Research on bullying suggests that many bullies enjoy dominating others in part because of “cognitive distortions” that silence their consciences (e.g., minimizing the hurtful impact of their words and deeds). Therefore, identifying and nurturing someone’s capacity for empathy might reduce bullying. In the following stories, two former bullies describe how a friendship and a trusting relationship with a mentor helped them change.
Bad Boy Gets a Conscience
(All names have been changed.)
When I was 10 to 14, I was a monster. It was as if my conscience had taken a long vacation. I did horrible things to people and didn’t care.
I ripped into other kids and mocked them until they cried. My friends and I called one kid “Bobby the Beaver” because of his teeth. We gnawed on pencils in front of him, making him squirm. And the other kids would laugh. We thought we were funny.
I think I got so mean because people in school picked on me. I had a bit of a stammer, and I got the vibe that people didn’t like me. We played charades once in class and although the correct word was “stupid,” several kids called out my name as the answer. That hurt.
Since people didn’t like me, I thought I might as well give them a reason. I turned being bigger to my advantage. If someone said or did something to me, I’d push him on the floor and sit on him. I’d say, “I’m not getting off you until you apologize.” I got my apologies.
I fought over anything. I’d take on kids younger than me, my age or older, whole groups, girls – anybody, as long as I thought I could win. A stare deserved a smart-ass comment, a smart-ass comment deserved a push, a push deserved a few punches, a few punches deserved getting stomped.
I wanted respect, and I discovered that if I was tough, people respected me. Or maybe they feared me. I didn’t understand the difference.
Then I met Lisa. She was into art, books, classical music and school – everything I wasn’t. She was the first girl I fell in love with. In my last year of junior high, I asked her to tutor me in math because it was the easiest way to start talking to her.
But when Lisa caught on to how I felt for her, she totally crushed me. She sat me down one day and said, “I know that you like me.” Then she said she could never see herself with me. “I think you’re a horrible person,” she said.
She stopped tutoring me and we stopped talking. I never let anything faze me, but that did. I felt the same way I must have made people feel: small and hurt.
I got really depressed in the last couple of weeks of junior high school. And when I started high school, I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have my heart in harming people anymore. I tried it a few times, just to get my confidence going, but it didn’t work. In junior high I had so much power, but in high school I was nothing.
I didn’t really know how to act toward people if they weren’t in fear of me. I’d had few relationships that didn’t revolve around my control of people. I became very brooding and quiet.
When I transferred into an alternative high school, my goal was to learn how to be social and to interact normally with people my own age. I had to learn how to communicate my feelings and ideas without being mean or aggressive. I also had to learn to respect people and not to insist on what I wanted.
First, I started observing people. When I used to pick on people, I’d study them to see where they might be vulnerable. Now I studied people I wanted to be my friends. I tried striking up conversations on the train or bus or in school. I began to see the beauty of people. I saw how frail a person could be, or honest, or compassionate, or smart and funny.
One person who helped set me on my current path was Anna. She was listening to her Walkman and I could hear the music, so I decided to ask her about it. I was nervous because she was beautiful, and pretty girls usually looked down at me.
But Anna was funny and had a sarcasm that made her approachable. She was from Europe and would fall into an accent when she told stories about life in her country. We’d talk on the phone once or twice a week. Once she told me her best friend had died and she was too depressed to do anything. But during our talk, I was able to make her laugh a few times and she told me that was the first time she’d laughed since her friend’s death.
I was happy I could do that for her. Even though she moved away soon after that and we lost touch, my friendship with Anna made me realize how good it felt to help someone.
Over time, I’ve learned that my goal shouldn’t be to redeem myself, as if – “poof!” – what I did in the past can be magically erased. Instead, what makes me happy is relating to people, having them trust me, and letting them know that they’re not all alone.
© New Youth Connections, New York
Fighting My Impulses
by Daniel Clarke
One time in my middle school class, we were working on an art project when one boy told me that I was doing it the wrong way. Automatically, I got angry and slapped his hand off of my paper. He tried to help me again.
So I socked him in the arm.
He cried and told the teacher. She sent me outside to cool off. “Forget this,” I said to myself. So I walked away. But a school guard caught me and brought me to the principal’s office, where I sat for a long while and thought about things. The principal threatened to call my mother. But I promised not to lose my cool again, so they let me go back to class.
See, I used to be the type of kid who got into trouble just to get my teachers angry and make their jobs difficult. My short temper and desire to always get my own way labeled me the class bully. I took my anger out on other students. I even got suspended a few times for fighting. But I didn’t care. “Things are going to be the way I want them to be,” I thought. I had no intention of changing my ways.
In fact, I liked the reputation of being a bully, because nobody messed with me. I was the person people feared. I was already bigger than everybody else, so I automatically had an advantage. Trouble was my middle name. I never lost a fight.
Then one day my mother brought me to the Big Brothers program in Los Angeles. Although she didn’t really talk to me about my troubles, she was aware that something needed to change. She wanted a positive male role model in my life. My dad wasn’t part of our family. My mother raised me and my younger sister alone. When I think about it, there weren’t too many men in my family. Mostly aunts and female cousins.
That day in the Big Brothers office they asked me questions about what I liked and made me draw some pictures. I didn’t know why they were asking all those questions. I was just following orders. My mother and I went home and we didn’t think twice about it.
Then one day my mom said I was going to hang out and have some fun with a guy called Damon. “Fun?” I thought to myself. “That sounds great.”
Damon and I met at the Santa Monica Pier. At first, I felt nervous. He was much older than me and looked like a businessman. We played at the arcade and before I knew it, my nervousness went away.
We got together once a week. Sometimes we went to the movies, played pool or went swimming. He constantly asked me about school.
It wasn’t easy to trust him. Or anyone. I had trust issues and really couldn’t explain why. That was just who I was.
Still, Damon kept coming around. He never gave up on me. Every Saturday we’d get together. He’d always ask those darned questions. After a while, I realized he wasn’t going to leave me, so I started to trust him. He told me that if I did better in school, the teachers would like me more and I wouldn’t get in so much trouble. He told me that over and over and over.
I thought about what he said. “Why not? It couldn’t hurt,” I said to myself.
But it was really hard to change my old ways. I had to fight off my impulse to clock someone. One time at school I was making a house out of some blocks. One boy came up to me and said that I was doing it wrong. He wanted to take control and show me how to do it. I felt the urge to whack him. “Shut up!” I wanted to scream.
But I didn’t.
Instead, Damon’s voice clicked on in my head. I heard him saying, “Try to solve things without fighting. Try to work with others, not against them.”
I took a deep breath and then told the boy he could help if he wanted to. And I didn’t get into any trouble that day, even though I wanted to hit him. I was learning how to control myself.
© LA Youth, Los Angeles
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