If the McWilliams twins, Winfred and Denfred, or the Bailey brothers, Robert and Jimmy are reading this, I may be sunk, unless time has mellowed them and they are no longer the bullies they were in the fourth grade.
See, in the fourth grade I turned on Jimmy Bailey. He was everybody’s bully, short and “stubby,” we used to say, and mean as a snake. But on that particular day during recess, I’d had enough. It was only touch football, but Jimmy would touch the ball carrier below the waist as he was supposed to, and then deliver a punch to the stomach, causing pain that was indescribable. Nobody would report him.
Why I was carrying the ball in the first place is a mystery. I was chosen first for the spelling bees and last for kickball and touch football. Anyhow, I was in the backfield, not particularly enjoying it. As soon as the ball was handed off to me, Jimmy Bailey pounced. I felt his touch on my thigh and then, sure enough, here comes that excruciating stomach punch along with an epithet that can’t be printed here.
Something came over me. I threw the ball down, pressed my nose to his and said things that surprised even me. But it worked. It scared him. What a feeling! On the way to the lunchroom, my admirers at my elbow, I wondered if the military might draft me to go to Korea and wind things up over there real fast.
Reality set in while I was nibbling on the lunchroom’s dreaded macaroni and cheese. My thoughts raced to Jimmy’s brother Robert and their cohorts, the McWilliams boys. What if they ganged up on me? But I began not to care. Right now I was the deliverer of the boys in Mrs. Flora Scott’s fourth -grade class, and would soon save the world, so who cared about Robert, Winfred and Denfred?
Decades later my own fourth grade son claimed at the dinner table that a certain boy was picking on him. When my wife asked if he had mentioned it to the teacher, he calmly answered, “No, Ma’am.” When I asked if he would like for me to call and talk to the teacher, he wasn’t calm. “No! Don’t call the teacher,” he implored.
I understood his predicament. He was being bullied, he had been taught not to start or promote trouble, and he was trying to obey what he was taught. A school bully can pose a moral dilemma for a child torn between his parents’ wishes on one hand and a clear and present danger on the other.
Since this was my son’s third time to complain, I said to him, “Jeff, you may just have to punch ’im.”
I will never forget the measured delight that brightened my young son’s face. His countenance showed no exuberance, no revengeful eye, but relief and liberation. He never complained again about being bullied, and somehow I don’t believe he ever punched anybody. If he did, we never got a phone call. My guess is that I freed him up to navigate and make some judgments of his own.
Yes, Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek.” He also used hyperbole when He said, “You can’t love me if you don’t hate your mother and father.” Perhaps some of His most helpful words are “Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” The Puritans artfully summed His words up with their famous counsel: “Trust God and keep your powder dry.”
When a 300-pound pro football player complains that he is being bullied (recall the case of Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin) and is suffering from “emotional distress,” we should know that we have a societal problem. But the problem isn’t bullying. It’s the changing self-perception of boys and men.
The whole business makes me worry about boys. Instead of teaching them to be knights, we’re teaching them to be princesses. I suspect childhood is actually safer than ever before and certainly hope that it’s safer than in the ’50s and ’60s.
And on second thought, I also hope that the McWilliams and Bailey boys do read this. They need to know that I owe them more than I could ever repay, namely, the gaining of self-respect..
Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.