I was fairly lucky as a kid as far as bullying went. In my family, I was the baby and the relatively “spoiled” one. My brothers were 9 and 8 years older than me, respectively. While I was frequently at loggerheads with one of my brothers, our conflicts never came to blows. I have a vague, doubtable, childish memory of enlisting my other brother to physically fight that brother on my behalf. My parents were never abusive to me in any way whatsoever. They were both very loving and for all the time they spent verbally ripping each other apart, they never treated me cruelly, selfishly, or discouragingly.
I do remember vaguely, the feeling of being stuck on occasions with strange, ominous kids and having no choice in the matter and feeling very uncomfortable. But ultimately, I don’t remember anything really bad going down.
When I was in 7th Grade in a middle school where 8th Graders were the oldest kids, the most notorious bully among the 8th Graders once pushed me from behind while everyone was running in gym class. I just kept on running. That’s about the extent of the physical fights I was in in school.
Several summers I attended a summer day camp. I remember there being a lot of tensions with other kids, though I have completely forgotten about what in almost all cases. That was the one place I had to endure a malicious derived nickname that became common usage. They called me “Finckletoes”.
But I did spend one week of my childhood being really terrified and feeling really unsafe. It was when I was 13 and volunteered for the first time to be a “G-Man” at the Christian camp where I would spend a few weeks each summer. This camp was kind of a ramshackle affair. The counselors were typically a combination of Bible college students who toured the country volunteering at camps and random volunteer adults from Long Island churches with no particular qualifications for working with kids necessary.
The camp weeks were each devoted to a different age group. There were a pair of weeks for elementary school kids of different ages, a week for middle school aged kids, and then a week for high schoolers. If you were 13 or older and a boy, you could be a “G-Man” for a week of camp with kids younger than you. If you were a girl teenager you could be a dishwasher. I thought of the term G-Man as meaning “groundsman” but apparently everyone else thought it meant “garbage man”. We were the ones who would clean all the bathrooms, mop and sweep the floors, clean up the grounds, assist the counselors with logistics of setting up the props for games, etc. G-Men who were older, stronger, and/or better with their hands were given more sophisticated building or repair projects to work on.
Being a G-Man had a kind of glamour to it. They were almost always older than the campers and they had freedoms the campers didn’t. G-Men were mostly unsupervised and did whatever they wanted when off duty. The G-Men were not typically the most devoutly religious of kids. They were kids who loved the refuge of camp but didn’t necessarily buy into its religious indoctrination and intensity. And sometimes they were the camp bullies who carried out a sort of hazing role. They would be surly with the campers, give them wedgies, and be unsympathetic taskmasters when punished kids were assigned to doing chores for penance under their supervision.
I was a very well-behaved, religious, sheltered, sensitive, good natured kid who was spoiled with love from his family. And I didn’t have a physically aggressive bone in my body, was physically fearful, and excessively risk averse. I never learned to ride a bike because I knew that involved falling off and scraping up a few times and wanted to avoid any injuries whatsoever. It didn’t help when one of my few experiments in growing in physical courage and doing something that seemed dangerous to me (climbing a dome shaped metal playground set at 9 years old) ended with a somewhat serious injury (the loss of a permanent tooth).
I also had a strong consciousness of being a physical weakling that pervaded my sense of self when I was little. I was small, thin, slow, and had little power. So there was no way I felt confident getting into fights with anybody. I was completely comfortable letting other kids thump their chests if they wanted and just walking away. And I was the lucky kind of kid who didn’t get chased down and beaten up anyway when I did that.
Though I was talkative and outgoing on one level, I was also naturally sedentary and introverted and spent a ton of time alone, lost in my imagination or in introspection. After my two closest friends moved out of my neighborhood within a couple years early in elementary school, I had trouble forging new close friendships. I didn’t understand how making plans with other kids worked and was mostly content being alone. I spent a lot of time writing stories and dreaming up imaginary baseball games so that I could practice being a broadcaster. This was typical of me as a kid. My intense love of baseball made me dream of talking about the sport for a living, not playing it.
