My most painful experience of bullying occurred in a taxi.
Each day for two years, from the age of eleven to thirteen, I shared a taxi with three or four other children to and from school. Why the taxi? We were in the first group of partially sighted students in England to be integrated into a regular school, and the school was situated on the other side of Sheffield. Over time, tensions built up inside the cab.
Here’s a passage I’ve removed from my memoir as I try to make its length more manageable:
The fourth passenger was Frank, an immense, obese sixteen-year-old. He liked to twist my arm behind my back. Even worse than the pain was my fear that he’d go too far and break my shoulder. I managed not to cry, but repeated, “Stop, stop!” Silently, Frank would hold my arm there, apparently admiring his own strength. He went to work on me during several rides. Our driver contrived not to notice, and the other children didn’t make any protest.
One evening, I asked Dad to have a word with Frank.
“Is that wise?” he said.
“I don’t know what else to do.”
Next morning, when the taxi appeared at the foot of the driveway, I called back from the front door to the kitchen. Throwing aside his serviette, Dad leapt up from the breakfast table and we walked together down the driveway.
Bending to peer inside the passenger compartment, my tall, powerfully-built father said, “Look, I understand there’s been some rough play in here. I’d like it to stop.”
His words were met with grunts. He turned to me and said, “All right, I’ll see you at dinner.”
The warning resulted in a stand-off of silent contempt from my fellow passengers that made me miserable in a different way.
When I asked Dad to intervene, he could have reacted in one of at least three ways. Upset on my behalf, he could have immediately agreed. Or, telling me a boy must learn to fend for himself, he could have refused. It was his first impulse. Instead, he referred the decision back to me.
He was right to. Only I could assess how bad the bullying was, whether it was getting worse, whether I could possibly defend myself, whether there was any other option. In the back of that taxi, there was no escape. Four years younger and much smaller and weaker than Frank, I hadn’t a hope of defending myself. There was no reasoning with him.
I don’t know what I did, if anything, to alienate Frank and distance the other passengers. The one girl was the only child my age. The other boys were older, with Frank being the oldest. The girl and I had once had a modest thing going, but by the time we’d moved from our former school, she spent the rides home sitting on the handsomest boy’s lap. She alternated between warmth and cold toward me. The boy was neutral. He got along with Frank, and he undoubtedly wanted to keep it that way.
Perhaps the explanation for Frank’s hostility lay in that only I was fully integrated into our new school. The others spent most of the day with our original teacher. Although never said aloud, that made me the star student. Not that I felt it, nor that anyone made a fuss the way they would if I’d really been a star. In the end, Frank’s hostility felt irrational, lacking any articulable cause.
Looking back, I’m impressed by Dad’s measured approach. When he spoke into the cab, his warning was general, not targeted at Frank, and contained no idle threats. Acting the authority figure, he made it clear the “rough play” had to stop. But Frank now knew that his conduct was on record. If it continued, it would get back to the school.
After Dad’s intervention, I no more knew how to overcome the stalemate than I’d known how to bring an end to Frank’s torment. But given the choice between ostracization and physical pain, I had no reservation about which I’d rather live with. Little, if anything, is more convincing than physical pain. Ask any torturer.
Still, did Dad’s handling of that crisis weaken my character? At that age, I did question my courage. I had a history of literally running away from situations I didn’t like. I saw myself as timid. But a year later, I met challenges that had to be faced, and coming through changed my self-perception for the rest of my life.
There’s a time to sand up to bullies and a time to work around them. I made the right choice. It helped that Dad handled the moment perfectly.