How Surrogate Bullying Shaped My Life (So Far)

NOTE TO THE READER: I was picked on in school, not so much for who I was, but for who my Dad was! Hence, the “surrogate” in the title.

Crawfordville Elementary School–as it looked circa 1976 when I was in 6th Grade.
If I recall, this was the building that housed Principal Randy Anderson’s office.

I certainly don’t want to overstate it, but I was bullied somewhat during my middle school and high school years (in the late 70s and early 80s). And while bullying is not all that unusual an injustice to suffer, mine was at least a little bit off the beaten path because of the particular circumstances. Now that I’m in my late 50s and interested in how I’ve turned out as I have (so far, that is, as I’m not done turning out yet!)—and as I’m quite interested in what I can do from here on out to improve myself—it seemed worthy to spend some time thinking through what happened in those early years.

What was unusual about my bullying stories is that my Dad was my assistant principal and principal during my middle- and high-school years. (My school was 7th-12th grades when I started, and 9th-12th by the time I graduated in 1983.) For my 6th Grade year, we had moved down to the rural county where Dad was assistant principal because they had a rule that principals must live in the same county where they work. So I was plucked up from my Tallahassee life and moved a half-hour south to Wakulla County, where we would live until after I graduated high school in 1983.

I had not seen it coming, though if you think about it, it would probably seem quite predictable. I started school in the new county on the first day of the school year in the 6th Grade at Crawfordville Elementary School. I don’t know how long it took for word to spread that my Dad was the vice principal at the county’s only High School. But there I stood in line, waiting to go into class on the first day of school, having missed the K-5 years that most of my new classmates had gone there, and being quite the outsider as a result of that fact alone. And as I understand it now, being new is plenty to heap trouble on a kid’s head.

The heaping of trouble was obvious right away, actually. As I stood there in line waiting for Mrs. Douglas’ classroom door to open, I took a sharp shove to the back. I turned around to find a boy I’ll call “Andrew” staring at me. If memory serves, I gave him a disapproving look and turned back around. Then came a second shove immediately after, and any benefit of the doubt that the shoving was not intentional had disappeared. I turned around and told Andrew that if he did it again, I would punch him. So I turned back around, and here came the third shove in short order.

Reliable sort that I was, I then turned around and punched him once in the jaw, knocking him to the ground. The next thing I remember, we had been hauled off to the principal’s office where Mr. Anderson asked me what had happened. I gave him the same account I just gave you, and was immediately relieved somewhat to see that he had a hard time restraining a grin as he heard how Andrew (a repeat offender, I gathered quickly) had got what was coming to him before the doors had even opened on the first day of school. But being ever the diplomat, Mr. Anderson told me something like this: “Well, Jack, we try to discourage fighting around here, so you go on back to class.” And off I went. And welcome to my first day of at Crawfordville Elementary!

As for Andrew’s first-day welcome, I heard he got a paddling after I left the princpal’s office. And I believe that was the last run-in he and I ever had. And I think it was only a year or two later that his short life would end tragically in a shooting accident. And I wonder now at his life and what all it might have been like, and at what he might have been suffering that could make bullying a newcomer seem like a good idea that morning. But sadly, I must move along to the main target of my story here.

I don’t remember whether Andrew knew at that time that my Dad was the assistant principal down at the high school, but I doubt that by the end of that very day there were any of my classmates who did not know it. And it wasn’t long until the surrogate bullying began. That is, being picked on not because of who I was, but because of who my Dad was.

Now, let me say at the outset that I cannot account for the state of my character at that time. I’m sure I was immature and overly-defensive—which in the real world often means proactively offensive! There’s no telling how much of the mistreatment I got was something “I had coming!” I may well have been quite arrogant in my own right, and was very probably sharp-tongued. I was not particularly violent or given to starting conflict, but I was not one to run from it once it started, either. It was very likely I was going to stand my ground when faced by a bully. And I had been that way since at least 1st Grade, when I beat up a 5th grader at the bus stop after he had thrown me down into a bus seat so that he could be the first to get off the bus.

