The Neighbor Kid
Bullying does not only affect its victims, it can have an impact on the family and friends of the bullied child. But in greater, more extreme circumstances it can also negatively affect a community of neighbors and casual acquaintances.
In the age of cyber-bullying and on-line stalking we tend to forget the good, old-fashioned garden-variety schoolyard bullying. Many children growing up perhaps suffered at the hands of such a juvenile delinquent dictator, the kid who beat up others for their lunch money. Or there might have been
The physical bullying is perhaps the easiest to overcome because it is tangible and recognizable: you see a bully beating up another kid you put a stop to it. It is the psychological form of bullying, however, that probably causes the greatest trauma, leaving a child socially isolated, depressed, and with feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and hopelessness.
Think of what the Vic Dillinger version of the classic TV series The Wonder Years might have been like. I didn’t have a Winnie Cooper for my object of young lust, though. I went one better – I had one-half of a set of identical twins! [And she was a raven-haired cutie with bright blue eyes who turned into a very curvaceous and beautiful woman. I saw her again about three years ago and got to catch up. Oh, and in 7th grade she had really nice sweater puppets that she let me play with routinely.]
In the adolescent world of Vic Dillinger there was also the “weird kid”, and no, despite what you would like to think it wasn’t me! There was a socially awkward kid whom I will call “Bozo”. He was almost a stereotypical geek in many ways, and if you intentionally designed a door mat for a bully you’d have to go a long way to beat this guy. He finessed almost all of geekdom’s finer qualities, tweaking them into a hodge-podge of personality traits guaranteeing a beat down daily.
Bozo was a huge fan of comic books, superheroes, and comic book art, and he had a natural talent for line illustration. He was highly intelligent. He was socially retarded, and he was literally terrified of girls. There was just something off about this kid. While the rest of us were interested in the developing breast buds of our female classmates, he still wanted to play with GI Joe.
Bozo, interestingly enough, was one of the biggest kids in our 7th grade class, and yet he was the biggest wuss I’d ever met. He was taller and heavier than the rest of us adolescent runts – not a big, fat slob, though, he was just a big kid. I knew if I had his bulk I wouldn’t be taking any guff from these little weasels – I would have made them eat dirt and grass, and would have helped them wash off their faces with a nice refreshing swirly in the boys’ bathroom.
As a way to fit in, Bozo went out for sports, playing football and basketball, and although a bit gangly and uncoördinated at times he was a better-than-average athlete in both. Regardless, he was unmercifully bullied – his real name was unusual, so kids made fun of that. His histrionics (outbursts of laughter at inopportune times, bad puns, jokes that only he got, his overall dorky demeanor) ensured torment for this big kid every day.
Despite what anyone might believe about me or think they know I was never a bully nor was I bullied. I would have been ripe pickin’s though: I was a slightly built wiseguy. Mysteriously, though, no one messed with me, and I made it through my elementary school years with nary a black eye, and only a few minor scuffles, none of which were bully-related (just the natural result of me and my big, smart mouth).
Bozo, however (despite the fact he was one of the big kids), never stood up for himself. He remained the perennial, walking punch-line. He was made fun of ruthlessly, and with cutting malice from his sports teammates, other kids, and girls who knew of his ineptitude around them. Bozo, however, was my friend because, then as now, I did not give one stinking, steaming crap about what anybody thought of me or what they thought of my choice of associates. Anyone who might have bothered to get to know him would have learned he was not only brilliant but artistic and genuinely funny (as in “stand-up comic” funny, not “pull-my-finger” funny). We used to hang out at each other’s houses, goofing around.
When high school came one would think his adolescent geekdom would have been left behind. Nope. Bozo’s reputation as a doofus preceded him into his freshman year of high school, and the people who knew him from his old school made sure all the other kids coming in knew he was the class wuss. I lost sight of Bozo after our freshman year, and I went on to bigger and better things. Occasionally, a high school acquaintance might ponder, “Hey, whatever happened to Bozo?” Over the years, more rumors sprang up about Bozo sightings than Elvis encounters, and he sort of became like the Flying Dutchman of our 7th grade class, The Big Kid Who Wasn’t There.
Fast-forward 30 years: there’s this semi-annoying social networking site thingy with which I have a hate/hate relationship on the internet called “Facebook”. Through the wonders of computer code and programming Bozo found me through my Facebook page. He called me after the initial contact, and all mysteries were solved.
Turns out, Bozo said, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (which explained 1,873% of his behavioral antics). He also told me he didn’t learn all this until later in his life, and that his hyper-activity was a symptom of the Asperger’s (a mild form of autism characterized by social maladjustment and high intelligence) as was his blurting out things without inhibition. We talked, and I found out Bozo had gone to college after doing a stretch in the Air Force. Although he never married and has no children, he has managed to bag a few babes over the years, but to hear him tell it, he probably wears them out with his fidgety mania over time. Nonetheless, he is still intellectually brilliant and funny and articulate, and he owns a successful trucking company in Alabama.
During that phone conversation, though, I reminded Bozo of his doormat years and asked him as bluntly as I knew how (which is very blunt indeed), “Why were you such a wuss?” His prime tormentor was this fireplug-looking macho boy whom I’ll call “Sue”. I asked Bozo why he had never beaten the living daylights out of Sue; Sue never tormented me in any way at all, but I reminded Bozo I would have fought back even if it meant getting my scrawny hindquarters kicked into next week.
