Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Escape And Evasion by David N. Brown Mesa Arizona

Originally published 2009 at

I am a "semi-pro" writer, currently 28 years old, and diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. I first received that diagnosis in 2002, and was not made aware of it until 2004, when I was about to start my last year of undergrad. To me, this was like having a name put to all the problems I had had before. One of those problems was bullying.

I did not perceive bullying until I reached fourth grade, and as far as I can recall, it was not initially something I found that much of a problem. It was, I think, significant that most of the name-calling I experienced up to that time came from classmates whom I at least knew by name. My consistent response was to give as good as I got. From what I can remember, I came to accept exchanging insults with certain people as a kind of social ritual, which at times could be almost impersonal to me. I suppose these people might just as well be called 'frienemies', to use much later slang.

The first exceptions were two budding sociopaths named Robbie and Ben. They were a year ahead of me, and made a hobby of bullying younger children. They weren't particularly "physical", but the fact that they were bigger than us ensured that the only alternative to taking their verbal abuse was hitting only to be hit back harder. Many of my encounters were with Robbie alone. The first I can recall was when he introduced me to the first sexual "joke" I heard, with a punchline "OW!" supplied of course by me. On at least two occasions, he used force against me. Once, he shoved me off a sidewalk where his class and mine were lined up side-by-side, into several inches of irrigation water. Another time, he hit me in the crotch, and a playground monitor sent me to the nurse's office (but, as far as I saw, did not even try to find Robbie). The worst single occasion was in 5th grade, when I ran into Robbie, Ben and several other older boys while I was exploring the field at the back of the playground. They didn't hit me, as I recall, but they harassed me and followed me until I was in tears. Then they went inside, because 6th grade lunch hour ended halfway through that of the 5th graders. I find it striking that Robbie and Ben were not people I had any kind of relationship with, even as personal enemies. I never saw them except on the bus, the playground and occasionally the halls. They could just as well have ignored me and everyone else in my grade. Instead, they did their best to make our days worse. I suspect, in hindsight, that their influence and that of others like them was a major reason pointless, anonymous bullying became pervasive among my own classmates.

But as the abuse spread, from enemies I at least knew by their first name to the horde of poorly known or entirely anonymous hecklers, I no longer had even the context of attack and retaliation to place it in. I think it was "stranger bullying" that finally left me feeling paranoid and demoralized. The worst of it came when a student who was in my class, but whom I never talked to, invented an insulting nickname for me. It was, I suppose, an insult I would have found routine and unimaginative even then, but it incorporated my own name, and that made it seem personal even from people I was sure were strangers. I hated it, and people who knew that made sure to share it with others. It seemed to spread to everyone in the 4th-6th grades, and then to the boys in my church. I became convinced that the only boys who would not use it against me were those who simply did not know who I was.

A common theme on this site is school officials who do nothing except punish victims. My experience was typical of the pattern. I very vividly recall going to a playground monitor, perhaps only once, and being told that she would not punish any bully unless he actually hit me. (In that event, we both got detention!) I took this, in what I can now recognize as typical "aspie" literal-mindedness, to mean that school policy said that no one could be punished for abuse that was "only" verbal. It was only when I finally started writing out my story as an adult that it finally occurred to me that it was far more likely that she was just making an excuse not to do her job. Yet, I think the bullies themselves must have had more or less the same impression, since even Robbie and Ben usually avoided hitting me until they provoked me into hitting them first.

Looking back on the fiasco of the school's discipline, the worst part is that I could have seen even at the time that the lazy playground monitor was not representative of the school staff. All my teachers were distressed and even angry at what they knew about the other kids' abuse. Even then, it registered to me (if only as the occasional anomalous datum) when my teachers became concerned when I came into class in tears, or so angry I threw things around room, or with bullies still at my heels. At one point, I heard even the principal say, "This nonsense has to stop!" Looking back on those times, I can no longer imagine that the staff would ever have upheld that lazy "monitor's" decision. If there had really been no penalties for verbal abuse, I am now quite sure that plenty of teachers and staff would have been willing to change the rules to add them. (I am sure it's possible I have misunderstood and misremembered what even the monitor really said and did, but I am not able to view her any more leniently for that.) But, at the time, I was not able to imagine that one adult could fail to speak for all adults, or to doubt that having one adult refuse to punish the bullies was the same as all the adults knowing and doing nothing.

In hindsight, I am pretty sure I misjudged even the other students. I was aware at the time that many if not most of the people calling that loathsome nickname were people I did not know by name. The natural conclusion now is that my nickname was that those "anonymous" bullies knew nothing about me except my nickname. Since not knowing so many of the bullies also left me with no good way to judge their numbers, it seems quite possible now that there weren't even that many of them. But, at the time, I never doubted that the bullies were, if not the actual majority, representative of how I was and would be treated by anyone who took notice of me at all. Once again, I held this belief in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary. I think I would have been aware enough at the time that the name-calling strangers were qualitatively different from my past "enemies"; even Robbie was someone I knew by name and had had a few civil conversations with. By 6th grade, the people actually in my class (including old "frienemies") were at least showing open respect for my intelligence; in hindsight, I think I was even "popular" after a fashion. But the name-calling never seemed to get better, and I could well have been right. My reaction was to do something exceptionally misguided: I tried to avoid everyone in 4th-6th grade.

