My kids' school principal has asked me to found a local chapter of WatchDogs.
Basically, it's a program that gets dads volunteering at school to help out in class and stop bullying. Don't go assigning virtue to me, though: I volunteer a lot because it's an easy way to make friends and, frankly, the PTA moms don't talk about sports as much as I'd like them to, so I'm doing this mainly to get more guys to hang out with.
This week, I've decided to take a stroll through my own memories of bullying. Please note: Even though I wasn't bullied very much, I do realize that it's an extremely critical problem for many students, ranking in importance right alongside teaching how to have sex safely and teaching how to play dodgeball unsafely. So if I come off as not giving this subject enough gravitas, please forgive me.
I wasn't really the focus of too much bullying, which is super weird because I was a nerdy, emotional freak. For most of my childhood, I felt empathy for the tyrants of the blacktop. Oh, you're from a broken home? I'm from a broken home! You are mad at the world? I'm mad at the world, too! Let's go be mad at the world together, I've got a stash of matchbooks!
That was the attitude I brought every time someone tried to pick on me. I'd had this approach ever since fourth grade, when there was... an incident.
From an early age I figured out that suburban Northern California life was not for me, and my way out was through academia. So, elementary-school-me just wanted to catch the school bus home and hit the books.
I lived next to a military base, and while most military kids are polite and super nice, the messed up ones are a hormonal Chernobyl. One large sixth grader who rode the same bus developed a habit of sneaking a book out of my backpack whenever I wasn't paying attention (which was always). He would give it back to me in the morning, beaming with pride that he... I don't know, had some sort of effect on the universe, I guess.
If I caught him and tried to get him to stop, he would push or punch me. Again, pretty light as far as bullying goes, but for 8-year-old Evan "Drunk Nerds" Hoovler, it would not do. No, it just would not do at all. Not having a book at home meant I couldn't study or do the homework, which meant I might miss the chance at learning whatever fact it was which would get me out of town and into a bustling metropolis for college (turns out that fact was, "If you use the side of a mattress as a fulcrum, you can get it up on to your shoulder pretty easily." I didn't even learn that in school, I learned it on my first day as stockboy of a mattress warehouse which I used to pay my rent in college. Why isn't that in every physics textbook?)
Faced with this stolen textbook dilemma, I did what I always did in times of stress: I tried to rely on my brain. I went home, and during the time I was supposed to be studying whatever book had been taken away that day, I went into the mental tank.
I asked myself, what was my most powerful tool? I certainly couldn't use leverage to lift the guy up onto my shoulder, as I had not yet received that training. I realized my most powerful asset was writing: When I tried to stutter out a statement, no one cared. But when I wrote, people listened. Or people read, or whatever verb goes there (WORDS ARE HARD, OKAY!?).
With that in mind, I concluded that my best bet was to concoct an insult so biting that it would utterly destroy him. Something so shameful, yet shrewd, that it would cause a wave of hurt to crash over my bully, causing him severe emotional pain and ruffling his hair.
But in order to throw such a verbal haymaker, I needed to get inside my target's head. Every day at lunch I researched: I would hang out near the sixth grade boys to learn what they were most sensitive about. It didn't take long before I figured out the thing most sixth grade boys were severely impressionable about was the opinions of sixth grade girls.
With that knowledge secure in my brain, I set about my new task: Figuring out what topic was the most emotionally charged to sixth grade girls. I started eating my lunch near the sixth grade girls, and I learned that the subject they were the most touchy about was puberty.
I had it: I would create an insult that referenced puberty in a disgusting way and serve it up to my tormentor in front of a gaggle of tween ladies. Now, I just had one more task: I had to learn everything about puberty, a completely mystifying topic for a boy whose only brush with manhood was keeling over once after a dodgeball hit me in the testicles.
I'm glad Google didn't exist back then, because I probably would have found some really disturbing misinformation. Instead, I turned to the 26-book Columbia Encyclopedia my parents had purchased one volume at a time at a grocery store in the 1970s. It was no longer even close to the 1970s, but I decided to take the chance that there wasn't some big overhaul in a woman's reproductive system since then.
