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JACK SMITH

Bully-Proof : Should Schoolyard Thugs Be Tolerated?

December 21, 1986|JACK SMITH

We live in an age of space technology, microbiology and particle physics; we are exploring both the infinitely large and the infinitely small.

Meanwhile, our psychologists, using purportedly scientific methods and financial grants, are exploring the quirks, phobias and inclinations that make us human.

Do blondes have more fun? Do conversation pieces really stimulate conversation? Do men interrupt more often than women?

In many of these studies, students are paid to perform certain tests, or answer questions, and the psychologists draw their conclusions from the data thus obtained.

Since students are generally in need of money and are likely to do what they think is expected of them to obtain it, I am dubious about most of these findings.

However, sometimes they agree with my own prejudices, and I, of course, accept them.

Recently, according to a newspaper story by Betty Ann Kevles, a Norwegian psychologist named Dan Olweus concluded from a study of 150,000 Norwegian schoolchildren that schoolyard bullies should not be tolerated merely as "misunderstood" children.

Their victims, Olweus found, have poor self-images and feel increasingly desperate, but bullies are not anxious or insecure. They use violence to get what they want; they feel positive about it; they feel no regret.

Like any other man who spent his childhood on the American public schoolyard, I grew up in fear of bullies; and I never doubted that they were just plain mean.

Perhaps the most memorable and successful magazine advertisement of the 1920s and 1930s was the one in which the beach bully, who is built like Sylvester Stallone, is seen kicking sand on the 90-pound weakling and walking off with the weakling's girl. It was an ad for the Charles Atlas muscle-building program.

I don't remember that any bully ever kicked sand in my face and walked off with my girl, but in junior high school I was a 95-pound weakling, and I was always in danger, like a rabbit in the forest.

Every schoolyard has its bully. When I was in grammar school, we called the bully Fat. He was big and he was fat. He didn't mind the name. I don't think we'd have dared to call him anything else.

Fat didn't just go around beating up on kids indiscriminately. Through some subtle grading process that only he understood, he picked his victims. They never fought back. Whether he merely corked them on the arm, or knocked their books out of their hands, or cuffed them to the ground, the outcome was always the same.

Fat sneered while the rest of us gathered in a thoughtful circle, feeling sorry for the victim and feeling lucky to have escaped--but not doing anything about it. Fat never singled me out. I have always wondered why. Did I somehow put the whammy on him? You were safer, I found out, if you did not let your fear show, and if you pretended to be smart.

In junior high school, the resident bully was called Bear. He was built like a bear, with an enormous head and shoulders, powerful and long arms, and relatively short legs. He chose me only once. One cold morning, for no reason, he corked me. (A cork is a sharp blow with the knuckles on an unprepared biceps.) My arm was paralyzed. Tears came to my eyes. I said nothing. Bear grinned almost compassionately and left me alone after that.

Olweus says there are four kinds of students: "the lone victim, the bully, the two or three henchmen who gang up with the bully, and the bystanders, some of whom are indifferent and some of whom want to help but are afraid."

I was usually in the fourth group. But one couldn't simply walk up to Fat and say, "Put 'em up, Fat." Prudence called for silence, if not approval. But as a result of witnessing those incidents, I have always had a disgust for injustice and for those who, out of fear, refuse to bear witness.

I don't know whether girls were bullied or not. I never saw a boy bully bullying a girl. It was against the code. Neither can I remember a girl bully. Feminists who deplore the injustices of life have at least escaped the schoolyard beatings all boys live in fear of.

I do remember that girls formed cliques around a dominant girl, but they did not terrorize weaklings. They might pester them or ostracize them, but they didn't beat them.

Olweus points out, applying his Norwegian statistics to the United States, that about 3 million American schoolchildren face each day with dread. Some kill themselves because they can not tolerate any more bullying.

Olweus insists that the bully and his victim are not two sides of the same coin. The bully is a bully is a bully. He does not deserve equal tolerance.

Stick it in your ear, Fat.

Jack Smith's column will apear in View on Dec. 28.

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