I’m not looking to make light of bullying, which was a scourge when I was in grade school during the Eisenhower administration, and, by all accounts, is an even bigger scourge today. But nearly a half-century ago, I discovered a way to make the bullies in your life like you, or, at the very least, begin to reconsider why they get such a blast out of tormenting you.
It worked for me on a warm spring day in 1965, in 11th grade health class. The teacher, who doubled as assistant football coach, happened to be absent for the most important lesson of the term: avoiding sexually transmitted disease. The substitute, who appeared flustered just taking attendance, was clearly not up to the STD challenge. So she did what any sensible substitute would do under the circumstances — she summoned the AV (audio/visual) geeks to come in and show us a movie about syphilis.
If you’re of a certain age, you’ve probably seen this cinematic gem. It begins, as I recall, with a poorly chaperoned teenage party and a ride home that detours to make-out ridge.
Fade to the high school hallway, where the newly minted stud is confiding, sheepishly, to his best bud that something odd and disturbing is going on with his unmentionable. The friend wisely advises him to have the thing checked out, and at the end of the hall, the boy turns and opens the door to the nurse’s office …
And that was the extent of my high school syphilis education. The next thing I remember is looking up from the cold linoleum floor at a sea of worried, acned faces and a substitute teacher fluttering about like Don Knotts on acid. My friend, Michael, who was sitting immediately to my right, informed me that I had suddenly keeled over like a rootless oak, hitting the floor head-first. “How long have I been out? I asked. “About a minute,” said Michael. “We thought you were dead.” Suddenly, I felt the back of my head, which was just hearing the news, begin to ache.
And, then, I noticed Jerry among the crowd of gawkers. He was looking at me like I was his injured baby brother. With tears welling up in his eyes, he bent down beside me. “Hey, man, are you really OK?” he said. “You really had us scared.”
This tiny moment was even weirder than having fainted in health class. You see, Jerry was what we used to call a “hood” — a darker '60s variation on The Fonz. He and his fellow hoods — maybe 10 in the entire school — would show up each morning in homeroom (late, of course), dressed in jeans and loafers, cigarettes dangling from their lips, wearing no socks and sporting T-shirts with such witticisms as “69: Breakfast of Champions.” This type of sartorial misfeasance invariably got them sent home to change clothes, straighten up and fly right.
So, on that late afternoon in syphilis class, while Jerry was wearing socks and a buttoned-down shirt, underneath he was still a bully who liked to razz the spazzes, brainiacs, wimps and assorted high school losers (jocks were exempted). I was fairly adept at skating seamlessly among all these groups and so I managed to avoid the bullies’ wrath, but when Jerry and his ilk would eye me in the hallway, it was as something not worthy of a sneer. On those occasions where I came into closer contact with one of them, I was not above having a schoolbook knocked to the ground.
And now, here was Nelson Muntz crying over my wounded body. Like I said, it was a weird scene.
Anyway, the nurse finally arrived and brought me to her office, where I was forced to call my mother to come pick me up. The old lady, upon hearing that her son had fainted during a syphilis movie, could not stifle a laugh.
“You have to be kidding,” she said.
“Mom,” I countered, “just please come and get me the hell out of here.”
Later, wondering why I had fainted, I determined it must have been a combination of an incipient virus, the substitute’s decision to close the windows on a 90-degree day and my visceral distaste for the film’s subject matter.
As for the bully and I, we became good buddies. For the remainder of that school year, when Jerry would pass me in the hall, he’d address me with the kindness and warmth normally accorded a friend coming out of surgery. I never again received so much as a disagreeable glance from the hoods in the hall. Indeed, if I had chosen to go sock-less and wear "69" on my chest, I could probably have joined the crew.
In all seriousness, there are far more effective and socially acceptable ways of combating the ills of bullying. But, if all else fails, one can always turn up the heat, imagine your member festering and bang yourself in the head with a hammer. After all, a bully is just a friend you haven’t met while semiconscious.