New Release – Jam Night

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Jam NightAbout a year ago, I wrote a short story inspired by things that were going on at the time. There had been some Internet bullying of indie authors, so I worked out some demons by writing a fictional story informed by my time in junior high. I can’t say by any stretch that I enjoyed junior high (with the exception of Mr. Henry’s Geography class and my 8th grade band trip to Michigan), but my experiences developed who I am.

Who am I?

I am a person who was bullied. Even now, over 20 years later, when I write that statement, my heart hesitates. Even admitting it makes me wonder if someone will retaliate against me. You might scoff, but that fear still runs through me to this day.

I was going through my blog the other day and found the story I’d posted, which I called Jam Night. I read through it, dusted it off a little, tightened up the wording and added a few hundred words to the narrative. It isn’t a long story — coming in just under 2,500 words, but it is one I needed to tell. I don’t care if anyone buys it or even reads it, but I wanted to put it out there for anyone who might be going through a tough time at school, or in their personal life with bullies. It is a trite saying, but it does get better. The first couple years of high school were no treat, either, but I can honestly say that a small group of friends made my final few years in high school some of my favorite memories.

Ultimately, writing the story helped me to tackle a few of my own demons left over from junior high. Will I ever be rid of all of the demons? I doubt it, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe those demons are there to remind me what it’s like to be on the side of the bullied. As an adult, it’s easy to say kids should just “suck it up,” but for them, the fear can be crippling and debilitating. I hope this story can at least help one person in that regard.

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On Middle School Misery

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I’ve posted a few times here about bullying. It was a major part of my adolescence and now I know it was a significant part of many other peoples’ as well. I can’t just forget about it, but John Green takes a good look at it and shows there are more sides to it than just “bully” and “the bullied” and also how the teen years, which are billed in society so many times as the “BEST YEARS OF YOUR LIFE” are often the weirdest, strangest, and most awkward. If you are bullied, please remember life is great after you turn 20 and it will continue to get better if you let it.

Bullying Incognito

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote a short story and posted here. The story was not all autobiographical, but there were certainly elements that happened almost word for word from my junior high days. Most notably was the final scene where Scott tries to stand up for himself to the bully Randy Weber. I’ll come back to that in just a bit. 

But let’s switch gears slightly and talk about Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, offensive linemen for the Miami Dolphins. I follow sports, especially football and this has been getting a lot of attention this week. Let’s break it down. 

The story first came to light last week when Martin suddenly left the Dolphins. The first media reports noted an “emotional breakdown” and the football team claimed he had an “illness” at the time, but there was clearly more to the story. Over the course of a few days, it came out that Richie Incognito had been harassing Martin. Here is a voicemail left by Incognito to Martin back in April:

Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of [expletive] . . . I saw you on Twitter, you been training ten weeks. [I want to] [expletive] in your [expletive] mouth. [I’m going to] slap your [expletive] mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face (laughter). [Expletive] you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.

That apparently was just the tip of the iceberg with verified text messages showing similar slurs and threats. We can only imagine what Richie Incognito did in person. But, apparently the stress of it got so bad that Martin felt the only way out was to simply quit. This is a man who was a 2nd Round draft pick last year by the Miami Dolphins, making millions of dollars to play a game who decides the best course of action is to quit. 

I heard Dan Le Betard from ESPN Radio and based in Miami say something great about this. There are a lot of people saying that Martin should have stood up for himself, perhaps just punched Incognito in the face. Perhaps. Le Betard said that this man — a Stanford graduate — looked at his options and felt that his best option was to quit the football team and endure personal and national shame as a quitter. That shows how bad things got. 

Should he have gone to the coaching staff with his complaints? Could he have stood up for himself? 

Let’s take a look at both of those questions. 

The Miami Dolphins don’t have team captains, but named a six-player “leadership team” before the season began. Incognito was one of the representatives on that leadership team. Another media report surfaced that the Miami coaches personally asked Incognito to “toughen up” Martin. If that’s the case, any complaint he had would have fallen on deaf ears. The coaches already had a perception that Martin was weak. Any complaints by him towards a player attempting to “toughen him up” would have been perceived the same way. 

As for standing up for himself, I’m going to bring it back to that story I wrote last week, which mirrors a moment from my junior high years. I was bigger than the bully (in the story named Randy Weber — thankfully I don’t remember my bully’s name from junior high) and theoretically had no reason to fear him. But I did. Bullies have a way of inducing fear and logic is tossed out the window. On a Friday night in 7th grade, I was at the school with a couple hundred other kids at a dance/activity function. Randy was playing ball and was bullying me every chance I got. Finally, I did stick my foot out as he was running past me and he tripped, falling to the floor. 

