What my childhood bully taught me

I thought Ted picked on me because I was gay. Over 40 years later, I found out the real reason

Topics: Interview With My Bully, LGBT, Life stories,

What my childhood bully taught me (Credit: Salon)
A longer version of this piece originally appeared on Bert Baruch Wylen's Open Salon blog. The name of Bert's bully has been changed to protect his privacy. Interview your own bully -- and send it to Salon. Read how here.

My gut clenched when I saw the Facebook friend request from Ted, the guy who bullied me through junior high and high school. Four years of hell.

I don’t blame my later struggles with alcoholism and drug abuse on the considerable bullying I received as a kid, but that, combined with parental violence at home, contributed to the self-loathing I used to justify my bad behavior. I found myself wondering whether Ted could somehow harm me, more than 40 years later.

I accepted the friend request. Ted lived in Tennessee, hundreds of miles from my Pennsylvania home. I felt fully capable of defending myself through an electronic medium. Words had become my weapon. My problem was physical violence. Maybe I finally had the advantage.

Then Ted sent a message that he’d be making a delivery to a restaurant in a town near me. He asked to get together for dinner; perhaps surprisingly, I accepted his invitation.

On the day of our meeting, he called to say he’d be waiting for me in his tractor-trailer, behind the restaurant — I imagined with one or two biker buddies all wielding tire irons. We chatted on the phone for a while. When I asked him whether he remembered beating me up, he told me he only vaguely recalled any of that.

“You don’t remember beating me up for being gay?”

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know you were gay until I read it on your Facebook profile. I never would’ve guessed.”

“So then you didn’t like Jews?”

After mulling the question for a couple beats, he said, “Yeah, that would’ve been the reason. Funny how you outgrow some of that stuff as you get older.”

He mumbled a few words about not being “that way,” meaning gay — just in case I had any intentions of trying to get into his pants — but I let that roll off my back. He wasn’t the only one who still held on to stupid stereotypes.

That night, when I spied his tractor-trailer in the back lot, I parked in the space closest to the front exit. My escape route. I walked cautiously toward the truck, all senses on red alert. Ted was alone. All smiles. We shook hands.

“I’d rather not eat at this restaurant, if you don’t mind,” I told him. “They discriminate against gay people.”

“Really?” He seemed genuinely concerned.

“Yeah, they’ve even fired employees who seemed to be gay and lesbian. No apologies, no remorse. I won’t give my money to businesses that discriminate against me — or against anyone else, for that matter.”

“Well, what I really want is a good Philly cheese steak. You just can’t get a good cheese steak or a good hoagie down in Tennessee. They don’t know how to make the bread.”

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So we headed for a great little Italian place I know down the road. We ordered food, then sat at one of the old, battered fake-white-marble Formica-topped tables. A steady stream of exhausted customers grabbed packs of beer out of the refrigerator case covering one entire wall.

Casually, unhurriedly, we got to talking.

Ted worked in construction after high school, then got into trucking. He moved with his wife and kids to the Florida Keys, then sold his house at a nice profit and moved his family to a Tennessee farm. Although he works long hard hours, he’s happy with his lot.

He told me about his own years of drug abuse. “I joined a biker gang for a while, did some stupid shit with them,” he said. “But when I’d had enough of that, I quit. The drugs and the gang. But you don’t just quit a gang like that — they’ll kill you first chance they get. So I packed heat for a while.”

Even now? I wondered.

The food arrived. My meager chef’s salad mocked me — the wilted lettuce, the impotent tomato — while Ted dug right in to the real Philly cheese steak he craved. “It’s the bread,” said Ted between joyful mouthfuls.

Finally, I mustered the courage to broach the subject of the bullying.

“Was I really that bad?” he asked with mournful eyes.

He seemed so … contrite. At that moment, my heart softened. Despite all the years of torment at his hands, I couldn’t hit this aging man with the truth.

“Oh no, Ted. You weren’t the worst.” So I lied. A little.

One guy I remember as the worst, backed up by a gang of his friends, spit on me one time at the local bowling alley, when I was there with my synagogue youth league. Of course, in the way of many bullies, he had waited until I was away from my friends and followed me to a part of the building where nobody would see or hear. Cowards.

And certainly there were those who punched and kicked me, knocked the books out of my hands, or simply faked a swing to see me flinch. At times, I’d be showered with pennies — because, according to the anti-Semites, Jews pinch pennies. Frequently, the bullying happened under the watchful eyes of teachers. Sometimes the teachers even joined in with subtle psychological abuse.

As it turned out, Ted did remember some of the bullying. He told me something I never knew: He had also been the victim of bullying. When Ted got bullied by this gang — and one rather severe bully in particular — he beat on the first weakling he encountered. All along, my own suffering had been shared suffering. My bully was himself bullied.

On Friday, two days after our dinner meeting, Ted called me. He was 11 hours into an 18- hour drive from Massachusetts to his Tennessee home, and he’d been thinking about our dinner conversation.

“I want to apologize for all the bullying back in school,” he said.

I’d like to say I was stunned. But we both knew about 12-step recovery programs. He was performing the Ninth Step: “Made direct amends to such people [we had harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

I accepted his apology, and thanked him for making amends. And I owned my share in those terrible events so long ago.

That’s right. Although I was bullied, I certainly played a part — I was there. Of course, I can’t expect that the boy I was would react with the knowledge I’ve gained in manhood. But I can pass along what I know now to help others who are going through similar experiences. In reality, the biggest reason I got bullied — and I know many people won’t want to hear this, but it’s a Male Truth — is that I didn’t fight back.

Ted’s own experience bears out my point. He was being tormented by one group but, as usual, one bully in particular stood out from the crowd. Ted enrolled in a karate course. One day, his hard work paid off: Ted’s bully came after him, and Ted gave the kid a kick to the head. The bully bled so hard, he couldn’t see to fight back.

After that, the bully and his gang left Ted alone.

I believe there’s a lesson in that: On the playground, in the halls of “academia,” on the world stage, most often (I’d like to think) tensions between parties can be lessened and even eliminated through negotiation and mutual understandings. But people exist in this world intent on cruelty — for whatever reasons and motivations — and the only way to stop their bullying is to put them out of the bullying business.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Ted and I, now friends, have cleared the wreckage of the past. I look forward to seeing what the future may bring, how we might help others in the same situation, both bullied and bullies.

Today, unbelievable as it might have seemed to my teenage self, Ted has become one of my heroes.

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