Putting Bullies in their Place

If I made a list of my top ten parenting worries, close to the top would be bullying. I looked out for it when my daughter was a toddler making her first friends and now kind of obsess about it as we head into her tween years. Judging by how often this topic comes up in conversations with other parents, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who worries about it.


However, sometimes I wonder if trying to completely isolate our children from bullying is really good for them. The fact is, there are bullies in the world and sooner or later our kids are going be in a situation where they will have to decide how to react to them. No amount of parent intervention is going to change the fact that bullies will always exist and it is often the child’s (or adult’s) ability to deflect, diffuse, or get help that can determine the outcome of the interaction.


I read a statistic that said that “over 67% of students believe that schools respond poorly to bullying, with a high percentage of students believing that adult help is infrequent and ineffective.” So in addition to doing what we can as parents to address the bullying behaviors we may witness, perhaps we need to make sure our children are equipped with the resources they need to successfully help themselves.


October is Bully Prevention Awareness Month

One of the best ways to help a kid who is being bullied is letting them know they aren’t alone. And one of the key ways to let someone know they aren’t alone is through storytelling. For personal “It happened to me” type stories, a good place to look is http://www.pacer.org/bullying which offers a wealth of info about bullying. Another great resource, the PBS Kids website, offers a type of bulletin board where kids can post about their experiences. And finally, over the years Cricket Media magazines have published many stories and articles related to bullying.


Below you’ll find part 1 of one such story. It’s a 3-parter, but a great read, especially for middle school boys who may be facing their own personal bullies. We’ll post parts 2 and 3 in the next two weeks so keep a look out for it on our Facebook page.


For more stories like the one below, be sure to subscribe to Cricket.


Water to Ice, Part 1
By Tyler Keevil
Illustrations by Kyle Reed


Bullies 1

To reach my locker at high school I had to go through this narrow stretch of corridor between the science labs and the janitorial supply closet. As I approached, I could see Mike Glover and his friends waiting there, lounging against the walls. They did this a lot, during breaks and lunch hour, hassling other kids as they passed by. They called it running the gauntlet.


I put my head down, adjusted my grip on my backpack, and tried to scoot between them. I encountered a thicket of legs, tripping me up, and a flurry of hands slapping at my face and back and shoulders. Mike was at the end. As I tried to stumble past, covering my head to block their blows, he grabbed me by the shirt, yanking it and stretching the collar. “How’s it going, rage?” he said.


That’s what they called me—as in “rage case”—because of my temper. Most of the kids at school just accepted their abuse meekly, but part of me always wanted to retaliate.


“Get lost, Mike,” I said.


He yanked me closer. He was tall and lanky as a crane, and had a face prickled with acne. He always wore a puffy bomber jacket and a Los Angeles Raiders hat sideways on his head—a total wannabe gangster.


“What’s that, rage?” he asked.


“I said get lost, loser.” I said it more emphatically, right into his face. He shoved me. Behind me one of his buddies hooked my ankle with a foot to trip me up. I went down, dropping my bag. Mike grabbed it and dangled it in front of my face, just out of reach, trying to get a rise out of me.


“Give me that,” I said. I was up, lunging at him, at all of them. I grabbed and swung, desperate, but they were just laughing. There were too many of them: all older, all bigger. They knocked me around like a pinball, pushing and shoving me back and forth between them, until I lost my balance again and went sprawling. This time I fell harder, banging my elbow on the floor, and this time I didn’t get up. I just lay there and cradled my arm, rubbing the funny bone.


“Whoops,” Mike said. “Somebody fell down and went boom. If you weren’t such a rage case, this wouldn’t happen. You know that, right?”


He tossed my bag into a nearby garbage can. Then he and his friends gave each other a bunch of high-fives and wandered off, laughing about it. The hallway was empty. I sat for a while longer, before I got up and dug my backpack out of the garbage can. Clinging to the shoulder strap was a banana peel, all withered and brown, hanging down like a dead squid.


That kind of stuff happened pretty much every day. It was never bad enough that I got really hurt or could report it. If I had, Mike and his friends would have just denied it anyway and claimed I was the one starting the fights. It went on like that, these constant confrontations, until I came home one day with a split lip.


I’d gotten in a tussle with Mike after school. My mom saw the blood, and I had to tell her about what was happening—the bullying and the scrapping. I wouldn’t let her call the school, so she came up with what she thought was another, even better, solution.


“Mom—why can’t you understand I just don’t want to go?”


“Sure you do. It’ll be totally cool.”


She’d gotten it in her head to enroll me in kung fu classes. My mom’s full of crazy ideas, and this was by far the craziest she’d had in a long time. We’d been arguing about it for weeks, and were still arguing as she drove me to the dojo.


“I don’t know why you’re kicking up such a fuss,” my mom said as she wheeled round a corner. “You should be excited. It will be just like The Karate Kid. It will be awesome!”


My mom’s a big woman with this huge head of frizzy orange hair that explodes out of her scalp like springs. She’s from California originally, and still uses words like awesome and totally. The worst part is that I’ve inherited a bit of that accent from her, along with her fire-red hair—which makes me a scrawny redheaded kid who sounds like a Californian surfer and has a short fuse. No wonder I get hassled at school.