So if there was anything special about me, it was certainly not that I was the kind, compassionate, and forgiving sort. I’m sure I was every bit as messy and prickly and inconsistent in my character as was the average kid in my day. But it wasn’t long at all, it seems, until that one peculiar sort of bullying started—the kind that seems to have been predicated upon the identity of my father, who was the official disciplinarian for many of my classmates’ older siblings over at the high school. It appears to have been the routine that Dad would paddle the older sibling (presumably for cause) and then the vengeful hatred would spread from the paddled student to the younger sibling, who would then deliver it to me.

And this, of course, was unjust. I had not paddled their siblings, so what business did I have taking any blame for it? It was irrational—and so much so that even this 6th grader could identify squarely it as such. It might have been one thing to be abused in retaliation for wrong I had done, but this abuse was because of something somebody else had done—and moreover, the thing that had been done was (probably) not unjust. These students were paddled for breaking the rules. It was morally unjust, then, that I should be punished as an indirect response to that.

But I remember very clearly how the attacks seemed to go: “You think you’re so great just because your daddy’s the principal!” That’s the way that “Saundra” would say it more than once, standing there with her hand on her hip, and letting me have it with all the confidence in the world that she had got me right.

Well, as I’ve already said, I’m sure I was arrogant—and cannot give an account for how much or little I might have been so—but her charge went beyond whatever arrogance was there into stating the very cause of it. But I do not remember having ever thought that I was “so great” because my Dad was the principal. Not once. And experience tells me that when people have a boast in their hearts, it’s quite likely to come up in their minds regularly, as well as to come out of their mouths. But such was not my boast. If I had some sort of internal “justification” for my arrogance, it most certainly was not that.

So there stood Saundra, having no idea she would eventually become my private poster child for this period of injustice in my life. And I do remember how incensing it was, the brash irrationality of the charges. Was there no justice? Was no one going to shut this girl up? Was no one going to give her irrational mind a paddling and put it in its place?

Nope. They’ll paddle Andrew for crossing the line of justice into physical abuse, but Saundra will get no such paddling for crossing the same moral line into verbal abuse—nor into the abuse of reason. It’s a societal thing—where we draw our lines.

And now, of course, my thoughts have at last moved beyond the injustice of all this, into the question of how I might have done better in response to these angry people had I been more mature. I do, at this late date, having some friends who are so kind and compassionate that it would not surprise me if they could walk away from these initial encounters with Andrew and Saundra being great friends! I’d have to see it to be sure, but I do sincerely think that their disarming powers of graciousness may have been sufficient to turn those relationships around at the first sign of trouble! So there’s a strong “what if?” theme running through my mind as I analyze all these memories!

I think it was in that very first week of school—or maybe the second—when I was delighted to become friends one day with “Jerry”. And it was just a few days later when I found myself having been surprised to be starkly shunned by the same Jerry, in deference to his friends who found me unacceptable because my Dad was the assistant principal at the high school.

And so it went—though I cannot document for you just how much such things happened. Indeed, I did make some friends there who are friends to this day. So again, I don’t want to overstate the suffering, but only to point out that it was substantial to me the way I saw it at the time. To me at the time, it seemed it was quite a lot—but you know how exaggerative kids can be sometimes. So there’s no telling, really. I should tell you, though, that the abuse was almost always social/verbal. I was a fairly large guy in 6th Grade—and in addition to that, I suppose I had marked my territory somewhat for everyone in the 6th Grade to see in that first-day battle with Andrew. So it’s not like the guys were lining up to fight me.

What I’m wondering in all this, though, is about what happened in my heart/mind as I tried to cope with all this. It’s not likely there was anybody to sit me down and explain it all to me as rationally as (I think) I’m able to see it now. No, I was left pretty much to my own devices. And given that, surely I made mistakes in how I sized it all up, and in what strategies I would use to cope from then forward. And who would ever sit me down years hence to explain, “OK, Jack, so you’ve had a burr under your saddle since 6th Grade because this whole bullying thing didn’t get settled right at the time.”?

Well, no one.

