The greatest lesson I ever learned over summer vacation is that ignoring bullies is bullshit.
Well, technically I learned this on the last day of junior high walking home from Carlton Hills Elementary, trying to hold my head up while classmates hurled insults and bicycles at me. (The insults flew, the bikes rolled until a handlebar or pedal caught on my appendages.) I didn’t stop, but after a few blocks they did, because you can’t get away with that shit on a major street like Mast, even if nobody ever looks out their windows. It was a long walk, with my little brother yelling at me to fight back and me telling him keep walking, it will be over soon.
Walking with your head held high is a sucker’s game. You’re just a taller target. I didn’t want to be a target. I didn’t want to fight either, but since I wasn’t doing a good job holding back the tears -- and I was getting pissed off that I couldn’t see straight on account of that -- I resolved to give as good as I got. Retaliate like Kung Fu, or like The Untouchables? My way seemed like the happy medium.
So that summer, I acquired the arsenal to fight back. You can’t be an outsider and expect to be safe from the herd. You have to get in; knife-fight close, “Hail Hydra” close. Then you attack. This was before Columbine, so getting ammunition for my dad’s Lee-Enfield didn’t occur to me. Besides, death didn’t hurt. Humiliation hurt.
Summer school was boot camp. Did this quip get a rise? Was there a snicker from that jibe?
Self-deprecation was a suicide vest I could trigger over and over again. I read a book on Aikido, and then I read a book of insults. Sure, I read at recess, it’s better for me than smoking pot out of a plastic bubble pipe like some kind of hobo stoner Popeye. Oh, you like that? I can give some lessons to your mom tonight and she can share them with you tomorrow. We’ll start with small words so you don’t get tired moving your big face around too much.
When high school started, the bullies from the last day of school came back, but they didn’t last. I’d changed the battlefield. No one uses cavalry now that there are tanks. You can do anything with superior firepower. I was invincible and it felt good.
It felt good to help others too: punch down to get some leverage, and then turn that into a haymaker punching up. There’s an alliance of convenience among the downtrodden, and, yes, I made some sacrifices for the greater good. We’d sort it out after the dust settled. By projecting competence and pummeling people with words I didn’t have to get hit, at least not at school. All it took was turning comedy into a weapon.
Eventually, though, all power begins to corrupt. It’s easy to teach yourself that you’re always in the right because the people who hurt you were doing wrong. I can’t be a bully; I’ve always been the victim. When I make you feel bad, it’s for your own good. Just look at all these people lacking in Right Thought! I can make the world a better place by challenging their flawed assumptions! So I spoke out, truth to power, making it funny and making it hurt, if that’s what the cruel and the ignorant needed to help them straighten out their shit.
Mostly I did this by trolling LiveJournal. It wasn’t as effective as you’d think. I did things that I’m ashamed of now. Lonely Christian housewives fighting the devil in their dirty dishes didn’t need to hear about my views on organized religion. It was a platform, and I had a voice, and I was going to Say Things. I Said Things that I now regret. I won’t say them again. If you can’t score 50% out of true, kind, necessary, and beneficial you might have a problem. I have a problem.
At this point, I’m in recovery. I’m getting better. Part of that is just knowing that there’s a better to get. You’re not stuck with cheap laughs. You don’t have to belittle someone in order to challenge them. Your funny has a higher calling than inflicting pain. It’s a process, reforging swords to plowshares -- or some other piece of metal equipment that is enjoyable but not destructive. Swords to hood ornaments? Drinking goblets? Fuzzy handcuffs?
The hardest part is going full Gorbachev and tearing down the walls I’ve set up. I get to choose my community and my family now, and on the whole, they’re kind of awesome -- except when they’re ridiculously awesome. That deserves a demilitarized zone if anything does. I also get to choose my response. Just because someone triggers one of my tripwires doesn’t mean they should get a claymore to the face. Just because I showed up wearing this armor and carrying these weapons doesn’t mean I need to drag them everywhere I go.
Even though many summers have passed, I am still learning that lesson.