“Judy Hubbel is a SKAG”
The words were penned at eye level in the girl’s bathroom at Westwood Junior High. As I sat quietly doing my business, those words were doing their business on me. “Judy” was my childhood nickname.
In the late 1960s in Central Florida, the term “SKAG” was as foul as calling as calling a woman today the “C-word.” It carried the same level of disgust, viciousness and intent to inflict harm.
One late afternoon during a social studies class, a note got surreptitiously delivered onto my desk.
It read: “Judy Hubbel is a SKAG,” ceremoniously signed by every single kid in the room, like a petition to get someone on the ballot. As in, Least Popular Kid in Junior High. The room twittered as I opened it and slid down in my desk seat trying to hide.
The only difference between bullying back then and bullying today is the delivery method. With social media providing umpteen more ways by which we slice open another human’s heart, it’s the same process, only on steroids. You get lots more of it. For kids, who are so susceptible to criticism from peers, it can be devastating.
I still remember how I felt reading those words. I’ve no idea what I’d done to deserve them. However, I was already an outlier, a farm girl who could lift a 100-lb barbell, run fast, and throw a perfect 40-yard spiral. I didn’t fit in. That’s simply asking to get bullied.
Now we just have more, and far more intense, ways to damage each other well into adulthood. It’s becoming the sport of choice for those with an axe to grind, who are afflicted by deep insecurities or who otherwise have no scruples whatsoever. Or all of the above.
How Bullying Carries Forward
My personal experiences with bullying as an adolescent (including from a predatory big brother) turned me into something of a target for a while. I had a hard time standing up straight- something my father would harass me about incessantly- in addition to my expanding hips. I looked like I was waiting to get hit with a backhand, a fist, a feisty comment that dug in like spurs. We telegraph to the world how we feel about our value. Body language, eye contact, how we stand up for ourselves. It took me a stint in the Army to build my confidence. If anything, the bullying prepared me for basic training.
Some people never get over their experiences. In a segment aired on May 18, 2018 on NPR’s Here and Now, (http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/05/18/bully-apology-victims-60-years-later) one school bully felt enough remorse after sixty years that he looked up the two sisters he harassed, along with the rest of the school. The two women, now in their seventies, still feel the effects. They never got over being shunned, ridiculed, and made to feel like outcasts. While the man’s gesture helped, both of these women spent the rest of their lives shaped by the children’s collective viciousness.
But Not for Everyone
In many ways, early bullying can actually be a gift. A number of very prominent celebrities experienced bullying long before they became uber famous. Among them Lady Gaga, Bill Clinton, Rhianna, Justin Timberlake, Megan Fox. Others, like Stephen Spielberg, used their experiences to create tales about outsiders, which so many of us relate to for that very reason https://www.ranker.com/list/famous-people-who-were-bullied/celebrity-lists). Many of these people note that bullying was part of their development. That’s no easy road. However it is the road to freedom.
You don’t have to be a celebrity to get sweet revenge. The costs of “group think” and the demands to normalize are extremely expensive. The cost of conformity can be high for those with great gifts and something important to say. We make our friends uncomfortable and we hand our enemies the ammunition they need to shoot us out of the sky. We suffer loneliness, isolation, ridicule, personal attacks. We have to learn the ultimate life lesson of loving ourselves first, if for no other reason than it feels at times that nobody loves us. Finding the fortitude to forge ahead on your own terms is one of life’s prices we pay for authenticity. For genius. For taking out a machete and creating a new path through untouched territory. The stakes may be high, but the rewards are even greater.
A few years ago, I attended another high school reunion. It was our 45th, and I was 63. My school was one of two high schools in a small Central Florida town. In the early 70s, you were expected to graduate, get married and start punching out kids. I’d left school at 16, put myself through high school, joined the Army…at time when women were most definitely not picking the military as a career choice. I never had kids and have lived a most unconventional life. The older I get, the more adventurous I become, the better athlete, and the more I achieve. It’s the opposite trajectory of most of my classmates, especially those who peaked early. For each successive reunion, there was a reestablishment of cliques, a lot of reliving high school events of which I was no part (no prom for this girl), and lots and lots of baby photos. By the 45th, however, vast changes had occurred in my high school population.
As we all do when we walk into the reception, I scanned the room for familiar faces. They are dwindling a bit, as age has caught up with all of us to a point. There were the inevitable athletes-gone-obese, cliques that simply cannot move beyond the age of 17, cheerleaders who couldn’t now leap half an inch off the ground. Time hasn’t been kind to a lot of these folks. But then, we all had the same set of options, the same years ahead of us, the same great range of choices. I’m still an outsider, and outlier. The difference is that now I relish that role.
