A lot has been written around the tragic suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, the victim of online bullying and intolerance. For anyone who was ever bullied in the past, you could certainly identify with both the feelings of hopelessness and isolation that apparently drove that poor young man to his death.
Thirty miles away, another bully was at work the week before. My 11-year-old daughter hopped into the car after a particularly strenuous afternoon of ballet and as the car door shut, I asked her how practice went.
“One of the older kids called me fat today, which kinda hurt my feelings,” she said with the shrug of a shoulder.
“How did you handle it?” I asked tentatively.
“ I said, ‘Let’s not focus on that, okay?’ Then she dropped it.”
I was stunned at the poise, grace and self-assurance she displayed in the face of a bully that would have brought both of her parents to their knees back in the day. You hear something like that and it returns you to a time when you were teased about your weight on the playground.
Lord knows I had to manage my share of bullies. When things got hot and someone was picking on me, I’d give it right back to them with a dollop of cutting Irish humor that crippled my opponent because I was too weak to fight with fists.
I remember a rough first week at a new grammar school that my brother Brendan and I transferred into after my parents moved us out of Jersey City and into the suburbs of Spotswood. I was in seventh grade at the time and Brendan was a fourth grader with a cast around his abdomen to correct scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of his spine.
We were getting changed in the boys’ locker room after gym class, and one of the big kids named Danny decided to test the new boys in town. As Brendan took off his shirt and revealed the cast, he was shoved onto the ground and struggled to get up because of the limited movement the cast provided.
“He’s like a turtle!” a fat kid who was stripped down to his underwear exclaimed before jiggling into convulsive chuckles.
“Your boobs are bigger than my mother’s,” I yelled. “You have nothing to laugh at. Why not go suck one of them?”
Everyone laughed and the bully turned his attention on the fat kid, giving me just enough time to help Brendan off the floor and out of the room.
The witty comebacks displayed an external confidence that was a far cry to my true inner workings. I can still feel the pain of standing in the middle of the Sears boys section with my mother and brother.
Brendan was slim and wiry, the ideal body type the designers had in mind when they put together their clothes. I would look longingly at the countless shirts and tops he so effortlessly mixed and matched while Mom would look through the racks and hum contentedly.
Her music would stop when it was my turn to shop. For both mother and child, this experience was as messy and painful as childbirth itself.
I would be dragged, against my will, to the “husky” section of the store. In this section hung a putrid, measly selection of checkered Toughskin pants that made me wonder if Sears was joining in the chorus of fat kids’ mockery by designing unflattering patterns that accentuated my corpulent rump. The Toughskin material was only slightly smoother than burlap because, well, it had to be.
“Sure, your father and I are not made of money, you know,” my mom replied when I asked her why I had to wear the Toughskins. “These pants have to last until Easter, and then we’ll be back. God knows what size ye’ll be by then.”
I grew up to be pleasantly plump and I love to eat. I drove by my old central Jersey neighborhood this week, stopped at my favorite sub shop and was greeted at the counter by Danny, the bully who pushed my brother down all those years ago.
He had a mangy beard, ripped jeans and a leather biker’s vest over a Harley t-shirt that told me all I needed to know about how he was unable to break the tangle of our town’s blue collar roots.
There wasn’t an ounce of Catholic compassion in me as I told him in painstaking detail how thin I wanted the Swiss cheese cut for my sandwich. I threw a dollar into the tip jar in the counter, but the encounter was priceless.
Am I immature?
Do old bully wounds still fester, 33 years later?
Does the daughter have a lot more grace than the dad in these circumstances?
Well, I suppose I can’t slice that reality thin enough to make it easier to swallow.