By age 8, I’d hit the bullying victim trifecta - impossible Coke-bottle thick glasses, an unruly mop of coarse, wavy hair, and worst of all, I was still an occasional bed-wetter. The latter wasn’t known by many thankfully, but waking up in a cocoon of foul-smelling dampness doesn’t do much for the self-esteem. In fact, my mom let neighborhood friend Kevin up to my room one weekend morning, not knowing the overnight bladder-to-brain sensor had failed for the first time in weeks. Kevin and I had a very brief, awkward conversation as I desperately tried to hide the urine soaked sheets behind me. To Kevin’s credit, he didn’t bolt from the room to tell the neighborhood, nor did he laugh at me directly. But I’m sure he told his brother … who I’m sure told others. And I get it ... that kind of gossip is just too good to pass up, especially in the 3rd grade.
A week or so later, I was walking the mile from school to my suburban Atlanta home. I remember being with a group of classmates for the early part of the walk, then some of them split off for a different street. Which left me with a group of older kids - big 5th and 6th graders - who immediately started in on me with some choice verbal wit:
“Ben’s new cream is out … Ben’s Gay!” (with the obvious negative connotation on ‘gay’). The chant “Ben’s Gay, Ben’s Gay, b-b-b-Ben’s Gay” carried us down the street.
Somehow the taunting escalated from verbal to physical as I approached my front yard. I still don’t know if it was because I didn’t give them the reaction they wanted - no tears or screams for them to stop, I’d just kept my head down and kept on walking - or if one of them was just having a bad day. But the group’s leader, Patrick, grabbed my backpack, threw it on the ground, and got in my face as if we were about to fight.
I was already pretty anxious about the situation given their taunting all the way down the street, but now, with Patrick glaring down on me, my heart was POUNDING. My throat was suddenly desert dry. I remember sneaking a glance at some of the other boys to see if one might turn ally or at least would give an empathic look. Needless to say, no dice. In fact, they were circling around us yelling “ooooooo” and “kick his ass” and “fight, fight, fight.” Even though I was mere 20 yards from my front door, it might as well have been in California, especially with both of my parents at work.
To this day I’m not sure where it came from. Where I got the balls to find my voice and speak up. But speak up I did, pushing my glasses up on my sweaty nose:
“Patrick, there are alternatives to fighting!”
It came out higher pitched than I’d meant. Perhaps with more than a hint of desperation.
But Patrick was so shocked at the depth of my utter dorkdom, my complete nerdiness, that he just stood there for a second as if slapped. Then he stepped back and LAUGHED! And faster than a toad snatching flies in the Okefenokee swamp, Patrick’s anger vanished. To save some face, he gave me a half-hearted shove, called me a ‘fucking retard’ or something equally clever, and stalked off. His buddies fell in line behind him, and they left me standing in the yard, backpack still at my feet.
For what it’s worth, I like to think Patrick channeled his anger into a productive pursuit - he was later a NCAA gymnastics champion who made the US National Team - though I’ve often wondered how many other victims didn’t find their voice and were intimidated along the way.
That Fall afternoon cracked open a door of possibility for me: I didn't have to be the stereotypical glasses wearing, socially uncomfortable, nerdy kid. I could speak up for myself and let my personality shine through. And a few years later when my parents divorced and my mom and I moved to a new school district, I seized the opportunity to create a new extroverted, outgoing Ben. And in the years that followed, while playing high school and college football, I kept an eye out for signs of bullying and discrimination by my peers. Because I knew firsthand that everyone deserves to have their voice heard.
PS - Of my many client commissioned projects over the years, I'm quite proud of producing and directing a 70 minute informational bullying awareness and prevention DVD that included bullying reenactment scenes, counseling, and self-defense tactics.