I started school a year later than my first grade classmates because my family had moved from Maine, where children don’t go to kindergarten. I had also come from a rural village where our nearest neighbor was a quarter mile down the road.
Adjusting to city life was made a little easier by the nearby Golden Gate Park, living in the working class community of the Haight-Ashbury and across the street from our church, Hamilton Methodist.
My first year in school presented the wonders of learning as well as the constrictions of sitting at a desk when we were called in from the yard. In Maine, I had had years of nearly complete freedom to roam as far and as wide as my pre-schooler legs could carry me.
My independence and self-reliance did not prepare me for the urban school experience. During that first year, a girl twice my size approached me during recess and told me she intended to beat me up after school. She did not offer a reason.
Fortunately, self-preservation is a primordial, embedded instinct. At the end of the day, I was out the door and on my way home as fast as my first-grader legs could go, my would-be assailant left behind but not forgotten.
Like any six-year old with parental overseers, I told my mother.
For the next few weeks, my mother walked me to school and came to meet me at the end of the day. This was a chore too many after a while. I also became disenchanted with the restrictions, as being walked to and fro limited my opportunities for adventure and exploration.
By mutual agreement, my mother sent me on my way alone. Since my personal nemesis had not forgotten her threat, I was careful to rush in to be among my fellow six-year-olds and to rush out with the same intent. Sometimes, there is safety in numbers.
From somewhere, I had the notion that I had to confront this girl. Armed with nothing more than fear and a straight back, I asked her “Why do you want to beat me up?”
She accused me of snitching to the teacher about something she had done. I declared that I had not. And that was the end of weeks of anxiety and self-inflicted trauma.
I wish I had the ability to garner the courage, at every juncture, my first-grader heart gave me, but as we grow and experience more of the dangers of interpersonal communication, the stakes are higher, the outcome less certain and often more costly.
The sense of betrayal and the equal sense of guilt, the vague sense that we must have done something to warrant the bullying, compound to confuse and enervate our stronger selves.
Bullying from family members, friends and co-workers presents so many more difficult possibilities, making a quick getaway seems the safest, most logical answer but at what cost to our sense of self-esteem and worth? The humiliation of being victimized seems to stick around a lot longer than a sense of triumph but it is the fleeting triumph that gives us the strength to overcome the next time.
And so, the bullies in my novels are vanquished and their intended victims get all they want and deserve from a life well-lived. Writing is a brave act in and of itself. The real bullies in our lives will never know, but we do.