Enter Jack at age 57, who finally has the presence of mind to think that there’s some long-unsettled strife down inside my heart/mind somewhere that could use a little straigtening up. And while I don’t think that this short span of bullying in my life was at the heart of my inner snags, it’s surely an early-in-life outcropping of it, and a strategic blunder that was in need of immediate correction—and never got it (because our world is not very good at identifying and correcting this sort of thing.)

This sort of bullying would continue into my middle school years and somewhat beyond. In 7th grade, I would move over to the high school, which was 7th-12th grade at the time I started. And I would be shoved from time to time in the hallways between classes, or mumbled at, looked menacingly at, or even cursed at. I remember adopting a routine of sitting up close to Mr. Stanley, the school bus driver, as if I were in a personal protection detail on the way home from school. Even so, one day I was beaned hard in the head with a small rock (or something similar) as we rode along. And of course, no one was going to tell who had thrown it—and there would be no justice. And what could Mr. Stanley do, really? Poor man, who seemed to have my best interests at heart!

And there was the day when I had just gotten off the bus on the highway at the end of our dirt road, and some of the kids in one of the cars that had had to stop behind the school bus threw some firecrackers out right behind me. Interestingly, I don’t think I even flinched as they exploded—and didn’t even turn around or duck or run, but just kept my cool as I kept on walking. And, of course, I have no idea if that event had anything to do with who my Dad was, or if that was just pranksters being pranksters. But it raises the very interesting question of whether I would lump it all together into one lump—that whatever mistreatment I ever got from then forward was welling up from the same unjust cause, as if the whole world in in conspiracy against me. Surely, I would make the mistake of overgeneralizing at least once! Or was it a hundred times? Indeed! Who could say? But was I developing some manner of monolithic disposition about the whole thing—seeing the whole world through those same lenses, when in fact, not everybody would commit the same fallacy, or have the same motives?

That great question aside, it was that cool-headed moment of not flinching that I wanted to focus on here for a minute. That was indeed pretty cool for a middle school kid, I think! And I’m pretty sure I knew it was even then. But would I begin to be proud about that? Would I adopt that sort of tough exterior as my general disposition? Would I start to label myself as Mr. Unflappable? Would this become some manner of reactive coping mechanism, shielding myself against all comers in the future—whether they were looking to punish me for Dad’s job or for something else—or whether they might only appear to be interested in abusing me?

I worry about that—that something of that sort happened at that time—that young Jack settled on an ill-advised self-view and others-view, as well as on a somewhat tactical disposition that would not serve him well in life. It would serve him long, mind you, but not well. And he would become Mr. Tactical in the movie theater parking lots at night while seeing his friends out to their cars, watching intently for bad guys (though rarely finding any). He’s the one that would eventually be carrying the scorching flashlight all the time (once the world figured out how to build a scorching flashlight—unlike the ones we had in high school—the sort where you had to light a match to be sure if the flashlight was burning.) And Jack would spend his life with that tactical-readiness knob turned up probably a couple of clicks too high—although any Boy Scout, soldier, or cop might beg to differ. But it’s not so much the outward preparedness that bothers me as the inward disposition of expectancy—that steady supposition that I need always be on the lookout for people treating me (or others) unjustly—that default disposition of general suspicion and disapproval.

Is that wrong? Well, any idiot can look at this world and see that it’s filled with injustice. So it’s certainly not a vice to be ever-vigilant. But to be very clear, the question here is whether Jack simply had his ever-vigilance knob set a click or two too high. That’s it. That’s the question.

I think he did.

And there’s no telling (at this point) what all has been the cost of that. (I’d be excited, if not appalled, to know!)

Of course, there’s at least a slight difference between protecting oneself from physical abuse and from verbal abuse, just as there is in protecting oneself from verbal abuse and from the abuse of reason. And I imagine there’s much to be learned from continue to observe—best I can through unaided memory—what all happened during those formative years.

And it’s interesting to look back at how Jack has really gone after irrationality since those days when Saundra stood pointing a finger at me and charging me, “You think you’re so great just because your daddy is the principal at the high school.”

