The lifelong scars of bullying

happy childChris Hunt recalls the severe bullying he endured silently as a child, and ponders how he can protect his own son.

Don’t let them see you cry.

I’ve been wondering lately who it was who first said that to me. A decade or so ago, I probably would have said it was my father.

Thing is, now that I’ve been thinking about it, it couldn’t have been my father. I never told him. One of my brothers, then. But I never told them either. In fact, I never told anyone.

It was probably something I picked up on TV or in a book. Or maybe I just made it up. Writers tend to live in their own heads, and back then I was nothing if not a writer. 

So yes, I never told anyone I was regularly bullied after school. There was this state of mind when I was a kid that telling anybody would make me a “rat.” A snitch.  Better to be a silent victim than a fink, right?

There were three of them, each a year ahead of me, so just about to graduate from elementary school. I don’t remember much about them, save that one consistently wore a denim vest.

He was the leader.

I was new to the school and they took an instant dislike to me. It started innocently at first, as far as bullying goes. I was walking home from school, turned a corner and there they were. They knocked my books to the ground and kicked them between themselves, before shoving me to the ground.

Not hard, to be honest, not even hard enough to bruise. They hovered, briefly mocking me and then left.

The ambushes became a regular thing, with the beatings becoming significantly worse. Quickly the shoving gave way to elbows to the head and knees to the gut.

To avoid them, I’d alternate my route home or stay late to wait them out. Sometimes I’d leave with friends, even though they were heading in the opposite direction from my home.

Still they often got me. There was no way I could win a fight against them, so as the beatings increased, I latched onto this misguided notion that not crying in front of them meant even though they had beaten me, they hadn’t beaten me.

One day I just snapped. I was walking home when I saw the guy with the denim vest in the distance.
I shouted at him, told him if he touched me again I’d knock him out. I don’t know what I was thinking.
I should point out I was minutes from my house. If he came at me, I’d have been home well before he could reach me. 

That’s what would’ve happened anyway, if his two friends hadn’t snuck up from behind me and flung me to the pavement. They held me while denim guy ambled over. He deliberately took his time.

When he arrived he asked me to repeat what I said, and like a fool I did. That’s when he started kicking me. Hard. He didn’t stop.

I vainly tried punching him, but he caught my fist and wrenched my arm. I heard something pop. The two others heard it and let me free. But the leader, he just kept kicking until he could barely lift his leg.

He stood over me, breathing heavily and said “Next time, watch your mouth,” and then left. He was walking with a limp.

That was the last beating I ever had. I stood up to them, took everything they had and didn’t cry. I felt like I had won. The fact they never touched me again reinforced that mentality.

I haven’t thought about that day in decades, but it all came back when I recently saw my son Riley get bullied at a local indoor playground. He wanted to play in a pint-sized kitchenette; trouble was, it was already occupied by a much bigger kid.

The kid saw Riley, loudly shouted “NO!” and cocked his fist to punch him.

I nearly lost my mind, but my girlfriend, a daycare teacher, handled it smartly. She sternly but politely rebuked him, explaining how important it was to share with others.

He and Riley hugged, and that was that. Admittedly I’m taking liberties with the word “bullied” in the above instance, as toddlers are too young to understand what acceptable play is.

However, the confrontation made me realize one day Riley might be in the position I was in; bullied but silent and stupidly defiant. How do I get him to tell me, so I can help?  Or what if he one day begins to pick on other children?

I hope that’ll never happen, but how can I be sure? What can we, as parents, do to prevent it? Can we even prevent it?

According to statistics on the Canadian Institutes of Health Research website, one in three Canadian students report being victims of bullying.

It happens at every scholastic level and frequently to those who are deemed different or weak. And not just physical abuse.

Harsh words can leave emotional scars time might not heal. On any given day I would hear a torrent of horrible words savagely launched at my peers by my peers.

Slut. Fat. Stupid. Fag. Whore. Ugly. Retarded. I hated that word the most.

The junior high school I went to had a special needs class. Some of the students had severe physical disabilities, in addition to mental disabilities.

A few of my classmates were cruel to these kids. On lunch break they’d throw balls at them, (at least two of these kids had disfigured hands) and shout “Catch!” and then laugh as they mishandled the ball.

Other special needs students were treated as pets.

My peers would throw things and yell “Fetch!” and the special needs student would gleefully chase whatever it was and return it. These kids would frequently cry too, but out of happiness because they were finally included.

The good news is times have changed since I was a kid. Ontario has implemented new anti-bullying legislation and most school boards have been proactive in developing anti-bullying policies and procedures.

But is that enough?

Looking at statistics that reveal the popular perception of bullying among those it affects the most, I’d say no.

A study of 490 Grade 8 students, posted on, says 64 per cent of children consider bullying a normal part of school life. Horrific, but it gets worse.

It also says 25 to 33 per cent believe bullying is sometimes justifiable, that it’s OK to pick on “losers.” And perhaps the most heartbreaking finding: 20-50 per cent said bullying can actually be a positive thing, as it builds character.

Sombre, but there is reason for hope. Studies also show bullying usually ends almost instantaneously when peers intervene or refuse to support instances of bullying.

And there it is. If we’re to truly instigate change, it has to begin by changing our children’s attitudes on bullying. We have to teach them how devastating bullying can be.

And to do that, we as a society need to talk openly, aggressively and frequently about bullying.

A fantastic leap in the right direction is Majic 100’s No More Bullies campaign. The radio station’s morning crew of Stu Schwartz, Angie Poirier and Trisha Owens visit local schools giving anti-bullying presentations, which talk about the detrimental effects bullying can have and what students can do to help.

Schwartz in particular has been passionately outspoken about his experiences being bullied. The fact he’s a well-known and respected member of the community adds weight to his message, but more importantly, it allows children to hear firsthand how horrible bullying can be.

They need to understand words can wound a person right to their core, that they can mutilate a person’s self-esteem to the point where it will affect them as an adult.

They need to know the trauma of a punch will linger long after the bruise has faded. And they need to hear that from those who have lived it.

That’s what I can do as a parent. I can tell my son my story, but I’ll tell him all of it.

I’ll tell him that after those boys left, I cried. I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe and that I walked home a quivering, broken mess. And that my friend Crystal saw me. And she saw the boys in the distance.

I’ll tell Riley that when she asked me what happened, I lied and said nothing, but she put two and two together and told my teacher the next day, and that it was my teacher who punished them so severely they never touched me again.

And then I would tell him to learn from my mistakes, to speak out when he sees a wrong because not being part of a solution is tantamount to being part of the problem.

And then I’ll tell him I love him, simply because I can. And because I do.