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The World of the Bullies

I attended Junior High School in Los Altos, a posh little community located in Northern California, in a region today known as Silicon Valley. The school was called Egan Junior High School. It encompassed 7th and 8th grade. I didn’t care for the place, even though we had it pretty good. I remember feeling apprehensive much of the time. My clothes didn’t fit me well. And the clothes I wore were not in style. I remember being afraid of certain boys who were seen as tough guys. I remember one such tough guy when I was in the 8th grade. I can’t recall his name at the moment, but I can see his face. . . He and his 7th grade younger brother had transferred to Egan Jr. High after living in New York – and I wasn’t sure if that meant somewhere in the state of New York, or if it meant New York City. Somehow I heard a rumor that he was after me for some imagined infraction I had committed. I kept a pocket knife on me at that time. On one occasion when I saw him from a distance marching in my direction, I pulled out the pocket knife, opened up the blade, and pretended I was cutting a loose thread from my shirt. When he got close enough to notice I was holding a knife, he said, “Put away the knife, Norwood!” I feigned innocence: “Why?” I asked. That led to a verbal altercation but did not lead to any physical violence. The matter dropped after that.

That wasn’t my first experience with a bully. In fact, in my formative years, at about age 4 or 5, I attended a nursery school (what is now known as a “pre-school” for pre-kindergarteners). It was held at a local Methodist Church. One of my classmates, Chris Long, lived in my neighborhood, two blocks away. One day I made the decision to go pay a visit to a family we were close to – the Miller family. I guess at age 4 or 5, it was not seen as unusual in that idyllic time for me to walk out the front door and walk the two blocks to the Miller’s home just to drop in and say hello. The Miller’s lived right next door to Chris Long, and I would pass Chris’ home before coming to the Miller’s home. On this one occasion, as I started to pass Chris’ home, it happened that Chris was outside in front of his house. His parents were nowhere to be seen. For reasons I did not understand, Chris, upon seeing me, became physically violent and began hitting me repeatedly. I had never been hit before by anyone and the entire thing was foreign and shocking to me. I did not hit back. I did not know how to hit back, and the concept of defending myself from physical attack was years away from being introduced to me. To make matters worse, some “bigger boys” (probably ages 7 or 8) were across the street from Chris’ house and as they saw Chris pummeling me with his fists, those bigger boys shouted encouragement to Chris, cheering him on with shouts of “Punch him, Chris! Pound him, Chris! That’s it! Beat him up, Chris!” So those shouts of encouragement to Chris were about as unsettling to me as was the physical assault I was experiencing. I started to see the world as a dangerous place, with unexpected calamities coming from someone I considered a playmate at Nursery School. I never made it to the Miller’s house. Instead, I turned and walked home, sobbing and bewildered.

In between my experience at Egan Junior High and the incident with Chris Long at age 4 or 5, I was on the receiving end of bullying many other times. I remember when I was riding my bike to Portola Elementary School, at about age 8 or 9, I passed by some boys from the school who were in one grade above me. There were three of them, but the leader of the pack was Mike Foley. They all had high-powered sling shots, and they fired rocks at me as I rode by, with two of them hitting me, one in the back of the head, and one hitting my wrist. I peddled faster to get away from them, but they all got on their bikes and rode after me. I made it to the entrance located at the back of the school and rode my bike through the entire campus with Mike Foley still in hot pursuit (the other two boys giving up the chase). I rode my bike right out of the front entrance of the school and onto the residential streets, turning back into a property of a church (a Church I would eventually become a member of many years later) and rode back towards some houses right behind that church. I saw an elderly man standing outside of his home. He must have been in his 70s. I rode right up to him, seeking refuge and protection from Mike Foley who was still after me. Mike rode up on his bike, saw me with the old man, and put his bike down on the ground, then walked right up to me, drew his slingshot, pulling the rubber launcher all the way back, and shot a rock directly into my right eye, then got back on his bike and rode away. The pain and shock, and the damage to my eye, caused me to scream. The old man examined me and said, “That boy has drawn blood to your eye and you are going to need medical attention.” But for some reason, the old man did nothing more to help. I was too injured to ride my bike so I walked it back to my house, crying the whole way. My parents took my to the hospital where I received treatment, and I had to wear an eye patch. The damage was permanent, and just a few weeks ago, during a routine eye exam for new glasses, my eye doctor took high-resolution images of my eyes, and she pointed out the scar-tissue that was very evident in my right eye. She asked me what had happened to cause such damage to my eye. And I remembered the Mike Foley incident, something I hadn’t thought about very much over the years.