“Mom,” I said patiently. “Life’s not like that. You don’t just enroll in kung fu, learn how to fight, beat up the bully, and get the girl. The Karate Kid is only a stupid film.”


“It’s a classic!”


We were getting close to the dojo. It wasn’t far from our house, actually. I’d seen the yellow awning before—hanging over a doorway crammed between a pawnshop and an herbal health store. My mom found a spot across the street, pulled in, and yanked on the handbrake.


“Let’s just go in and take a look, OK?” she said. “It’s a good chance for you to meet some people your age.” By this I assumed she was referring to the fact that I hadn’t made any friends at my new school yet. “Plus it might keep those jerks from picking on you.”


I crossed my arms, looked out the window. “If dad were here, he’d handle it.”


“That’s true,” she said, staring at the steering wheel, looking a little deflated. “But he’s not, so we’ll just have to make do on our own. OK?”


I sighed. I figured I owed her for the comment about dad. He left us three years ago and now lives on the East Coast with his new girlfriend. I only get to see him at Christmas and in the summers.


“OK,” I said.


From the street, stairs led down to a small foyer with a couple of tattered armchairs, a rickety coffee table, and carpeting the color of marmalade. Some dojo. There was a door to the left marked “Instructor” and a partitioned wall to the right, separating the foyer from the training hall. On the wall was a giant photograph of a crazy-looking Chinese dude with a drooping moustache, breaking a massive block of ice with his fist. The ice was about as high as me.


Bullies 2


“Look at that,” my mother said, wide-eyed.


“Yeah,” I muttered. “Wow.”


After a few moments, a man came out of the office. His uniform was loose and blue and baggy. A black sash was cinched around his waist. He walked with a fluid, bowlegged stance—stepping very softly, like a cat-footed cowboy.


At first, I was disappointed that it wasn’t the guy in the photograph. He wasn’t even Chinese. He smiled and shook our hands and introduced himself as Master Kinsella. I stood there huddling in my hoodie as my mom explained that I wanted to enroll in his youth class.


“Is that right, Jake?” he asked.


I shrugged. “I guess so, sir.”


I don’t know why I immediately started calling him sir. It was just my first instinct. He considered me for a moment—in a way that made me want to stand a little straighter. “And why are you interested in taking kung fu?”


I looked at him, opened my mouth, and closed it again. I hadn’t expected to be put on the spot like this. I glanced over at the photograph on the wall—of the guy pulverizing the block of ice. I said, “To learn how to fight, I guess.”


“That’s what a lot of my students say,” Master Kinsella said, smiling. “And I always tell them the same thing: you take kung fu to learn how not to fight. Still interested?”


I glanced at my mom. She was frowning. Neither of us really knew what to make of this guy.


“Sure,” I said, wondering what I was getting myself into. “Whatever you say.”


When I came in for my first class, the other kids were sitting cross-legged on the floor, waiting. I did the same. They were all dressed in kung fu uniforms, but I was just wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. My mom didn’t want to buy me a uniform unless I decided to stick with it.


After a minute, Master Kinsella came rushing out of his office, sprinting full tilt into the training hall. He slid into place on his knees, facing us, bristling with restrained energy. “All right,” he said, smiling. “Let’s bow in.”


Following his lead, everybody formed an X with their arms, bowed their heads toward the floor, then jumped up, fists clenched, and shouted in unison. I did the same, lagging a little behind. After warming us up and making us stretch, Master Kinsella started teaching us something he called a sweeping palm block. It sounded lame to me, but nobody else was slacking off or goofing around. They were very solemn. It was almost like being in church—and since they were all treating it so seriously I kind of had to do the same.


“Start in a neutral position,” he said, raising his hands in front of him, like a guy being held up at gunpoint. “Then cross-step and bring your right palm across your face, to your left shoulder.” He demonstrated each action as he spoke, moving carefully and deliberately. “Lastly you want to step away from your opponent, always keeping your eyes on him.”


He made us try it slowly, all together. It was easy—a piece of cake. Not that I could see it doing any good if somebody decided to punch you in the face. Maybe Master Kinsella sensed my skepticism, because he asked me to come to the front to help him demonstrate.


“Taken together,” he said, “the whole motion should be loose, like the flick of whip. In kung fu, when you’re moving, you act like water—fluid and relaxed, until the moment you strike, and become like ice. Water to ice.” He gestured. “Throw a punch, Jake. Hard.”


Bullies 3


I stepped in and swung at him, not holding back. There was a blur of movement, something touched me on the forearm, and my fist just sailed through empty air. I glanced around. Master Kinsella was behind me, in the ready position, his eyes pinning me in place.


“OK,” he said. “Let’s pair up and try that.” My partner was a guy named Steve. Like me, he was one of the older students.


“What do you think so far?” he asked, getting ready to hit me.


“It seems pretty wicked.” I sidestepped and swept his punch aside —already feeling more powerful, imagining Mike Glover’s reaction when I pulled off a trick like that. I’d show him who was a rage case.


To be continued…