A Bully Message: A Reflection on How to Stop It!

Bullying dominates many discussions lately. A new movie, numerous public service announcements, and various campaigns to stop the madness have caught my attention. I feel the need to figure out how to stop it – because it is senseless violence against innocent people. All this has brought home a childhood experience related to bullying.

In the 5th grade, my family moved from Lee’s Summit, Missouri to Ruskin Heights – a suburb of Kansas City. My mother enrolled me into the Stuart Symington Elementary School. A new building, I recall and all the children looked alike. During my first recess, I noticed very quickly that there was a playground bully. Perry Sewell was a big kid that enjoyed intimidating the boys and chasing the girls. On the second day of school, he brushed by me and gave me an intimidating bump on the arm that was a warning – “Don’t mess with me.” So, I didn’t. By the fourth day, however, I could no longer ignore his comments and aggressive behavior.
That evening, as was my habit, I accompanied my father to his workshop in the garage. I told him I thought I would have to fight Perry Sewell and why. My dad, part of the “greatest generation” – the generation that fought World War II, asked me if I had any other choice. “No”, I said. “I don’t think I can beat him and he is going to beat me up.” My dad was quiet for a long time and then said, “You may not be able to beat him son, but you can stop him.” I asked how? My dad showed me a very slick move that would allow me to get Perry Sewell into a headlock and never let go. My dad said, “You must move very fast and you must surprise him. Once you have him in the headlock, squeeze tightly and when you feel him relaxing, and you feel up to it – hit him in the face with your free hand. Don’t let go!” He went on to say, “As long as you hold on son, he won’t be able to escape – Hold On!”

The next day at morning recess, without any hesitation, I walked up to Perry Sewell and wrapped my arm around his neck and squeezed as tightly as I could. I had him – he could not escape. Twice, he relaxed and twice I punched him in the face with my free hand. By the time the teachers broke us up, he was crying like a baby. I was sent to my classroom and Perry Sewell was sent to the nurse.

About a half hour later, I was summoned to the principal’s office and as I walked in I could see my mother. She had a slight grin on her face, but I knew I was in trouble. The principal said in no uncertain terms, “Jimmy, they may have allowed fighting at your previous school but we don’t allow it at Symington Elementary.” He then issued this warning, “The next time you are in a fight, you will receive five swats from this paddle.” The paddle was made of oak and had holes in it to prevent wind resistance as it moves towards your butt. “Do you understand?” he asked. “Yes sir,” I responded. “You may go back to your class.” As I moved toward the door, he said, “Jimmy, by the way, thanks.” I was a little confused, but my mom explained later that I had done him and the rest of the school a favor by silencing Perry Sewell. And silence him it did. When he saw me on the playground, he would run away. My classmates all appreciated my intervention; I never saw Perry Sewell bully another kid

While I am not proposing my solution as a model, I am suggesting that we must do more to inform and empower the children in our schools to do their own interventions. Depending on adults to solve these issues is unrealistic. To be sure, we need clear punishments, we need zero-tolerance policies, and we need interventions that remove the conditions that invite bullying. We need teen courts to adjudicate these infractions – often more severe than adult courts. However, empathic and bold action by peers when they see bullying will silence the young “thugs” that think they can get by with it. Peer pressure is an important piece of any anti-bullying campaign. Peer mediation programs, conflict resolution strategies, use self esteem building programs, and create an environment where it is simply “un-cool” to intimidate or threaten your peers. There are strategies that work and nobody should have to face this challenge alone.

Use these strategies and teach your kids that it is a good thing to side with the persecuted and abused. Tell them to collectively speak out against the bully and if all else fails – try the headlock.

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