It was in Miss Ankemon’s fourth grade class that I first decided to bully my classmates, mainly the weaker and weirder ones. How satisfying it would be to make them cringe in fear and burst into tears, of course without Miss Ankemon noticing. But how to go about it? To begin with I was physically preposterous. A shy, undersized boy with an undescended testicle and what my doctors called a “lazy spine,” I resembled a slender reed bent over by the wind, even when no wind was blowing. Then there was my hard stutter. As a fourth grader, I was still struggling to answer a question my first grade teacher had asked me. Top me off with a clunky pair of glasses the size of bicycle handlebars, and my intimidation factor shrank to zero.
And then did I even know what bullies did, what moves to attempt? Having never met an actual bully, I could only guess. For these reasons the imagined torments of my classmates, by which I hoped to gain their respect and admiration, remained abstractions in my mind, goals seemingly out of reach.
Then one afternoon I got a valuable and unforgettable lesson in bullying. School had let out and I had begun my half-mile walk home, companionless as usual, when I found that I had become an actual bully’s victim. You can bet I paid close attention to my tormentor, to see what I could learn. He, a lanky dullard who never shut his mouth and as a result drooled constantly, and who wore a long belt cinched so that one end draped down his leg (the belt must have been his father’s at one time), did not particularly impress me. My keen interest in his bullying technique outweighed any intimidation I felt. He demanded a nickel to refrain from unleashing all his powers against me in a wrestling match, a threat that struck me as comical since it seemed an admission that he couldn’t generate more than five cents’ worth of fear. However, I was prepared to pay this ransom, not because I was afraid to fight him, but I didn’t want to get his saliva all over me.
I was spared from forking over the coin when a girl from my class, Lawanda, came to my rescue. In the fourth grade any number of the girls were as big or bigger than the boys, and now all five feet eight inches and 165 pounds of the plus-sized Lawanda, who fancied me that year, weighed in and tossed my bully into a nearby bush, almost dislocating his arm in the process. I believe she was prepared to remove his belt and whip him with it if he persisted in his antisocial behavior.
Not only was I saved, but I learned my first important lesson in bullying: be a big girl in love. It’s formidable.
In high school my desires to bully, still unrealized, overpowered me. Unfortunately there weren’t many bullies around for me to emulate, since the kids at my school put academics above lowly physical pursuits. The most awesome guys had 4.0 grade point averages and college scholarships in the bag. Our feeble and uncoordinated football and basketball teams weren’t even in the running for coolness. Shut out year after year, our so-called athletes left the awards to our marching band and debate team. Anyone who tried to throw his weight around would simply be ignored, unless he had high SAT scores. Yes, there were a few bullies anyway, but they were academically inclined. I rode the bus with one of the most fearsome, an upperclassman named Calvin. One day Calvin told me, “I heard you said some things about Calculus Club. Bad move.” And he grabbed my copy of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars and tore out several chapters. “Now what will you tell your Latin teacher when you’re called on to translate?” he taunted me. I was speechless.
Another time on the bus this same Calvin, an academic rock star who took four advanced placement courses and who had been accepted early admission to Duke, came up to me and put his books in the empty seat beside me. I’ll never forget his words as I sat there looking up expectantly at him. This is what he said: “Watch my books, pal, and don’t mess with the protective plastic covers. I spent a lot of time getting them on straight.” When the bus arrived at school and I stood up to get off, Calvin tried to push me back down in my seat, but he lacked the upper body strength. I disembarked unharmed, but impressed.
Thanks largely to Calvin’s example, and that five-cent guy in the fourth grade, I was inspired anew to be a bully before I graduated or lost interest. Nothing could stop me, I decided, from pushing around most of the kids in my class. We were a diverse lot, but I detected a common thread of weakness for me to exploit: puny Asians with the biceps of Jack Soo, Jewish kids built like Woody Allen, beanpole blacks with the physique of Dave Chappelle, and I didn’t overlook the frail, super-pale whites like me who might have been first cousins to Johnny Winter. Regardless of race or creed, I’d have them all running scared, as soon as I figured out exactly how.
I learned the key move from a master bully in my gym class. A steadfast animal rights and vegan activist, this physically unprepossessing but slovenly and unwashed individual had taught himself to instill fear and even disgust in every male student, as well as to advance his causes, with a simple trick. By doing a barefoot handstand in gym class so that his rank feet went up by his victim’s nose, he gave a stark reminder of what a barnyard animal smelled like. One whiff brought to mind pigs and cows and their plight, and the need for a meat-free diet, as well as instilling disgust and fear. That was my second important lesson in bullying: don’t be afraid to be offensive, in fact go for it! And it didn’t hurt to have a gimmick, either.
As luck had it, I caught the measles soon after I was first treated to this miscreant’s foot odor. When I returned to school after two weeks, still spotted head to toe, I inflicted nude bear hugs on the guys in the gym shower. Asian, Jewish, black or white, I embraced their smooth, steaming bodies under the spray and cried, “You’ve got the measles now, Chang,” and “A pox on you, Schwarz,” and “Try some measles on for size, Odom,” and “Be glad I’m not giving you an STD, O’Malley.” Best of all, after all my spots faded, I discovered that bouncing my slick, sunken chest off dudes in the shower was revolting and terrifying all by itself.
True, I wasn’t advancing an agenda like the foot odor guy, and no fair maidens like Lawanda were smitten with me. But I was the scariest bully my school ever saw.