I’ve been watching a lot of these “It Gets Better” videos online. I’m glad they exist. I’m glad people are making them. I’d bet, if you could do some sort of poll, you’d find out that saying, “It gets better…” to a younger version of yourself is something that a majority of people would opt to do. The bullied and the bullies.
I was both. Bullied, and then a bully.
So this is my version of an, “It Gets Better” video. Only I’m not addressing it to the bullied. And I’m not addressing it to the bullies, either. I’m addressing it to the bully’s little friends.
Dear Guy Who Hangs Out With the Bully and Eggs Him On –
Good move. Really. I know what you’re doing, and I know how it seems like the smart move for you. ‘Cause I did it, too.
When I was in the fifth grade, I started gaining weight, and by the end of that school year, I was a fat kid. I’d been skinny and oblivious up until then – free time meant running around outside, playing soccer, climbing trees. Summer meant swimming.
But then I got swept up in reading, and movies, and music and other sedentary activities. My mind felt like a blazing stock car engine most days, and I didn’t miss the running around so much. If I could curl up with a good book, or a drawing pad, or an old monster movie on TV, all the better. Pretzels and chips and Cokes had the carbs and sugar to feed my swelling, itching brain – especially when I was re-listening to Devo songs.
By the time middle school started, I had the Victim Kit firmly sewed on. Cystic acne, headgear and braces, man-tits and a stupid haircut. Sixth and seventh grade were no fucking fun for me. Summer camp was torture, swimming pools were humiliation ponds, sports were a whirling wall of razors I didn’t dare approach.
By the time eighth grade rolled around, I’d adjusted my strategy. Figure out who the biggest bullies and abusers were, use my nascent comedy skills to make ‘em laugh and hone their taunts, and become part of the asshole entourage.
It was a survival strategy. I had a hand in tormenting an awkward girl named Robin in my eighth grade personal hygiene class. Also a fat(ter), asthmatic kid with a stutter at YMCA camp whose name I can’t remember and countless, faceless others as I glided painlessly in the wake of a trio of bullies whose names I also can’t remember. I only knew they weren’t bullying me, and were actually glad to see me in the morning, ‘cause here comes a guy who knows seven crueler ways to call someone an asshole or shithead (beyond just “asshole” and “shithead”).
By junior year of high school the braces and headgear came off, I lost weight and my skin miraculously cleared up. I got a girlfriend who taught me how to cut my hair. And I carried around (and still carry) a poison vein of self-loathing.
In someone’s memory – in many people’s memories – I’m a snickering, sneering asswipe who hurt and insulted them while peering out from behind the muscular lats of a bigger, more frightening asswipe. There are times when I firmly believe I should have also ended up like a lot of the bullies – stupid, directionless, job-bound and destined for obscurity, anger and oblivion.
It doesn’t fix a fucking thing, for me, to try my best to take the underdog’s side now. Or to embrace the awkward and outcast. That dark slice of regret and disgust with a younger self will never be erased.
So I’m talking to a younger self here – the young Bully’s Little Buddy. I’m trying to tell you that yes, I know how scary middle school and high school and the world must seem, with this clear demarcation (and it seems to get bolder and uglier every day) between abused and abuser. And I understand exactly why you’d want to be on the side of the powerful, cruel and, by default, secure. It’s the reason why some poor people get angry about rich people having to pay more taxes. It’s why people join celebrities’ entourages. It’s why two oppressed, disenfranchised groups fight with each other, instead of the powerful entity that’s oppressing and disenfranchising them.
All of that is true. But it doesn’t change the fact that you have power if you choose to take it. You have power to go stand on the side of the bullied, to stand up to the bullies, to set an example. You can take a deep breath and look at the popular crowd – are they popular because they’re good, smart people? Or are they popular because people are afraid of being their targets? If the second example is the truth, then you can reject them. You can form your own circle, be your own person, and start thinking for yourself early.
I didn’t. And I won’t blame you if you don’t either. It’s so fucking hard. It does get better for the outcast and the bullied. But you, in the bully’s entourage, can help make it better by taking away part of the bully’s power.
You can take away you. And if you take the dare, and do it, you’ll be shocked to see how deep it diminishes the weight and scope and space a bully takes up in the world. And when you see that, and experience it, it’ll be your first – and unarguable – taste of how much weight and scope and space you have.
I’ll never know. I never did it.