Bully ’78: A True Story

BULLY ’78: A True Story

   My prepubescent thirteen year old body is shaking uncontrollably as I try to concentrate on what my gym teacher, Mr Tibbetts, is saying to me. I can barely hear his words through the ringing in my ears, but I think he’s telling me to punch this bully in the throat. I’m just a freshman in a brand new high school, and not even close to a path of becoming a doctor, but I ask him, “Can’t you kill a guy like that?”

   “In theory, I guess”, says Mr. T., “but he’s trying to kill you, isn’t he?”

   Is he? I honestly don’t know what he wants. He’s a bully. We’ve never really discussed his motivations. But “killing me” feels extreme for someone that I do not know. He has however been tormenting me for the better part of the school year. 

   It may sound surprising, but I had never even met this “nightmare that would haunt the rest of my life”, before he chose me to be his object of “rejection”. Maybe it was “hate at first site”, but something about my essence has been gnawing at this guy since I first got off the bus my freshman year and it’s culminated with me cornered in a locker room with a two hundred pound, 16 year old man-child waiting just outside to beat the sweet Jesus out of me. And instead of prepping for my impending doom, I’m wondering why the school doesn’t have another exit from this locker room that I’m cornered in. Isn’t that a fire hazard?

    As my quivering hand tries to wipe the embarrassment of tears from my face, I desperately try to catch my breath enough to tell anyone within ear shot that I simply do not want this fight. Truth is that I had never been in a fight up to this point. And it’s probably not wise to start the craft of pugilism with what appears to be the heavyweight champion of the world. I am simply terrified. I’m a gangly mama’s boy with four older sisters and a caring Dad who never hit him. I am a soft target. He chose his prey well. I mean, this dude has a beard and I am yet to grow any hair in my nether region. Not only are we not in the same weight class, we may not even be in the same sport. And now, I have been forced, against my will, into a do or die life-altering moment that will forever define the rest of my life? Again, I don’t want to be here.

   Wait a second, I think to myself, still trapped in 1978. Mr Tibbetts said this bully was trying to kill me? Can that be true? Can this simple misunderstanding end in death? Is life actually this fragile? Why can’t I catch my breath? Or stop shaking? And now that I’m thinking about death, did I actually ponder ending my own life last night to get out of this situation? Avoidance at the ultimate cost? It feels shameful to even think that way but fear is a powerful emotion that can play tricks on a kid’s psyche. My parents would be destroyed grappling with the thought that a simple bullying incident could drive someone to an early exit. But the truth is I don’t really want to be here right now. Wait? Do I mean here on earth? Maybe I do. It does seem simpler. Just to have this grand experiment end. By any means necessary.”      

   As I think back on that fateful event, I’m brought back to the mind of a child and how even meaningless events can seem like the end of the world. We forget that as an adult. Until we have a child who has an absolute meltdown because they can’t find a particular sweater. And we’re reminded that logic may be the last step on the road to adulthood. 

   I hadn’t thought about my bully in many years, but recently, my own child was bullied, and to be honest, did some bullying, and my own past came back to haunt me once again. I tried to give her some advice to help and no, I didn’t tell her to punch the other kid in the throat. But in our frank discussion, I started to tell her about my own experience of being bullied, and the emotional baggage victims carry for their lives.

   Since family photos were sparse in the 1970’s, my brain has polished my year long cataclysm into a few memorable snapshots that I’m sure it sanitized for human consumption. I remember uncontrollable fear. And angst. And pain. And wondering why? I definitely remember thinking about ending my life. I remember even wrapping a sheet around my neck at night in my bed and pulling it back until my head ached and my vision blurred. Thinking how easily I could put an end to this “problem”. And then I shiver as my mind skips like a stone on a pond jumping to a happier slide in my life’s carousel. 

