son, you listening? Then you're going to plant your fist right here ..." he pointed to the place right at the top of my nose, just between my eyes. "You're going to aim carefully and plant one with everything you've got right there." He smiled then, showing his teeth. I could see cigarette stains all around the edges of his gum lines and down the sides between them. He did his best to keep them clean but he smoked a lot, my dad. "You can't give him any warning though. Try not to telegraph it, especially with your face. Be the stone at that moment."

"When you do that, if you do it right, here's what's going to happen. He's going to go down. Right on his butt. His legs will just fold and he'll drop. His buddies won't do anything to you. They'll try to get him on his feet and out of your way. Trust me, they won't come after you. They may make threatening noises , but it'll be from a safe distance. See, you will have completely surprised them. Here they thought you were soft as pudding, a sheep. When they find out you're a cobra - fast, cunning, not afraid to hurt them even more than they've been hurting you, son, they will leave you alone after that."

Today I'd had enough of John's bullying and I remembered my dad's training. The way it went down, John had been taunting me for maybe ten minutes, getting louder and meaner and more physical every time he taunted me and I didn't react. He was determined to send me off the bus in tears. I knew I didn't want to stick around afterwards, so I waited until we were almost at my stop. I was like a stone - I said nothing and tried to show no emotion. I made a fist and held it behind my butt and tensed my muscles and aimed very carefully. When I struck, John went down just like my dad said. He dropped instantly without making a sound. He dropped hard on his butt and after a few seconds made a gasping sound. I could tell the pain he was feeling must be so bad he couldn't even take a breath with which to yell. I didn't feel good about that. But I didn't feel bad either. It was like I was suspended over a ravine, and I'd land on my feet, or I'd die. The two boys behind him looked dazed. My hand hurt but I ignored that. I picked up my books and stepped over John and pushed past Benny and Joe. I refused to look to either side and strode straight to the front of the bus. Before he opened the door to let me out, the driver whispered "I saw what was going on back there. I don't blame you one bit. You don't need to worry about anyone complaining." Then he let me out the door.

Now I wait. Maybe there'll be a phone call from John's parents. Maybe the police will show up. I'm ready. Just as long as my dad doesn't beat me.


  1. So, so sad how the bullying just keeps circling around and around, starting, sadly, with the parents. I've had to deal with my son being bullied, and it is truly horrendous.

    You told this so very well Mike, great work!
    Did you know this past Wednesday was "National Stop Bullying Day"?

  2. Hey Mike, this story packed a punch for sure! I found it so sad, so sad, not only the young bullies, but the dad's attitude to his boy and the boy's fear. It's a story of pathos which makes you wonder what happens in the future. These events will have a big impact on the future lives of them all. (I felt so sorry for the bus driver too.)

    Thanks for a great story.


    My #fridayflash story Revolution

  3. Deanna and L'Aussie, thanks for your comments. I think I'd been hearing bullying mentioned on the radio or something. It was on my mind. I really really feel for kids who are suffering from that kind of stupidity.

  4. There's always a bigger bully. I'm a John who was beaten up several times, and nearly killed by one bully. Then there's the father, and the people who made the father that way, and those people's bullies, and on up to some ideal giant nobody can ever lick. You can always be scared in that slope.

    As far as critical feedback, I was a little confused by the shift of timing. The opening seems to root the story in a distant past by giving us a past-tense routine, but by the end of the story he's worrying what will happen at the end of today (potentially a beating). Could clear it up for me by put those last lines in past tense as well; that he was only afraid of being beaten.

  5. Thanks John, very helpful feedback.

    I'm curious: do you think the protagonist is now a bully for striking back? Or likely to become one because of his hard-core dad?

  6. Great story, Mike. I like the character you created here. The kid was smart enough not to react to the bullies taunts, but was still conflicted about how to stop it. I've seen that in kids and it definitely wears on their self esteem. Thanks for the story.

  7. Your story brought to mind the old Andy Griffith Show, which is a strange correlation, true, but there was an episode where Andy was teaching Opie how to punch. I find it intriguing, the fact that tactics that worked on the streets of Mayberry only add fuel to the fire in today's world.

    Anyhow, I hiccuped in my reading at the same point John did, but, all in all, I really liked this story. Well done.

  8. Chuck, thanks much. That was the character I wantedto portray. Aaron, thanks for that feedback. I'm still puzzling over how to improve that.

  9. As usual, you are the king of details... loved the description of his dad's teeth. Really brought into focus the hard-ass soldier he is. Your story had me cheering at the end. Bullies are one of the banes of society. i don't think the kid's in for a beating at all. Although he's probably the biggest bully in the son's life. Here's hoping the kid doesn't grow up to be a bully himself.

  10. Cathy, he didn't. King of details? That's high praise. Thanks!

  11. I was sadened by the father's reaction to the bullying. It proved that he was a bully of sorts, too. And how sad that bus drivers can't take a risk and have someone removed from the bus for a week or more. But more and more, that's our society. Fiction does indeed mirror reality in this case.

  12. Mike, your stories always blow me away. This one was no exception. The dad's voice was perfect.

    Poor kid, surrounded by bullies. Dad better be careful that his advice doesn't come back to bite him.

  13. I have no idea how I missed this, but I'm glad I just read it. Mike, great story. I feel so bad for this kid who is dealing from bullying at school and at home. I remember when I stood up to a bully in grade school and how after I did it, they never bothered me again. Those moments are golden. It should be golden for this kid, but his fear of his dad's reaction is marring that. I wish this kid were flesh and blood, because I'd give him a hug.

  14. Laurita, that means a lot to me, thanks. I can imagine the "cobra" the dad has cultivated turning on him someday if he continues to terrorize his son.

    Rachel, I too was bullied in this way (not by my dad though, thankfully). This story is partially biographical. My dad instructed me in this way, but much more gently. His instructions worked for me. Perfectly. Twice.

  15. This is a story that shows great insight, and reading the comments I could see why.

    So sad for this boy that he gets grief on the bus as well as at home. One place is bad enough.

  16. Thanks Rebecca. What doesn't kill us ...