I didn’t know what to do next, but tried to stand up for myself. Unfortunately, that also included Randy punching me in the stomach. 

And yes, I did have a friend who diffused the situation, but the bullying didn’t end that night. It continued through that entire school year and well into 8th grade as well. Just because you stand up once doesn’t mean it’ll stop. Not by any means. And bullies are really well versed in the art of deception and hiding (which is why I find Incognito’s name SO appropriate in this instance). 

There was another time in junior high where a bully was trying to trip me from behind in the hallway. I tried to stop it by turning around quickly, swinging by backpack to hit him. The principal didn’t see the tripping, but did see by backpack swing. Guess who was disciplined? 

I’m not in any way trying to compare junior high to a professional football team, but those people who think it’s so easy to just “stand up for yourself” or to go to the coach, don’t understand bullying. They don’t understand the fear that grips a person and the helplessness they feel. Even for a guy who stands 6’5″ and weighs 312 pounds — it isn’t always that easy. 

Bullying is bullying, no matter what age. It doesn’t stop in junior high — it just takes on different forms. 

 

Jam Night — a short story

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about bullying, and decided to share a fictional story that is very autobiographical in many respects. I haven’t posted fiction here before, but I thought you guys might enjoy this short story. 

Standing at the top of the three-point line, Scott kicked his right foot just a bit. It was just eight inches out in front of the left foot, but it was enough. The thought of what he was doing – what might actually happen, thrilled and scared him at the same time.

Scott waited in the middle of the junior high basketball court, holding one of the burnt orange leather balls, which bounced all around him. He wasn’t dressed to play – no one was, really. It was a Friday night and Scott had begrudgingly decided to attend Jackson Junior High Jam Night – a dance and activity night rolled into one event held once every couple months.

The last time – the only time – Scott had attended Jam Night, he’d stood against the wall in the cafeteria, too awkward and shy to find his way onto the dance floor. Definitely too uncoordinated to show off the dance moves he’d left in his basement at home.

Some friends of his – at least he hoped they were his friends – had encouraged Scott to come to the Jam Night. With his older sister hosting a slumber party, Scott ultimately chose the least awkward choice and had his mom drop him off at the school’s entrance just before 7 p.m.

As his mother drove away, Scott had the sudden urge to run after the family minivan, get back in, and take his lumps from the high school aged girls back at home. But Scott resisted, putting one foot in front of the other as the front doors of the junior high loomed in front of him.

The bass of the music was already thrumming through Scott even with the doors closed to the school’s cafeteria. Jump by Kriss Kross came blaring through the cracks between the doors and as if to emphasize the tune, Scott saw two classmates emerge from the cafeteria into the hallway with their jeans on backwards.

To calm his nerves, Scott found the snack table, picking up a few cookies and a cup of red punch.

“Hey Scott!”

Quickly turning around, Scott spilled some of the red fruit punch on his jeans. Great. Here five minutes and I’m already embarrassing myself. He looked up from the red splotches on the front of his jeans and sees Garrett walking in the front door. Sitting next to Garrett every day in band led to a natural friendship, but Scott was still a little wary of almost everyone in the school. He’d only been here four months so far after years in a previous state.

“Hi Garrett,” Scott muttered before turning his attention back to his pants.

Garrett sees the damage, realizing his greeting caused the spill. “Oh boy…sorry! I bet dabbing that with some warm water might help.”

The two boys headed to the nearest bathroom and did their best to clean the red spots off Scott’s jeans. Not only did Garrett’s solution not work, it only made the stains worse, giving Scott the appearance of wetting himself.

“Great. I didn’t even want to come – now I’m going to look stupid,” Scott said with resignation.

Scott slid down the tile wall opposite the sinks, more than willing to stay in the bathroom the rest of the evening. Garrett stood back, leaning against the edge of the porcelain sink. The look on his face is blank at first, but soon he has a quizzical look before he heads to the bathroom door.

“Hold on, Scott. I’ll be right back,” Garrett said, bursting out of the restroom. Less than a minute later, Garrett was back, but his jeans were now spotted with red splotches of their own – matching the red fruit punch Scott had initially spilled on his own jeans. Without a word, Garrett went back to the sink, and splashed a handful of water on the stained jeans.

“There. If you were planning on being the best dressed here tonight, you’ve got another thing coming,” Garrett said to Scott with a mischievous smile.