   Freshman year of high school was the worst year of my llfe. I had just finished up 8th grade in a small middle school in rural Hooksett, New Hampshire. I was class vice president. I lettered in three sports. I was honor roll. I had made out with a girl. The world was my oyster. And within a year I would be totally “shucked”. My town didn’t have a high school, so my already small class was split up among four different high schools in the big city of Manchester. I would have to catch a 45 minute bus ride to the excruciatingly large Manchester Central High School and it’s 2,400 students that I did not know. It’s like I was convicted of shoplifting and sent to Gladiator School at Pelican Bay State Prison. My bully may have bought me for a pack of smokes. Maybe I made eye contact? I don’t know how it works in the big city. But he chose me early in my freshman year. And it was non-stop. Like, to the point where I wasn’t sure this guy even went to school there. Maybe he was a grad student working on his doctoral thesis on the subject of psychological torment? Sometimes, I would look up from my desk and see him standing just outside my class staring at me. Does he even have a hall pass? I still cringe just thinking about it. Our interactions were many that year as this man, three years my elder, stalked me through the fluorescent halls of my own personal hell. My grades started to suffer. I wasn’t sleeping. Dreading the next day’s opening bell with an interminable panic that no child should be made to endure. He would occasionally get in a few glancing blows and one memorable kick to my still hairless nuts, but I used the one tale of the tape that I had over him. Speed. I’m still ashamed by it, but I ran. A lot. I wore nothing but running shoes for the year, and now they had finally brought me to my own personal gauntlet in the boys locker room with my gym teacher pleading with me to face my fear. 

   “If you don’t fight back, you’ll regret this your whole life.” He told me. 

   I know how the story goes in the movies. You stand up to the bully. You land a couple of good shots, gain his respect, and you and he become best friends for life. But in real life, sometimes, kids get beat so bad, they get brain damage. They get knifed. Sometimes, even if you win, the other guy gets even more pissed and comes back with a gun. And not to belabor the point, but why are we fighting in the first place?!?!?!?!?! I’m a pacifist, Goddamit! Let’s use words!

   But here we are. The moment of truth. Mr Tibbets helps me to the door. My head is a blender of emotions on high. I’m physically convulsing. I’m sure a little urine came out. 

  “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this…”

   The door is opened for me by a priest reading me my last rights. I mean, the gym teacher opens the door for my entrance to the ring. My vision is still blurred by tears, but I see Mr. Tibbets mouth one last piece of advice, “the throat. Hit him in the…”. 

   And like a running back who’s entire front line just opened up a hole… I sprint. I take a blow to the head, a kick to the back side but I make a quick cut, a little juke, and I’m off. After all, I did win the best base running award at Ted Williams Baseball Camp. 

   The crowd that had gathered to witness immediately wanted their money back. The heckles and boos were well deserved. Like a kid who will sit at the dinner table all night instead of eating that brussel sprout, I was not going to fight. I simply would not do it. I don’t know exactly why. But I ran, setting a pattern about confrontation that would follow me for years to come.

       As it turned out, my Phys. Ed. instructor would be the most inciteful teacher I would ever have. He was right. I did regret it for the rest of my life. It’s haunted me. I, of course, have justified it in my brain for many years, that I could’ve been really hurt or worse, killed. But the truth is, I wish I had punched that guy in the throat. The seething anger over this bully’s grip on me grew over the next few years. I’m sure it fueled my self deprecating sense of humor that would serve to protect me from ridicule. After all, the best defense against any insult is to say that insult about yourself before anyone else can. And yes, it’s probably a big reason I went on to become a comic and an actor. But even all these years later, I still feel it viscerally. 

  But that’s what bullying does. Yes, some people stand up to it, but let’s be honest. Most bullies do it because they can. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size” is a saying for a reason. 

   We’re in the middle of a national bullying crisis that is crippling a generation of children. Nowadays, bullies are not just the oversized kid who’s home life is in ruin. It’s any kid with an iPhone. Whether it’s with words, or a doctored picture, or a massive following turned to hate, people are deliberately hurting others. Whether it’s from a place of insecurity or a dash of sadism, we as parents have to be diligent with our children’s social interactions and do our best to ensure that no child is made to feel bad about themselves at the hands of others. 

   And if you’re wondering why my parents didn’t get involved with my bullying situation? They did. I never told my mother how I had thought about ending my own life, but she could see I was in pain. I withdrew from life. My grades suffered. It’s tough to concentrate on your book report for “Lord of the Flies” when you’re worried that you’re about to become “Piggy”. My mom finally went to the school and we had a meeting with the principal. She was pissed. And remember, this is 1978. Parents barely knew where the school was, let alone walk on campus. This was a big deal. I sat there as she pleaded with the principal to protect her child. He told her there was nothing he could do and that the student in question was apparently waiting til he turned 17 so he could drop out. Yeah, it was a different era. When asked why this student had chosen her child, we were told that the other student apparently hated my red hair. Yep. That was it. I forgot I was the greatest minority on earth. A ginger. But it was that simple. I’ve always been picked on for it.  But like a bull with a toreador’s cape, my red hair had apparently acted like the bullseye of a dart board drawing this kid’s aim. 

