On bullies

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Recently, one of the young people in my life shared that they had been experiencing significant bullying in school. It broke my heart to hear how cruel kids can still be. More importantly, it unearthed complex emotions I never knew were still dormant inside me. 

School districts around the nation have launched countless campaigns to bring attention to the devastation bullying can cause. While I applaud those efforts, I’m also a bitter realist. I can’t help but acknowledge the fact that while everyone seems to agree bullying is wrong, we have become a nation that rewards, applauds and even elevates bullies to its highest offices. 

With an army of sycophantic minions who applaud every vile attack former-President and now-convicted felon Donald Trump wages on his perceived enemies, we’ve become a nation that turns its back on human decency — just so long as we’re entertained.

I’ve seen clips from the rallies where Trump picks on disabled reporters, army veterans, respected political opponents, people who identify as transgender or gay and, frankly, anyone who dares not drink his particular brand of Kool-Aid. If someone in our community said the things Trump says on a daily basis, they would be ostracized. Instead, Trump’s supporters buy MAGA propaganda, send him millions in donations, repeat his slogans and emulate his bullying on others.

It’s a cycle that needs to stop.

One reason that bullying is such a sensitive topic for me is because I was a bully. Of all the horrible things I’ve done in my life, I feel the most shame for several instances when I was less than kind to my fellow students just because they were different. It wasn’t until I was well into college when I realized how much of a jerk I had been.

One thing to remember about bullies is that they only pick on others because they are afraid of being picked on themselves. I hate to use the word “coward,” but there’s really no other term sufficient to describe a bully. Instead of, “Treat others like you would like to be treated,” they adhere to the more Machievellian mentality of, “Treat others the way you are afraid to be treated in the hopes that they won’t treat you that way.”

School is a social minefield where these soon-to-be adults walk a tightrope every day. If you’re quiet and distant, you don’t exist. If you’re loud and outgoing, you’re an attention hog. You can’t be too fat, too thin, too tall, too short or too anything without someone picking on you. When kids leave the house to attend school, parents often have no idea what kind of struggles they endure in the classroom.

Of course, bullying isn’t isolated to the classroom or school grounds, but exists on every page of the internet. Where bullies in the classroom might leave lasting memories on those they pick on, cyberbullying leaves a record online forever, and can lead to depression, trouble with schoolwork and even thoughts of self harm. 

There are some glimpses of hope, though. In 2019, the National Center for Education Statistics released a survey that showed about 22% of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied at school, which was lower than the 28% reported in 2009. The survey also found that students in rural areas suffered from bullying more than those in suburban or urban areas. Perhaps that means as we become exposed to more people who are different from us, the more accepting we might be of their differences. (Oh no, is he talking about diversity?) Yeah, I am. Deal with it.

Whatever the case may be, bullying is wrong. It was wrong when I was in school and it’s wrong today. It doesn’t matter if it’s your next door neighbor doing it or the former president of the United States. Bullying is the sign of weakness, not strength.

I wish I could personally apologize to my fellow students for every taunt, joke or statement of ridicule made at their expense back in school. I wish I could take some actions back that I’m still ashamed of. I wish we could all just respect each other for what’s inside. 

For now, just know that inside every bully is a lost and lonely person unable to come to terms with their own emotions. It’s the ones who are bullied who are the true heroes, because they have the potential to turn these struggles into a fantastic origin story for a future life that will hopefully bring happiness and contentment. 

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