So my first week as a G-Man, I was essentially too sensitive and innocent a thirteen year old kid to be assigned to room with and work under the older G-Men. The two oldest and most dominant of the G-Men that week were 17 and 16 years old, respectively. They were physically and mentally much more mature than I was and they spent our first sit down conversation scaring the crap out of me and the other kid my age. They threatened a severe, week long hazing worthy of fraternity initiation. They took particular relish in threatening me because one of my older brothers had been a G-Man who had broken in one of them several years earlier.
I was terrified out of my mind.
Particularly ominous was the threat that I “not drop the soap in the shower”. These were communal showers with no dividers. Boys showering naked with other boys. Showering like that was already a huge source of anxiety for me at that age as I was mortified about the prospect of being seen and judged negatively in the nude by other kids. Now there was this threat that I don’t think I fully understood but nonetheless feared was horrendous. It was not until 20 years later that it would dawn on me to name this for what it was—a rape threat. It was one of the most terrifying experiences for me. I wound up waking especially early every day so that I could always shower alone before the others even awoke. In retrospect, I don’t think they would have done anything so severe as what they were teasingly threatening, but I was unnerved at the time nonetheless.
At the end of the week, for enduring so much psychological torment, they and the nice nurse for the week who had been a source of solace throughout the week to me patronizingly created a “G-Man of the Week” award to make it up to me and to congratulate me on surviving. I knew it was a fairly condescending gesture but appreciated the gesture of niceness nonetheless.
I came back as a G-Man again the next year. This time mostly with peers but the previous year’s tormenting 16 year old was back. This time he was arranging games of spin the bottle that made me supremely uncomfortable. All this indiscriminate kissing went against my principles of sexual purity. I begrudgingly would accept kisses and had a few embarrassing moments confused over whether I was supposed to be kissing or being kissed. Most of the dishwashers we were playing with were girls from my church who I grew up with and were essentially some of the closest people I had to sisters. Each time we were sent outside to make out, I would refuse to do any kissing but just tour around the building with them. Only when an older, seventeen year old, girl I hardly knew took me by surprise on one of these trips outside did I get my first open mouth kiss. Later, we were sent outside again and I was a far more willing participant. But afterwards I denied to the others anything happened and they believed me over her, which bugged her.
In high school, the only bullying I received was a lot of mockery of my opposition to abortion. My outspoken evangelical Christianity and opposition to premarital sex did not themselves directly subject me to ridicule that I remember. If it did, I blew it off and forgot it completely because I was so certain I was right and they were simply wrong and their negative opinion was not worth worrying about. I had a strong, generalized sense that as evangelical Christians we were inherently always being persecuted by the culture at large. This was relentlessly inculcated in me by all manner of evangelical media. On a personal level, this strong sense of minority identity and the sense that there was a fundamental divide between my beliefs and values and those of my peers, did create a barrier of alienation between me and them. But it never was expressed in outward hostilities either by me or them.
All in all, I managed, very luckily, to evade bullies and physical fights pretty well growing up. My mom said that even as a small child all she had to do was threaten to hit me and I would cry, so she never actually did so. The only bullies who really terrorized me wound up only pulling a few perfunctory pranks on me before themselves finding it pointless—since I was so pathetic. While I think taking (or giving) a few lumps and surviving them may have taught me a little more about my potential strengths, I think I was far better off not being conditioned by abusers to see the world only in the dialectics of abuse and become an abuser myself.
For all my lack of physical courage and aversion to physical pain, I was, on the other hand, unabashed about expressing myself. I was always inordinately willing to speak my mind and make my emotions clear. I was resilient in persevering emotionally through all sorts of betrayals and rejections and losses in my life. I was capable of a great deal of introspection and self-criticism, was good at laughing at myself, and was ultimately able to treat the most core parts of my identity as matters for severe philosophical honesty, no matter how painful the result of that would be.
More posts reflecting on my childhood and teenage years: