Straight from the Bullied’s Mouth

I’m going to take a different track and offer a word or nine hundred on bullying. Under the current ethos, I guess you characterize what I experienced as bullying, starting in roughly 6th grade and continuing until about sophomore year in high school. I figure skated for ten years. I started playing hockey very young and at the same time took skating lessons. It was some point shortly thereafter when I traded in my hockey boots for figure skates.

I can’t really recall what it was that I liked about figure skating more than hockey. I’m an only child, so perhaps the whole team spirit thing wasn’t for me. I also vaguely remember David, my instructor. My memories of him always seem like he was so old, but I later learned that he was an 18 year old kid making some extra bucks doing private lessons. I didn’t have much exposure to high school kids, so he made quite an impression.

My family and I took skating very seriously. They must have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on me and the sport, between traveling, lessons from skating and dance coaches, personal training, and boots, which were about a thousand bucks a pop and required two separate hours long fitting sessions with this old guy, a skate cobbler, in an upstairs workshop in an apartment shared with his wife. I remember spending an entire summer at a skating camp in Atlanta; two fellow skaters from that camp in Georgia ended up in the Olympics. When I returned, expectations were high because I spent three months with an Olympic coach. Perhaps I was weak willed, but I just could not take it. I took six months off, tried a couple of sessions, and sophomore year I called it quits. My family was devastated, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.

The only thing I remember about the time I quit were the eyes. You see, for the years I skated at the same rink in Western Pennsylvania, our early evening freestyle sessions would end just before hockey practices. Impatient players came out of these narrow hallways from the locker rooms, all suited up, and hung out against the boards. As the only boy on the ice, sometimes one of two, I remember the taunts directed at me through the boards. After six months of living as a normal teenager, when the harassment returned when I headed back to the ice, I was done.

School was worse still. No one cared what I did in elementary. As soon as we hit sixth grade, I heard “faggot” on a daily basis. I grew up in an extremely white and extremely average suburb outside of Pittsburgh. Even as late as the mid-1990′s, cheerleaders and athletes ruled the school. Anything you did outside the school, a sport or other activity, was not deemed as legitimate, it was foreign, strange, and uncomfortable.

Over the years, I tried everything to make the teasing stop. I wrote an article for the school paper in seventh grade about skating, thinking that information would help. Well, I happened to mention that skating might be harder than playing football or baseball, so I never heard the end of it. Never mind that I had already broken my arm and wrist, and would later skate on a broken tailbone.

Then one time I snapped. One of my regular harassers was following me down a hallway and stepping on the backs of my shoes. I remember to this day, right outside an art room, shouting, “Jesus Christ,” and punching him in the mouth. Immediate in-school suspension.

Bullying sometimes initiates difficult conversations, even if reasonable people agree that it should stop. We must acknowledge that sexism, classism, racism, and homophobia, bigotry of all kinds, are the primary drivers. It’s hard to admit the problems and begin those healing conversations because, especially in the case of sexual orientation, these are largely taboo topics in schools. And, believe it or not, some teachers, like many adults, are and have grown up to be bigots, so they’re not necessarily buying into anti-bullying measures as a priority.

In my case, the harassment had a lot to do with homophobia in my community. I was participating in what was seen as a gay or effeminate sport. Therefore, I was an object of derision. But as a white, heterosexual male, I do not think it needs to be all about sexual orientation. We can safely initiate conversations with a school or community’s understanding of how they define gender and sexuality. Are we limited to two categories? Are boys and girls only permitted to engage in certain activities or sports? And if they do participate in something challenging prevailing norms, should they be subject to daily ridicule or violence? Maybe we should consider, as an effort complementary to anti-bullying measures, a pro-feminist and pluralistic appreciation of our inherent right to choose how we perform the most basic characteristics and preferences of our social identities. This way, perhaps educators reluctant to discuss sexuality could at least begin the conversation with the unreasonable and unfounded expectations we have of the everyday roles of men, women, boys and girls.

Learn more about how you can help stop school bullying.

Shaun Johnson is an assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University. He taught fifth grade in Washington, D.C. and Silver Spring, MD, returning to the classroom recently teaching for a summer program in a D.C. public charter school. He earned his PhD from Indiana University and researches and publishes on elementary social studies and masculinity in education, particularly the lack of male teachers. He has his own education blog and podcast called At the Chalk Face.

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