That was all it took to get Scott up off the bathroom floor and out among his peers. The school, normally quiet as lessons and lectures went on behind the closed classroom doors, was buzzing with the electricity of young teens uninhibited with a weekend ahead of them. It was a chance to show off for your friends and classmates and to possibly make some new friends in the process.

Scott and Garrett went around the edges of the cafeteria, eventually ditching out on the dance floor and the girls who primarily inhabited it. They found the game room with a few dozen adolescents playing Chess, Checkers, Clue, Sorry! and Monopoly among others. All the tables were filled with other classmates waiting to play, so Scott and Garrett kept wandering.

That wandering eventually led them to the school’s basketball court, which was a chaotic mess of gangly teens trying to make moves like Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson. Scott wasn’t gifted athletically, but Garrett liked to play, so the two grabbed a ball and took to a smaller half-court towards the back of the gym. Finally, Scott was enjoying himself as he made a few baskets with Garrett gathering rebounds.

As the two continued to play, others filtered over and eventually more than 10 were on the court, which meant substitutions, putting Scott on the sidelines. He couldn’t blame Garrett. After all, Scott just couldn’t compete in sports like his new-found friend could. With no end in sight to the game, Scott grabbed a nearby ball and went to another half-court on the other side of the large gym.

Scott went in for a few lay-ups, working up a little bit of a sweat in the process and then the ball was knocked out of his hands.

“Ha! Way to go fatty!”

Randy Weber. The one kid in the school that wouldn’t let up on Scott even though Scott was far from a new kid after four months. He was easy pickings in the first few weeks of school after transferring from the western part of the United States, but had hoped that after four months kids like Randy would let up. He remembered the first time he met Randy in English class. Scott saw the kid’s nameplate on his desk and introduced himself.

“My name is Scott and you are Randy Weber?” Scott asked, pronouncing the boy’s last name like Wee-ber.

“What a moron. What kind of kids are they letting in to this school these days? The name’s Weber – like Webb-er. Doofus.”

Ever since that day, Scott tried to keep his distance from Randy, but they had four classes together. Keeping your distance was difficult when you had to sit near your tormentor every day. At Jam Night in the gymnasium, Scott didn’t know what to do, so he simply gathered up the basketball and went back for a few three-pointers as Randy kept walking. But, after a few three-point attempts, it was clear Randy wasn’t going to leave Scott alone when he swatted the ball out of Scott’s hands after a miss and chucked it across the gym with a maniacal laugh.

Once again, Scott took a loose ball nearby and went back to the top of the key. Out of the corner of his eye, he found Randy Weber running towards him as he prepared to shoot. Instead of shooting, he stuck out his foot and purposefully tripped the bully.

Down Randy went, face first on the slick gym floor, skidding for a bit. The entire gymnasium seemed to stop; all the action on the courts froze as Randy slowly stood back up and turned around. His nose was bleeding, a small trickle which had already reached his upper lip.

He closed the ground between himself and Scott quickly, or so it seemed to Scott who was incapable of movement during the entire process. He couldn’t believe what he’d done, even if it was just a few inches of his foot.

“You’re gonna be sorry you did that, fatty,” Randy said, his mouth just inches from Scott’s. Without waiting for a response, Randy balled up his right hand and sucker-punched Scott in the gut.

Immediately, Scott crumpled on the ground, never before hit with the force he’d suffered at Randy’s hand or hit with the humiliation Randy had hit him with, all at the same time. He closed his eyes, just hoping that Randy would go away – that the single punch would be enough to sate the beast within. Before he knew it, however, another voice came through.

“Leave him alone.”

Garrett.

Scott opened his left eye to see what was going on above him. Garrett had abandoned the pick-up game on the other court and was now between him and Randy. The sweat Garrett had accumulated over the past 20 minutes on the basketball court, shone on his brow like a helmet on a medieval knight. Randy reached over with both hands and shoved Garrett, hoping Scott’s prone figure behind him would trip him up. Scott scrambled out of the way, allowing Garrett to stumble without interference.

Scott got back on his feet and Garrett joins him as they stand against Randy.

“Just go away…find someone else to pick on, Randy,” Garrett said, putting his arm around Scott’s shoulders.

Randy looked around and found no allies. Backing up, he picked up a loose ball and threw it overhand. As it flew over the head of the two friends, the bully turned and walked out of the gym.

Garrett turned back to Scott. Somehow he knew Scott didn’t want to talk about it, but instead did the best thing he could.

“Come on – let’s go play ball,” Garrett said, leading Scott back to the court and starting a new game with Scott as his first choice. 