His response was both simple and painfully on point: “I didn’t know I could.” Seriously, his self-esteem had been so destroyed by his classmates and teammates (he even became a sort of joke to some of the teachers) that he had no clue he possessed the physical ability to put an end to his suffering by, if nothing else, shoving all of Sue’s teeth down his throat just one time.
We wound down the conversation, but before closing he said, “Ya know, nobody ever messed with you, and I don’t get it.” I didn’t have an answer for him. All I could think was that regardless of who I was, even then, I didn’t let others define me. Besides, I could afford to swagger a little more than the other kids – I had the hot twin for my squeeze!
Mark is a regular kid in most respects. He has a female beagle that he calls “Lucy” (I didn’t change her name since you don’t know her). Mark is a strange kid, though, in the same way that Bozo was a strange kid. He is the kind of kid who will just walk into your house, uninvited and without knocking (and there you are, with your woman, all ready for “breakfast”). He is socially inept in the same way as Bozo is, and he is gangly and awkward as well. He stutters badly which, of course, adds to his growing pains.
He is also very isolated. His mother is retired from the Marine Corps, but she has diabetes compounded with other physical ailments. She takes a lot of medication and she is not terribly involved in her family because she apparently does not have the energy to invest in that these days. Mark’s older brother Egbert tinkers with computers in his spare time, and he alternately torments Mark or ignores him completely.
Mark’s dad works all the time, but I have seen him on some weekends with Mark in their back yard where they have set up a perfectly safe (and legal) personal-use firing range. Mark knows how to handle weapons at the age of 15, and despite his gawky carriage, he is mature with respect to handling of firearms. Unfortunately Mark is not mature in other ways which means he, too, is a target for bullying. And, like Bozo, he is a healthy-sized kid who, if he only had a spine, could make all of his pain stop.
On Monday, April 16, 2012, at about 4:20 in the afternoon I sat watching a movie (Enemy Mine, with Lou Gossett, Jr., and Dennis Quaid, if anyone cares – I’ve seen it before but I couldn’t remember the end). The two dogs (boxer/lab mixes) began barking their fool heads off simultaneously and for no reason. I went outside to tell them to shut their dog-food holes, and they just gave me that look (you know the one, that quizzical thing they do where they raise an eyebrow with a “What choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” look). There was no rational reason for the pooches to be jacked – no bunnies romping playfully, no passing kitties.
I went back in the house. About an hour later two Sheriff’s Department cruisers and an ambulance sirened in on Mark’s house next door. I waited to find out what was going on, knowing of Mark’s mom’s health issues. It did seem awfully odd, though, to see the police response.
I learned a hour or so later Mark had come home from school as usual at about 3:30 PM (he rides the school bus). His mother mentioned something to him about moving Lucy’s dog runner to a different spot. [Lucy is a great escape artist, and she has appeared many times on the back porch out of the blue. I just walk her home.] Mark barely acknowledged her, and went into his room. His mother went off for another of her late-afternoon, medically induced naps.
When Mark’s mother awakened at around 5:00 PM from her nap, she did not hear Mark stirring around their home as she would normally have expected. She went to his room and found him dangling off the edge of his bed with a self-inflicted .22-caliber bullet wound to his temple.
Over the next few hours in conversations with both Mark’s mother and a nephew of mine I leaned that Mark was being bullied at school not in a physical way, but socially by a clique. He was not part of the clique: they made fun of his stutter, his clothes, and his Attention Deficit Disorder-like behavior. He did what Bozo did to fit in – he tried out for the football team and made it. I saw him practicing by himself in his yard some days in full uniform. My nephew is very tall and has taken up basketball, and he is friends with Mark. Recently, in the workout room (which Mark was unable to use comfortably without being made fun of) he told my nephew his torments. He was still a misfit with this clique.
Mark also had a little girlfriend he fell madly in love with about four months ago. Young girls are not necessarily known for their tact or common sense. Mark’s bullies had spent a lot of time and effort dissuading this girl from hanging around such a loser as Mark. During school on the day he shot himself, she “broke up” with him, succumbing to a peer pressure that certainly no mature woman would ever consider.
In the end, what remained was a depressed, disenfranchised boy much like Bozo, who lived in isolation without anyone’s taking much interest in him. He was an altar boy at the local Catholic Church, and I found out he had done a stint the day before at the Mass there and seemed okay. Thus, one can only conclude that his tormenters, his inner turmoil, his immaturity, and the failure of those around him to recognize he might be troubled led to that moment around 4:20 PM on Monday, April 16, 2012, when two mutt dogs marked the passing of this boy by howling and raising a ruckus in response to a gunshot that only they heard.
I knew this boy casually. I did not know he was troubled, nor did I suspect anything might be seriously wrong with him emotionally. And I feel partially responsible for maybe not caring enough myself, sometimes giving him short shrift when he saw me out in the yard messing with the dogs, or whatever. He just reminded me so much of Bozo that I frankly dismissed his behaviors as something he would grow out of, not realizing that he perhaps did not have Bozo’s intestinal fortitude to soldier on. Some kids can take it. Others can’t.
I have recently had the extremely good fortune to have found a confidante in a very wonderful woman with whom some of my angst has been shared about many things. I was somewhat surprised at how deeply I was affected by this teen suicide – I usually pay little attention to such things. Under ordinary circumstances I probably would never have mentioned this at all to her, but it did feel good to kind of get it out there. She just listened and accepted it for what it was, a lament from a not-so-neutral neighbor man about a pesty kid who was really a pretty good guy overall.
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