Hard to Argue with Success
And so is my classmate George Kalogridis. A soft-spoken, very quiet man, he is one of the kindest people I know. He suffered his share of abuses. However, it’s hard to argue with success. George is the CEO of Disney World, after a long, highly successful career, and a lifetime, loving relationship with his partner Andy. George and I started at Disney at the same time in 1971. He bussed dishes. I sold Mickey ears. He stayed. And prospered. A leader who still picks up trash and spends time with guests, he has an intimate and deep appreciation for people, especially underdogs. He’s been there. That sensitivity has long informed his life, his work ethic and his leadership style. He is a fine leader because of his early life experiences, and also because Disney finally evolved into a company that values differences. He found a home there, and has spent his life giving back.
My boyfriend suffered bullying at school in New Jersey for being a redhead among black-headed Italians. That stopped when he began bodybuilding. Thirty years ago on May 7, 1988, he won All-Natural Mr. New Jersey, one of many, many contests until he got tired of the self-absorption that marks this community. Guys ask him what he eats and drinks and what his secret is. I’ll tell you: hard damned work, and being highly motivated to change the conversation. At 49, he’s in superb health, looks at least fifteen years younger, and has energy to spare. People honestly think he juices (steroids). Not on your life. His school experiences sculpted who he is today, and energized him to spend the time to turn himself into a Hulk. All natural. Nobody bullies him now.
Bullying also gave me a backbone of steel. On the other hand, it made me compassionate towards others, and sensitive to people and animals who are abused. It’s made me immensely strong. Through observing what conforming to societal norms cost those around me, I’ve been validated in my choices which included joining the Army, not having kids, living an extremely unconventional life. It’s not for everyone. There are costs. However they are costs I’m happy to pay.
Some Bullying Never Stops
It’s not just that online harassment and attacks have grown exponentially. Facebook, Twitter and now even Linked In have all become literal bully pulpits, places where people who are having an asshole moment can take out their frustrations about the conditions of their lives on others. What fascinates me is that certain patterns never change. People who are addicted to being superior, in whatever way they can do so, often don’t lose that compulsion. It just wears a different face as we age and as our tools for terrorizing others morph and improve. If we bully, demean or ignore our kids (which is its own special kind of abuse) then they will cascade that abuse upon their classmates or the household pets. The anger and hurt have to go somewhere. Sometimes, it goes deeply enough to end in suicide.
Abuse and bullying are potential tributaries that run through all of us as part of the River of Life. It is one way that the psyche finds release from pain. We all possess the potential to be incomprehensibly mean; we just don’t always act on those impulses. The opportunity also exists to have that buck stop with us, ending the cycle and the hurt that goes with it. That takes courage, and the willingness to take note of the days we wake up as jerks and make someone else pay for the fact we didn’t get laid last night. Or, something we saw on Facebook upset us. Or, some moron cut us off in traffic. We carry our anger like a loaded pistol, just looking for the opportunity to massacre someone else with it. Unless, of course, we’re willing to do the hard personal work to get that part of ourselves under control.
“Oh, that’s HER”
When I walked into the reception area to get a club soda, surrounded by my high school compatriots (I wouldn’t go so far as to refer to most of them as “friends”), I didn’t get a warm reception. If anything, the group parted like the Red Sea and largely went silent, at least those close to me. Hey, I’m used to it.
My conversations were cordial, but people really didn’t want to know anything about my life. People didn’t walk up to me, I had to initiate conversations or I’d have sat alone with my heavy hors d’oeuvres. And then, you learn not to say much. Later, to my amusement, when photos of the reunion were posted on line, I wasn’t in a single one. There’s a reason for that. If I wanted reunion photos I had to get them myself. And so it has always been.
If this was supposed to take me out at the knees and teach me a lesson, I’m afraid I got an F in the course on being a craven cur. While I did have some lovely conversations with a few folks, for the most part, I was wholly reinforced for every decision I’d ever made to walk a different path. These are not people whose acceptance matters. I reserve that for folks I admire, who push me to be more, who challenge my fears and push me harder to keep right on doing what others don’t do.
The Cage of Others’ Approval
I’m still being punished for bucking the norm. I frankly don’t give a flying shit about being included in a group whose standards act like tiny bird cages. In Indonesia, you see thousands of birds trapped forever in these minuscule cages, barely giving them room to turn, much less fly free. It’s heartbreaking. Strict standards and group norms do the same thing: they keep outliers from flying at the heights where we belong. In Australia it’s called the Tall Poppy Syndrome (http://www.businesspsych.org/articles/244.html). There are all kinds of names for it, but its purpose is to pull down high achievers and folks who are different by shaming, naming and gaming them into giving up so that the rest of the group isn’t offended or made to look bad.
These days those standards and expectations, which kept so many of my classmates contained like cattle (graduation, marriage, kids, grandkids, retire, die), are only distant memories. That lifestyle works for a great many folks. Not all of us. What has been so enormously instructive has been observing what might have been lost had I conformed.
