Monday, September 03, 2012

Back to Middle School

My annual State Fair pilgrimage was somewhat spoiled by a group of kids who looked to be in high school. (In other words, to a 30-something like myself they looked very immature and disrespectful.) I was sitting along one of the fairgrounds' main thoroughfares when I felt a pebble strike my forehead at incredible velocity. (Two notes: 1. It did not produce any pain. 2. It was slightly bigger and rougher than a pebble, but I couldn't think of a better word for it than "pebble.") I looked around, saw no signs of an assailant and didn't think much of it.

Then I noticed a tall teenage guy sneaking glances at me and smiling. The glances and smiles spread to the short guy and girls with him, accompanied by laughter. The short guy whipped a pebble into the street, reinforcing my case. They were also doing things with their smartphones, a diabolical new tool in the imagination of the tormented. I quickly found myself back in school, specifically middle school. Once again I was paralyzed by fear and humiliation. My face seemed to be reddening along with, possibly, my eyes, presaging the onset of tears.

How could I still be terrorized by teenagers? Am I not an adult with a college degree and a corporate job? I passed my academic tests with flying colors, but I'm not sure if I ever passed the Bully Test. The physical bullying I experienced never exceeded the nuisance level. It was the verbal bullying that ground my self-esteem down to a nub. I would usually just take it, sometimes attempting a timid comeback.

Like many victims of bullying, I carry a chip on my shoulder. Even 20 years after leaving middle school, the seeds of doubt about my self-worth planted back then still bear the occasional fruit. When those kids started smiling and laughing at me, my nerd rage emerged from dormancy and contemplated revenge. ("Nerd rage" is a term I first heard from stand-up Brian Posehn, whom you may know as the tall, goofily endearing guy on Mr. Show and the tall, goofily menacing guy on Just Shoot Me.) Of course, the rage limits one's mental faculties, and my vengeance was predictably unimaginative.

After a few minutes of absorbing the humiliation and hatching a plan, I got up to leave. The tall guy, who I assumed was the guilty party, was standing with his back to me, holding a large, bouncy, blue ball. On my way from the scene, I came up behind him, knocked the ball out of his hands and swatted it up to the walkway around the agriculture building a few yards above us. The nerd rage probably made my swatting look undignified, but I kept a lid on my emotions the best I could. The incident ended with me walking away. I didn't hear or feel any reaction from them, which was a relief.

After I'd put some distance between us, I began to wish I'd taken the ball with me. That would've been the smoother thing to do. But I think I got my point across, and hopefully I didn't look too nerdy doing it. There's a sore spot on my wrist from hitting the guy's arm when I dislodged the ball, a reminder of something I'd much rather forget. Just writing about it brought back the fear, humiliation and self-doubt, but I wanted to get it out of my system.

My favorite comedy-rock band of all time, King Missile (I love Tenacious D, but in terms of laughs-per-minute King Missile still takes the cake.), had a song called "Wuss." The masterful John S. Hall tells us of the many indignities of being a wuss in junior high. The lyric ends with these lines:

...and even now,
Now that I'm not nearly as much of a wuss as I once was,
I still feel kind of wussy from time to time:
Residual wussiness-
The kind of thing you can never really leave behind.

I have plenty of residual wussiness left over from my school days. Luckily, the adult world does not operate by the same rules as the kid and teen worlds. It's humiliating and enraging to be reminded that I'm still vulnerable to bullying by teenagers. At least now I have the emotional security to get over it, even though it might take a few days.

So I've managed to put the experience in perspective on a personal level, but it raises a larger cultural question: How do you discipline kids you don't know? Should you even try? I think we should; after all, as the title of Hillary Clinton's book said, It Takes a Village (to raise a child, I think). But I have no idea how to do that in an effective, non-violent way. If anyone has any ideas, I encourage you to share them here.