I learned all about girls' changing bodies. I learned all about menstruation. When it came to finding something disgusting to craft an insult around, I had more than enough material.
I wanted the insult to have two parts: The first part would be an object that symbolized puberty for girls, the second part would be something super gross about the changes going on to all their various parts. I weighed each candidate in terms of magnitude. I wrote about a dozen different menstruation related words on flashcards so I could rearrange them for best effect. My mom would be very confused and concerned when she later found those flashcards under my bed. I finally found the combo that I felt would strike the mightiest blow. It would be tubular, a word which after school cartoons had taught me was the way cool kids said "epic" in those days.
Soon, on a crisp Fall afternoon, I walked up to the boy mischievously clutching my Macmillan English book, took a deep breath, and loudly declared that he was acting like a "douche clot."
It didn't really play out the way I envisioned it. In my mind, there would be a pause, then a burst of laughter as every single sixth-grade girl roared a huge guffaw at his expense. There would be much finger-pointing. The bully would recoil in horror and shame, and would also be covered with blood like in Carrie for no real reason. The school principal would proudly stride out of the office and raise my hand in the air, declaring me the victor. President Reagan would then pull up in a limousine and make me Poet Laureate.
But, instead, there were just a few snickers. He tossed my book in the gutter and went off somewhere else. He would never mess with my books again, so I achieved my goal. Still, the whole affair felt disappointing, I had wished it to be so much bigger.
I would regret that wish.
One thing I didn't know was that sixth grade girls talk. Through a network of bathroom whispering, "douche clot" soon entered the Lynwood Elementary School lexicon. It actually became the guy's nickname, a moniker which followed him into junior high school the next year. Believe it or not, being known as "douche clot" does not get you into the upper social circles of the 7th-8th grades.
When I heard he was still being called douche clot, I felt a twinge of regret, but didn't really think too much of it. We all get horrid nicknames in grade school, and we all deal with it and the myriad of other torturous pubescent rituals in our own unique ways.
His unique way of dealing with this came when he was in 8th grade. He broke into a friend's house, drank all their beer, got a handgun from an unlocked gun case, and killed himself.
Now, looking back, I obviously did not cause his story to end that way. For all I know, the nickname hadn't followed him into 7th grade, that could have just been false reporting by the wishful-thinking people I knew who went to school with him. Someone having such a violent and self-destructive episode was definitely not caused by a silly two-word insult flung at him years before.
But 6th grade me didn't have that wisdom about how the world works. 6th grade me felt like I had taken that gun and pulled the trigger myself.
6th grade me had a bit of a delusion of grandeur when it came to my writing ability.
From then on, I had a preponderance of compassion for bullies. Attempts to steal my lunch usually ended up with both of us out in the woods breaking stuff, swearing loudly, and doing that amazingly cool thing where you tape a lit candle to an aerosol can so it sprays fire. From this I was able to directly observe the messed up home conditions that can cause students to manifest their despair in the form of bullying. I gradually came to realize that my "douche clot" insult really wasn't the cause of that suicide at all. It didn't bother me, any more. In fact, I hadn't thought about the incident in years.
My kids' school principal has asked me to found a local chapter of WatchDogs, which has led me down memory road to see if any of my experience can help me better solve bullying. Sadly, I think the answer to that question is, "no." I can't bond with them over weird life circumstances. I'm gonna guess I can't take them out to the woods and start fires.
I think I'm just going to have to let this one go. I won't have the tools for wellness checks or interventions that a school administrator has. I won't be a school administrator, I'll just be a dad standing in the hallway at recess wearing a dorky shirt that says "Top Dog" on it.
Aw, who am I kidding? I'm going to love that shirt.
It's going to embarrass my kids so much.
Evan "Drunk Nerds" Hoovler has a new book, Teaching with Comedy, published by Kaplan. He and two other goons co-own the fantasy football comedy conglomerate, Football Absurdity. He has a weekly column on SomethingAwful.com, and wants to be your Facebook friend.
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