  This bully would haunt me for years. The fact that I didn’t fight back made me an angry young man. I know the movies paint a different picture of heroic David versus Goliath outcomes, but that’s not how real life plays out most of the time. People become victims at the hands of more powerful people and have to live with it. For years, I would have fantasies of actually stalking him and killing him. A slow and painful death. Retribution for the pain he had caused me. I wanted to make him pay for what he had done to me. 

   Then, seven years later, I got my chance! Just before my senior year in college, I saw him again. I was in downtown Manchester and I drove by a gas station where I caught a quick glimpse of him pumping gas. I recognized him immediately and pulled over. I sat in my car and watched from afar. I was now a shredded 20 year old, 6’ 1”, college athlete who was about to graduate Boston University on an NROTC scholarship and move to California to serve as a naval officer. And yet, my body started shaking again. Oooohhh, I remember this feeling. Wow. This guy really messed me up. This must be what PTSD feels like. But this time, I would overcome my emotions. I would not run. I would have the moment I had always dreamt of. Me sitting on his chest, pounding his skull into the pavement, whispering in his ear, “You remember me, you son of a…” 

  I watched him from my car, thinking about what I was going to say to the police, as I stood over his lifeless, blood soaked, body. They would surely let me go after I explained the psychological torment this bully subjected me to. 

   “No worries, Jamie, you’ve done this world a great service. All charges are dropped and let us clean up this mess”, the officer would say. 

   And then I realized, he wasn’t filling his own tank. He actually worked there. Remember, it’s 1984 at this point and gas attendents would fill you up with full service. This was his job! Gas Station Attendent! And he looked miserable! He was probably 24 years old and already morbidly obese. And he was pumping gas on a cold New England day for minimum wage. I watched for a while as he worked his shift and my anger slowly shifted to satisfaction. He, in fact, got his comeuppance. Even though it wasn’t by my hand, the “Karma Police” had done their job. 

   And then, the oddest emotion yet entered my thoughts; empathy. Wait a minute? Do I actually feel bad for this guy? This human who made me ponder my own mortality at the age of thirteen. This ghost, whose name I still don’t know and wanted to hurt so badly that I could taste it, was already suffering. And it didn’t make me feel any better. In some weird way, I felt worse. I started to wonder what would make someone be such a bully? And why would he drop out of school and wreck his future? His home life must’ve been terrible. I felt sad for him.

   In an odd way, it made me feel lucky… that I wasn’t him. Lucky that I had great parents. Lucky that I was instilled with this empathy towards others. I started to think that maybe being soft is a good thing. What a tough way to go through life when your only recourse is violence. The frustration that one must feel when they are incapable of navigating their own path in a civilized world. The insecurity that must wrack one’s brain when conflict is the daily norm. And it served as a reminder of how important education is to not only advance in the world, but to help you deal with all of life’s challenges that arise. Words, after all, can be used as a weapon, but they can also be a person’s greatest defense. And yes, a little bit of speed doesn’t hurt. 

   And now as a parent, while my daughters get involved in their own version of “Mean Girls”, “empathy” is the number one thing I preach. I believe it is truly the number one trait that makes a civilized society work. Understanding what others feel and being accepting and inclusive is the key to a happy healthy life. And something this world desperately needs. And maybe the one thing that will prevent someone from becoming a bully. Do you agree or not? 

   And just for the record, do I still wish I punched my bully in the throat on that fateful day? Every single day. I’m only human after all. 

For more Parental Mental Health, check out The Parent’s Lounge Podcast:





Jamie Kaler

Jamie Kaler

An accomplished actor, comic, host, voice-over artist, and radio personality, Jamie Kaler is best known for his starring role as “Mike” on the hit TBS show, My Boys. His prolific acting career includes appearances on Friends, Will and Grace, How I Met Your Mother, Parenthood, and King of Queens, as well as numerous films and over 150 commercials. He is currently the host of America: Facts vs. Fiction on the American Heroes Channel, which is entering it’s third season, and has his own radio show on SiriusXM named Kaler. As a voice-over artist he is the voice of the "Bloopers Host” on the cult classic Robot Chicken and has been the national spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Lines.

Originally from New Hampshire, Jamie graduated from Boston University on an NROTC scholarship and served as an officer in the U.S. Navy before beginning his career as a performer. As a comedian he was one of the new faces at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal and has appeared on Chelsea Lately, The Late Late Show, Live at Gotham, Mock-pocalypse, and World’s Dumbest.

When not working, he is obeying every command of his wife, Kate, and two daughters, Hannah and Claire.

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