There were other incidents, which extended into high school, into college, and even into graduate school.

People can be bullies at almost any age, even well into adulthood.

Why do they do it?

I think I know. I believe it is a combination of their own deep-seated insecurities combined with their perceptions of weakness in others. With Mike Foley, I suspect he was a very unhappy kid at that time and took a “kill or be killed” approach to life. But I’m also certain that Mike saw in me weakness. He sensed I would be a hapless victim, and he was correct.

Would such bullying succeed against me currently? Not a chance. Why not? Because one thing I have discovered about bullies is that a typical bully doesn’t do so well when they are stood up to. Bullies are actually rather weak themselves, but they shield themselves from being found out by taking preemptive measures to attack other individuals they perceive to be easy prey. This seems to be common throughout nature and happens in the animal world as well.

But I have learned to stand up to bullies. I have learned how to be confrontational towards bullies. And by confronting bullies, I have watched as a consistent pattern emerges: upon being stood up to, their house of cards collapses. They are actually quite weak. Even on occasions where they are armed. I have read many a story where a bully who is a lawless criminal seeks to gain entry into a house to rob and steal. The bully is armed. And sometimes, the targeted victim, the homeowner, is also armed and is not afraid to shoot. In almost every instance, the moment the targeted victim shoots back, the bully who broke into the home runs for his life. This is an extreme example, but it’s a metaphor for what happens in everyday life. Stand up to a bully with confidence and decisiveness, and the cocky persona fades quickly.

One last story to illustrate my point. A number of years ago, back in Los Altos, and right up the street from where Portola Elementary School used to be located (the school was shuttered in the 1970s and houses were built on that land) is a Jack in the Box restaurant. And one evening I pulled my car into the Drive-Through lane to place an order for some fast food. For some reason, the person who was to take my order was not speaking into their microphone, probably busy with some other task. So as I waited there with my window down, I heard some commotion coming from the far side of the restaurant parking lot. Eventually coming into my direct line of sight was a man and a woman. The man appeared to be kind of a big guy, standing at about 6 foot 2 inches or so. The woman was pretty. They appeared to be a couple – not married, but boyfriend and girlfriend. The man was hostile and was yelling at the woman. The man happened to look in my direction and saw I was staring in their direction. He turned back to the woman and demanded she get into his car. She refused. He then lunged at her and grabbed her by the arm and started screaming at her. It was at that moment that I opened my car door, undid my seatbelt, put my car in park, and walked briskly towards the couple. I called out to the man, “Take your hands off the lady, pal.” He in turn ordered me to get back in my car if I know what’s good for me.

I continued to walk decisively in his direction. Seeing that, he let go of the woman and ran towards me. I saw him as a bully, and I wasn’t the least bit intimidated, although I had no idea how this would turn out. When he got to me, he grabbed both sides of my neck with both of his hands, and squeezed tight, digging his fingernails into my neck. He then violently yanked me to one side and attempted to throw his knee into my groin. Fortunately I sidestepped his attempt, causing him to miss his target. I then placed both of my hands behind his head and I instinctively head-butted him in the nose, twice, hearing bone crack apart, and causing him to release his grip from my neck, as he put his hands up to his now badly broken nose, which was bleeding profusely. I then threw five quick punches into his face, a few of them connecting solidly into his already broken nose. Blood went flying, all over him and all over me. The bully backed away from me and hastily retreated into his car, with his girlfriend staring at me in disbelief and apologizing profusely to me.

What happened next was very telling.

The bleeding, beaten bully, seeing me speaking to his girlfriend, came out of his car a changed man. As soon as he stood up, I put my fists up again, ready to continue the bludgeoning. He put his hands up in a defensive position and said to me, “No more! No more fighting!” Now he turned to his girlfriend. He was no longer ordering her to get in his car; he was pleading: “Please, just get in the car. Look what I’ve gone through for you. Please just get in the car.”

She looked at me and apologized again, and I reassured her that she need not apologize, but I told her, “If I were you, I wouldn’t get in that car with him.”

But she did, and they drove off. I felt as though a gland in my neck had burst where he had grabbed me, as I felt a sort of burning sensation on the inside of my neck. But my hunch about bullies being cowards, being weak, was confirmed.

So standing up to bullies is almost always going to result in the bully backing down, because bullies are repelled by perceived strength, and animated by perceived weakness.

An important lesson to remember in this day and age.

Ara Norwood is a multi-faceted and results-oriented professional. Spanning a multiplicity of disciplines including leadership, management, innovation, strategy, service, sales, business ethics, and entrepreneurship. Ara is also a historian, having special expertise on the era of the founding of our republic.
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