Even if she was right about the “you think you’re so great” part, she was way off about the “just because…” part, and yet exhibited not the least hesitation to declare it confidently. And who knows whether and how much this experience would eventually prompt me to study the psychology of rational thought and to compose several hundred memes about it and to write a novel about it (and an unfinished nonfiction book) and countless blog posts? Surely it’s related. Surely it would help to set the stage for such later scenes in my life.

And this late-in-life search for rationality is ironic, of course, since I’ve had to wrestle myself so far into whatever sanity I’ve accomplished to this point. That is, none of us has the luxury of learning sanity while starting with a sane mind! Instead, we generally start having already been pre-loaded with the various insane nuggets we get from our meme culture—our hearsay culture—our tradition culture—our partisan/denominational/clique culture. So it’s a wonder if any of us should ever manage to find ourselves finally “fully clothed and in his right mind”, so to speak. (Mark 15:15)

And I’m sure I have not made it there yet—which is, of course, the occasion of this very article—me looking back and taking off my saddle to try to brush the burrs out of my own coat and get it right for the rest of the ride on this earthly trail.

I should tell you that as my high school career continued, the bullying petered out. I grew large and strong physically, and also grew “large” in my verbal and rhetorical skills, and could easily intimidate most people if I saw a need to do so. Of course, I now regret ever having perceived a need, for surely, I was wrong about that most of the time. And while there was certainly a bully now and then—even a bully of someone else, and not me—who needed to be put in his place—there is no doubt in my mind that I had the bully-watching/bully-avenging dial turned up a couple of clicks too high.

And when you do that, you not only filter out the bullies, but you filter out some potential friends, too, and make life harder on those good souls who are willing to be your friend anyway, despite your rough edges. And I have yet to come to grips with what all damage this error might have done to me in other ways. Perhaps I’ll get some of that figured out in my remaining years.

It would have been great—I can see now—to have got this burr brushed out a long time ago. It would have made for a different life in some ways, no doubt. But as it is, my life has certainly not been a waste. It has not been a disaster. It has not been fruitless. But even so, it has been substantially hindered on this account, and is in need of some correction. And it has cost me some suffering—some inner turmoil in trying to figure out what’s really going on stressful situations play out even today, and as the internal feelings seem inordinate—as they seem to be over-the-top—as they often add up into more than what seems justified by the actual facts.

And this is where I am today. This is what I’m pondering. And who knows where all this will lead?

So, note to self: Don’t turn the bully-guard knob up too high, because while it may defend against some bullies, it’ll also wreck too many friendships and hurt people that you care deeply about.

Second note to self: I like how you went on to learn a bunch about rationality. I’m hoping this can come to fruition and help a lot of people—just as it’s helping you to continue to sort out your life’s choices so far.

Third note to self: That sense of hope you have, that this can actually be straightened out and the long-term stress of it relieved—my hunch is that you’re spot-on about that. Keep on working the puzzle and see if it doesn’t fall into place.

Note to Everyone Else

To everyone else, I am sorry. Is there anyone among you toward whom I have not behaved at least a little bit too sternly or too protectively? I doubt it! And even among those of you who may have no complaints! Surely, there’s a monster here and there who needs to be fended off with all the ferocity I can muster, but I have been much too ready for that all these years, and much too little ready simply to be friends. And for this, and my many other errors of life, I am very sorry.

In addition to this one, there are a few more areas in my personal puzzle that are yet to be solved, even as this one seems to be coming together (at long last!). I’m currently in the middle of a big push for fitness, trying to lose weight and get into good shape. And concerning this, I joke tongue-in-cheek that “My goal is to die healthy!”. But wouldn’t it be something if I could die emotionally/socially healthy, too—having figured out and escaped from some of these common pitfalls to which I earlier fell victim? I’m sure that people’s expectations for such things are all over the map, but all I can say is that I have lately been increasing in hope in such matters, as it seems to me increasingly stupid that a man should have to wallow in his own habitual error all his life, and not be able to improve himself.

To the friends who have helped me in this so far, I am eternally grateful!

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