I Bumped Into My Childhood Bully 10 Years Later
And learned what one bully unexpectedly looks like after a few years of life.
There were a few boys that picked on me over the years.
One particularly bad bully was Adam; he used to torment me. He was prone to your typical behavior: pushing me repeatedly, punching me in the stomach. You wouldn’t have liked sharing a playground with this boy.
He enjoyed trying to instigate fights while crowds looked on: humiliation was part of the appeal. I was too afraid to fight back and was embarrassed by my cowardice.
In my defense, Adam was rather large around age 11, larger than myself and the other boys. So the prospect of fighting brought a lot of apprehension.
Should I fight back? Or will that get me beat to a pulp in front of everyone?
I chickened out.
My experience didn’t traumatize me or leave me with any of the maladies that plague so many bullying victims. But the memories don’t bring good vibes. They certainly aren’t my happy place.
Fortunately, the harassment was only periodic. It came in waves. Adam patrolled the playground, going from target to target. Occasionally, he got in trouble. But never in enough trouble to put an end to it all. It has been a long-standing tragedy that teachers are piss poor at policing bullying in schools.
Bullying is a curious thing. It seems to manifest out of nowhere on playgrounds and, these days particularly, online. It always makes one wonder how it all started.
Adam always had a scowl. He had an aura of anger and agitation with the world, like a small volcano, looking for locals to spew his wrath on.
I’d actually been to Adam’s house for a group party before. He did sort of fit the cliched backdrop of a bully. He came from a broken home. His mother was absent from his life. He knew very little of her, which is a bit unusual. And he did mention that his father was frequently gone for work.
Full disclosure, I am not a psychologist nor am I qualified to comment on the pathology of bullying. But I have heard, more than once, that a bad home life is frequently a source of aggression. Who knows. Either way, his circumstances didn’t justify his behavior. And his behavior was something that I simply had to live with.
For boys, in particular, physical conflict on the playground is almost inevitable. At some point, you will be confronted about something, or nothing in some cases, your mere existence and appearance being grounds you getting your ass kicked.
Society signals that boys should be these tough things that stick our chest out and punch out bad guys and beat down those that disrespect us. This societal conditioning not only becomes a powerful agent of bullying but it also insulates the bullying from authority figures. After all, telling those authority figures often renders us, soft little tattletales, in the eyes of hyper-masculinity.
Boys are tested on playgrounds. We are put in precarious positions where much larger boys stand over us. They occupy and challenge our sense of domain. They give us limited options, with people looking on, who we know may be wondering if we are tough or wimpy. Our self-respect is put on a collision course with our sense of safety.
Adam was one of those over-sized boys who enjoyed testing other kids, but only if they were smaller than him. Heck of a hard test for Adam, right?
I’d seen him do bad things to boys that were smaller than me, holding them down and putting sand in their pants. I’d seen him grab kids by the hair for no reason, while throwing them around as they grimaced, holding his wrists, in pain. I’d seen him use every slur in the book on every available target. He was bad juju.
Fortunately, I only had to deal with him periodically for two difficult school years. We moved away from Virginia Beach for my dad’s military career.
It was 10 years later.
I was 21 years old. My family now lived in Virginia Beach. I was back in town from college. It was summer. And the parties abounded in “the 757” as we called it (the area code for Virginia beach). It was a weekend night. I was at one such house party near the beachfront. It was a three-storied townhouse and early in the evening.
It was a fairly populated party, maybe a few dozen people. It was dimly lit. There was music playing and lots of laughing and conversation.
Specifically, I remember being in a kitchen, near a keg, drinking beer and talking to a few friends. Though my memory fails me, our conversation probably involved humor, the lack of girls at the party, or something related to sports. We were a bit basic. And gladly so.
And as we were talking, suddenly, I heard in an overly loud, voice, “SEAN …..SEAN KERNAN?!?!?!?”
And I see a figure pushing through, smiling, beaming straight at me.
It was him.
Strangely, he came pacing over like we are long lost best friends. He came over and shook my hand and gave me this over the top bro hug.
I think we’ve all had moments where we reminisce and think of ways we could have owned someone in an argument, or where we wished we’d punched someone who totally deserved it. I’ve certainly had a list of those moments and a few of them definitely involved Adam. I’m sure my child self envisioned my fist sailing across his chin, followed by me being carried on everyone’s shoulders while they chanted my name.
And here he was.
My childhood bully.
Delivered on a platter, standing right in front of me. And boy had things had changed since we were boys.
Where Adam had been larger than all of us on the playground, he now stood much shorter than I. He was apparently among the chosen who had “peaked early”.
I, on the other hand, had continued growing until I was nearly twenty. I am not a small man. I was a Division 1 athlete, and a bit more equipped to deal with a bully at this junction in life. I’d also had a few years to consider my attitude towards bullies.
And yet I felt nothing close to the urge to brawl with Adam.
Candidly, it would have been easy. But, still, although I’ve had few minor run-ins with people over the years, I’m not the violent type. I’m more about positivity and love.
Now granted, if he pulled some shenanigans and thought the bullying would have flown again, there would have surely been an awakening. But, given his pandering behavior, it didn’t seem like that was a likely scenario. I would be bully-free that night. As I had been for many nights before.
Honestly, I found myself feeling bad for the guy. He was in this pathetic drunken stupor. And with a painful lack of subtlety, he was bragging to everyone in the kitchen about how many girls he’d banged that week. He was grossly out of shape, sporting a “dad bod” at only 21-years of age.
And although he was overtly friendly with me, I actually don’t know that Adam had changed for certain. After all, I was no longer an easy target for him. So how could I know?
But I will say, in the years since I’d moved, I’d heard rumors about him. He’d apparently been kicked out of the local school and sent to a much bigger public school where he made the mistake of trying to bully kids from the wrong side of the track, and was quickly “counseled” in the err of his ways.
Perhaps Adam had gotten his and been reformed out of his bullying. Or maybe he’d just learned on his own. Or maybe he was still a bully, in the poorly veiled guise of a long lost friend that night.
Though I have a pretty unpleasant past with Adam, I avoided conflict with him. Any such conduct would be nothing short of dated, petty revenge.
There’s an old saying by Confucious, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
And what he means is that you dig a grave for your intended and a grave for yourself. If I had picked a fight with Adam, I would have become the very thing I hated. I would have become the bully just as he had become the easy target.
That night, we had a pleasant conversation. We caught up on how our lives were going. And then we went out separate ways.
I don’t think I am better than Adam. I’ve made my share of mistakes over the years too. There are plenty of things I wish I could take back. But I do hope he is doing well and has not inflicted any more pain on the people around him.
Life is short, too short for me to be carrying around anger towards him, and too short for him to be carrying anger towards the world.