There are dreaded moments from my life – the years from fourth grade to eighth grade – which I’ve tried very hard to forget.
These years were marked by feeling weak and helpless. They were marked by having no response – other than fear and sorrow – to the cruelty of bullying.
I didn’t fight back. I took all of the taunting, the physical intimidation, the sneers and threats and petty torments that haunted a time in my life that would inform the rest of my life – though I wish it hadn’t.
If I could erase it from my memory, I would – those preteen years as a public school student in 1970s San Jose.
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Certain memories leave me feeling enraged to this day and can consume my thoughts as I sit in my office at The Bee or in my home or my car.
They’ve left me hypersensitive to casual cruelty in all forms.
The terrible news of a Folsom boy taking his own life, perhaps as a result of bullying, has brought all of this back in a torrent.
It’s not just about bullies. It’s about the co-conspirators of the bullies, the passive enablers and authority figures who could step in – should step in – but don’t.
There is simply too much that we don’t know about Ronin Shimizu, the 12-year-old whose suicide generated worldwide headlines, to draw many clear conclusions about his tragic case.
Maybe one day the specifics of Ronin’s story will definitively point to why such an adorable boy would die the way he did. Or maybe we’ll never know.
But I know this: I felt alone when I was Ronin’s age. Maybe there were teachers or counselors who spared me some verbal or physical taunts on a given day, but I don’t remember that.
What I do remember is that it started with words – insults, taunts and name-calling. I remember wondering as a fourth-grader why many of the kids I considered friends were suddenly much more aggressive and hostile.
For the first time, I didn’t like school – a feeling that would last well into high school.
My grades suffered, and so did the once-healthy image I had of myself.
There were adults who had to have heard it or seen it, but the bullying went on. It was mostly a schoolyard thing, not as bad in the classroom, but it had an effect.
My self-confidence was shot for many years.
What was especially hurtful was when friends would not only laugh along with the bullies – they would join in. One of the most insidious aspects of bullying is that bullies enlist followers. Bullies can be popular. Bullies have friends. Bullies are liked by teachers. Bullies understand human nature and the art of sticking it to you when no one is looking.
The best ones – the worst ones – torment you in plain sight. By seventh grade, verbal and emotional abuse turned physical.
In my seventh-grade year, I met an eighth-grader who made my life miserable. He was physically bigger and stronger. He hit me, knocked me down and he used to love to force me to lie on the ground in dirt or mud. I could either lie down voluntarily or he would knock me down. It was my choice.
Do you know what it does to a boy when a bigger boy forces him to humiliate himself? I would lie down voluntarily – hating myself the whole time. I can still see his smirk as I did it.
I did it many times.
At my school, the indifference of authority figures opened the door for bullying. If you’re an educator and you allow cruelty between students, then you could be facilitating emotional damage that can be felt for years. All educators should ask themselves this: Am I doing everything I can to stop bullying from happening?
I never saw my tormenter once I finished seventh grade, but the damage had been done. I was not a good student in junior high or high school. I shot up in height and weight as an eighth-grader to a size where bullies – because they are cowards – never bothered me again.
But for years I thought of myself as a loser. You’d barely find me in my high school yearbooks. I had friends, but I held myself apart from the social aspects of what should have been a happy time in high school. I never went to a dance, didn’t take the SAT and didn’t play sports. I went to community college only by chance. It was there – while taking remedial classes – that I found a purpose as a journalism student.
My life as the distant observer found an outlet. But there were still painful encounters with bully types who crossed my path in the newspaper business. There was an early editor who – in a very dismissive way – suggested that I wasn’t cut out for the business. I fought back by proving to myself that he was wrong. But when that editor later died, I said many cruel and stupid things to people who knew him.
It’s what bullying does to you even years later – it teaches you to be callous and hurtful as part of your everyday behavior. As a young adult, it became a weapon to use when I was feeling insecure. I would be harsh to others before they were to me.
I was a very angry guy until one day I wasn’t.
What changed? Peace came from love, children, work, family, community, and the little pleasures of everyday life. It came from mentors and friends who truly cared, and from the wealth of confidence that comes from making mistakes and learning from them.
It came from embracing forgiveness and choosing to push all negative influences to a safe distance.
Life is beautiful now, and what hurts so much about Ronin’s story is that a tender, adorable child won’t one day find his own sense of peace and place.
It’s easy to look into Ronin’s image and see a little of yourself or your children. It’s hard to reconcile his smiling face with the knowledge that he’ll never become a fulfilled adult, freed from all that pain.
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.