One of the most popular girls who had taken such delight in harassing and teasing me- and the author of the “Judy Hubbel is a SKAG” note in class — got involved with drugs, including heroine. She scorched her liver, trashed her organs and died twenty years ago. She conformed to the wrong group. Many of the other bullies who delivered ugly notes, condemned me for being different and otherwise threw in with the crowd when the crowd needed a whipping boy didn’t exactly have great lives. Multiple failed marriages, abusive spouses, poor health. Poor health was the most common denominator. Most were living their lives vicariously through their kids and grandkids. The primary topic was either offspring or observations about what’s breaking, falling off or turning grey. And where to retire, of course. Retirement is a huge issue in Florida, which is where the country’s elephants go to die (along with Arizona). Again, this works for a lot of people. It’s uneventful, unassuming, and doesn’t offend anyone.
Nothing wrong with any of this. It just wasn’t my path. Nor was this the path of many who paid a dear price for different. Being different led to greater choices, some good, some bad. However, carving out the life that fits us is far less painful than sawing off parts of who you are to fit in. This goes for being Black, being Indian American, having a strong accent, worshipping a different God, being poor, having a harelip, a limp, cerebal palsy or whatever it is that has marked you as “other.”
The other lesson is empathy. Nobody bullies just because, with the exception of psychopaths. Most people who cascade sewage on others are releasing stresses they have collected elsewhere, often without having any awareness they are so doing. Especially kids.
Shortly after I graduated, Richard Bach’s seminal book Jonathan Livingston Seagull was published in 1972. The tale of a bird not satisfied with squabbling over food, Bach’s story touched a responsive chord about being different, not conforming and finding ourselves along the way. It’s still one of the great classics of all time, and a great read for anyone being baited.
Bullies are part of life. So are those who expend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to put a fishhook into us so that we can reeled back in if we dare to take off trying something radically new. (This is usually prefaced by, “Just who the hell do you think you are?”) They have a role in making us who we can be, by teaching us to refuse to conform to norms that don’t fit our dreams. While some societal norms are necessary, those that put a padlock on what’s possible because of others’ fears are hope killers. They rob us of inventions, ideas, movements, art, a million trillion expressions of our glorious humanity, all for the sake of not rocking the boat. A boat which, by the way, may well be sinking. Someone has to leap into the ocean, swim around the boat and point out what’s happening. Outliers do that.
When Our Parents are Bullies
My father bullied me until not long before his death. He haranged me about my weight my entire life. He had a terrible time with the notion that his daughter might outstrip some of his success, have a better writing career. While he was the one who imbued in me the love of words and the discipline to read, he simply couldn’t countenance the competition. He had to win. And I had to lose. His best weapons were words. Parents know our hot buttons because they installed them.
By the time I reached adulthood, however, I understood that the implicit promise of his approval was little more than a carrot before the donkey, never to be gained, never to be earned. The only thing that was acceptable was if I didn’t succeed. That way he could be right about his superiority and that he had raised a loser. The bullying buck stopped with me.
What Bullying Teaches Us
Don’t give up what you can be for the lie of acceptance. The only person we need to be acceptable to is ourselves, assuming axe murder isn’t our hobby of choice. Those who venture, pay. And those who venture, also gain. The best revenge for bullying is to live the life you dreamed, rather than the one that made others feel more comfortable around you.
Bullying could be the best thing that ever happened. As hard as it is to take, it could be the catalyst that launches us past mediocrity, managing our expectations, and making everyone around us happy- because we’re not succeeding, living out loud, and being all we could be. When someone is baiting and bullying, it’s probably a good sign that we’re on the right track.
Bullying teaches us to listen to our own hearts.
Are you different? Do you have a child that’s different? Feeling bullied, trolled and not extolled? Before you advise them to find a way to fit in, watch this:
Billed as “The World’s Ugliest Woman,” Lizzie Velasquez knows something about being bullied. What she did with it is beyond most people’s imaginings. When thousands upon thousands of commenters gave her advice on how to commit suicide, she rose.
She is now an inspirational speaker. She isn’t interested in plastic surgery or an overhaul. She is who she is: unabashed, potent, and powerful. She is who she is BECAUSE of the bullying, and she was immensely fortunate to have parents who had her back. Yet, when we don’t have that, we have the option of faith, as it is variously defined by our beliefs. Faith is what holds our heart together; learning to have faith in yourself is one of life’s grandest journeys.
Marianne Williamson wrote a poem that speaks to the beating heart of anyone who has been made to feel less than, to apologize for their uniqueness, for being brilliant, different, amazing. I offer it here (http://explorersfoundation.org/glyphery/122.html) to anyone who has ever been subjected to the abuses of others.
Bullying is a part of life. What we do with it determines who we will become. We can give it permission to ruin our lives forever, as the two sisters did, or it can be one of the defining crucibles onto which we build an amazing life.
What will you do with your bully?