Confronting the Bullies

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Just the word itself – Bully – is enough to cause my heart to skip a beat. For me to get a little short of breath and to force myself not to run to the nearest bathroom stall to shake in fear.

I was bullied as a kid. Through portions of elementary school, junior high, and the early part of high school, I was the subject of many different torments, taunts, and teasing.

Why? I’ve asked that question millions of times throughout my life. At times I was the new kid – I moved from Michigan to Phoenix just before third grade and then again to the suburbs of Chicago after sixth grade. Easy pickings with no friends at the beginning of my tenure in Arizona and Illinois, for sure.

Perhaps it was because of my weight. I take after my father’s Scandinavian line – overweight, but not plagued with health issues. It took me a long time to accept my weight. Even today it is difficult for me to lose weight and I’ve decided it is so I can survive the long winters in Sweden and Norway. But, the size of your shirt makes a difference to bullies when you have to undress in front of each other in a junior high locker room.

I’m sure I could come up with some other reasons, but the end result was the same. The bully would get their words and jabs in and I would just have to suffer.

But why didn’t you stand up for yourself? (Those who have never suffered from bullying might ask.)

Here’s the thing – I did. At least a few times. But, I wasn’t skilled at hiding from teachers and evading their wandering eyes like the bullies were. Once I got tired of the bullying from a classmate in junior high and tripped the kid in the hallway. End result? I got a detention as the bully got away Scott-free. Other times I said something to a teacher, but it just made it worse when the offender was free again.

Lesson learned? Don’t tell. Don’t fight back. Endure the bullying and it will go away.

But….

I was wrong. You have to fight back or the bullies will get their way.

It took me a long time to get to this point. I’m 34 now. High school bullying pretty much ended for me about my junior year when I fully settled into my role as a high school band member. I played the saxophone and the rest of the band welcomed and accepted me. Strength in numbers kept the bullies away. Slowly my self-esteem rebounded and I now believe I am strong psychologically and emotionally. But, the memories of bullies still strike fear into my heart.

Now as a high school teacher, I do see some bullying and when I see it, I do my best to stop it. To be honest, there are moments when I – twice the bully’s age – are fearful they will turn the taunts right back on me. But, those moments are thankfully more fleeting than they used to be thanks to the love and acceptance of family and friends.

Let’s bring this back to writing now. A few days ago, Hugh Howey wrote a blog post about paying for book reviews. Apparently, an anonymous blog “outed” a number of authors who have allegedly paid for reviews and they were going forward with names. Howey was on that list along with a number of other successful indie authors. Hugh decided to stick up for himself, declaring he had never paid for any reviews.

(In a brief sidenote – I’ll make a similar declaration that I have also never paid for reviews on any of my books.)

In his post, Hugh noted of a time when he was in middle school and being bullied.

The most common advice given is silence, to just ignore it, and I have mostly heeded this advice. I have chickened out. It has left me feeling like I did in middle school, where I was regularly bullied. I remember pretending to be sick so I didn’t have to go to school and deal with a kid who once pointed a gun at my brother, pulled the trigger, and laughed when it clicked. A kid who pushed us into thorny bushes (why the hell do they plant those at schools?) and who roughed us up when anyone wasn’t looking. I really did feel sick most mornings. My stomach would twist up in knots, and I lived in constant terror that I’d be targeted on a whim. I was also afraid to stick up for anyone, because I didn’t want to be targeted. We all felt this way.

 I’m right there with you Hugh. Now, the anonymous site is striking back at Hugh, pointing at Hugh’s declaration, made on the memory of his deceased dog, Jolie, as a ruse. “Could anyone be more guilty?” they say.

More bullying tactics. As people are calling for proof and evidence, the bully comes right back with taunts, name calling, sarcasm, and…no proof. In fact, there are no responses on the blog post. I have at least one friend who said he tried to make one but the moderator of the site hasn’t approved it. Shocking.

Bullies don’t want to show both sides. That’s a job for professional journalists. Bullies with blogs are just looking for website traffic and sensationalism. Job achieved. You’ll notice I haven’t linked the blog in question. If you want to find it, you can, but I’ll not give it any more links than it deserves.

I told Hugh this morning, “Success breeds jealousy.” I saw this in school as well. My grades were another aspect that earned me ridicule and I now realize my place and success in life are points that my grade school bullies would likely be jealous of as they contemplate life from a jail cell.

If a bully picks on you, we don’t have to take it. It may seem like junior high all over again, but it isn’t. We have family and friends. What do they have? An anonymous blog with no proof. Desperate for approval. Don’t give it to them. Don’t give in.