Thankful for a lesson learned

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Thanksgiving follows a few weeks after the National Prevention of Bullying month of October. The purpose of the latter is to raise awareness of how bullying leads to school avoidance, anxiety attacks, prolonged depression, and in the most severe cases, suicide. The purpose of the holiday of Thanksgiving is to rejoice in our blessings. Is there a connection between the chagrin of bullying and the meaning of Thanksgiving? In my case, the answer is “yes.”

My nemesis in fourth grade was Gerald, an older and much larger boy who brooded over repeating the class. He had the soft build of a pile of marshmallows, but loomed over me as big, aggressive, and overbearing.

I was skinny, wore round tin-rimmed glasses, featured prominent front teeth and suffered a mound of curls on my head — a prefect target for a bullying tormenter. And Gerald was that, calling me, among other nasty words, “bone rack, “four-eyes,” “buck tooth” or “curly-girly.”

My mother told me “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never harm you.” In this one instance, Mom got it wrong. Gerald’s words burrowed to a painful depth.

When the boys divided into “skins and shirts” teams in gym class, I prayed I would not be one of the shirtless ones with my “bone rack” chest. I removed my glasses whenever possible. I tried to keep my lips over my teeth, resulting in infrequent smiles and great difficulty in eating.

My mother took pride in my curls, not allowing me to leave the house until she provided, so it seemed, individual attention to every hair on my head. But as soon as I was out of her sight, I tried to plaster down my offensive locks with the saliva-moistened flats of my hands.

My mother also advised me to “just stay away from him,” but it was hard. Gerald made a point of walking close behind me and stepping on the back of my shoes, dislodging them from my feet. When I stumbled, he would shove me on down, laugh, and call me “stupid” or “jerk” or one of his other pet names. He sometimes swung a leg in front of me, tripping me and pushing me to the ground. Assorted rabbit punches and elbow jabs also found their painful mark.

I was humiliated and unhappy with the bullying, but not to the point of being overly anxious or depressed. I loved school and gained satisfaction in being selected for spelling contests long before Gerald. Moreover, I retained a small measure of empathy for him when it came time for school parties.

Gerald’s family belonged to a religion that did not allow, as my mother explained to me, for any celebrations such as birthday parties, Valentine’s Day, or even Christmas. When we enjoyed parties at the end of school days for holidays or birthdays, our teacher, Miss Watts, would turn to my bullying classmate and say, “You may go home now, Gerald.”

As he trudged out the door with his head hanging, the rest of us were laughing and jabbering and looking forward to a delightful round of ice cream or cookies or gifts. While I certainly didn’t miss Gerald’s annoyance, I did wonder how it must feel to miss out on such joyous occasions.

I was relieved when Christmas vacation arrived, not only for the joys and prospects of the holiday season, but to have two weeks free of Gerald’s bullying.

The morning school resumed, Gerald continued his taunting, calling me a “sissy” and pushing me to the ground. Knowing his family did not celebrate the birth of Jesus, I counter-attacked with words. “What did you get for Christmas?” I asked with a sly grin.

My words struck hard. Gerald’s eyes moistened. He turned away.

My eyes moistened as well. I could have felt the satisfaction of retribution, as though David got the better of Goliath. But I didn’t. I had hurt someone. I had become a bully. It didn’t feel good.

That confrontation ended the bullying, and Gerald moved away at the end of the school year.

As this Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful to have learned at an early age of the potential hurtful impact of words.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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