I first tried to spend recesses in the library instead of on the playground. The library was supposed to be closed. At least once, I got in anyway, but the staff threw me out. Then I hit on going to a playground that was supposed to be reserved for 1st-3rd graders. This would get me out of the haunts of my current abusers, and I figured that the younger kids would not know who I was. Sure enough, I never heard the name spoken while I was on the other playground. Even so, I was constantly afraid even there. I was afraid one of the bullies in my own grade would follow me, and be followed by the rest. I had an at least equal fear, absurd in hindsight, that sooner or later the younger kids might start bullying me as badly as my peers. I considered myself safe in their midst only because they might not know of me and "the name". I believed I could only stay safe if I kept "unnoticed". (As I recall, it never occurred to me that they might be afraid of me, or that there was no way a 6th grader among 1st graders could fail to attract attention.) So, I refused to play with or talk to anyone even among the much younger kids. In my perception, interacting with people was not a solution to abuse, but its cause.

By and large, my problems with bullies ended at the start of jr. high (7th grade in my district). Unfortunately, this was when I ran into the worst of the bullies I had to endure, a boy named LaGrand. He had a diverse repertoire of abuse. The worst of his tricks was to make noises I couldn't stand (an Asperger's symptom that got worse at the time). During the second half of 7th grade, I had to spend four of my six periods with LaGrand, including PE and shop. Shop was worst, because the teacher had a habit of walking out for most of the period and leaving us to ourselves. Ironically, I really didn't like shop class that much, even apart from LaGrand, but I didn't realize that because I spent much of the time hiding to a storeroom to get away from LaGrand. When I stayed, I would end up either in tears or trying to hurt LaGrand. (And we were alone with a shop full of tools!) I learned after the fact that the teacher would be furious when he came back and found me gone. LaGrand never seemed to get punished. I am sure I could have had LaGrand expelled or at least pulled out of my classes at any time if I had reported him, but I still expected adult inaction, and I assumed they knew what was happening already anyway.

During the summer between 7th and 8th grade, I went through a significant transition. I began attending a church youth group (to this day, church provides my best social outlet), and spent a lot of time with new and old friends. I believe this was the first time I enjoyed social interactions in a large group. The summer was marred by the thought of going back to school and having to face LaGrand, but I think the new positive experience made it easier to make a resolution: If he bothered me, I would fight back until he left me alone or was gone from my presence. Sure enough, on the first day of school, I found LaGrand was in two of my classes (advanced placement English and history), and he immediately started harassing me again. My response was to tell him, very loudly, to castrate himself. I was sent out of the classroom, and the next day, the teachers had switched his English and history periods, so he wasn't in my classes any more. When he harassed me in lunch and in the hallways, I attacked him and choked him. We both spent the rest of the first week of school in all-day detention, and he never bothered me again.

I would say now that was the end of the intentional abuse I experienced. Unfortunately, I believed otherwise at the time. All the way through 12th grade, I continued to believe I was being actively abused and rejected, to a degree that could be considered paranoid. When a classmate made noises that caused me stress, I readily suspected he was doing it to harass me. If he didn't stop the first time I told him to, I would be sure of it. I repeatedly made threats over noise, and on several occasions actually attacked someone. On those occasions, I am sure I seemed like a bully myself. Then there were my first romantic interests. I spent all of jr. high pining for a girl who would not talk to me, and in 11th grade, I asked out two girls I considered friends who stopped talking to me immediately thereafter. In hindsight, the problem was just that I had no idea of the right way to interact with them as friends or potential girlfriends, and also that I was not able to interpret their behavior toward me (par for the "aspie" course). At the time, I felt very strongly that they were not just declining to date me, but rejecting me for every quality I had as a person.

I should mention a little about how I coped with the bullying. From my earliest years, I would make up stories. In 4th grade, I started drawing cartoons, and around fifth grade, I started drawing a regular strip called "Gordie", about kids going through the same experiences I did. It could easily be regarded as my imitation of the "Peanuts" strip, but when I look at them now, I find them even more like the Dilbert strip, which would have been very new and quite unknown to me at the time. Like Scott Adams with the office culture, I was able to observe the things that happened around me, send it through a funhouse mirror of satire and fantasy, and have a good laugh at the results. I believe that was also when I settled on something that I still find distinctive about my original work: I tried to create characters that were funny, but still reasonably intelligent, competent and even successful. In any event, I got plenty of humor and comfort from this in the midst of the abuse, and also entertained my classmates- maybe part of how I got noticeable respect. There have been times as an adult when memories of the bullying have made me feel as depressed or even more so than I did at the time. It has helped me to reread my old cartoons, and try to remember what it was like when I first drew them.

There is no doubt in my mind that my elementary school contributed to the bullying problem by not having enough alternatives. If the school had left the library open, I would have had a sanctioned refuge from the predatory strangers on the playground. If the school had provided a selection of sports, clubs and academic activities instead of turning us loose on the playground where the only vestige of rules and structure was a fat, lazy monitor, I might actually have had fun and learned to make friends. Incidentally, in the last week of 5th grade, the school arranged for the entire grade to go to some kind of science and nature camp, which I would have loved a few years later, but at the time I repeatedly refused to go. They finally parked me in a third-grade classroom with a load of exercises. I'm not sure whether I did this more because I was afraid of being away from home, or because being at school alone seemed preferable to being in a new setting with a bunch of known bullies.

Regarding bullying, I can draw two major conclusions from hindsight. The first is that bullies behave like predatory animals: As a rule, they ONLY target the potential victims who are LEAST able to defend themselves. The second is that there is no way for a victim to respond effectively to bullying while it is still going on. I can see this especially in my experience with LaGrand. I spent an entire semester enduring his abuse, only to dispose of him by the third day of the next semester. I don't think it is coincidence that the summer and getting involved in church group came between. This ought to be the final rebuttal to the rationalizations that bullying "toughens" people, or that victims are somehow at least partly at fault because their behavior "invites" bullying. Kids and adults need to be forced to admit that if a person really has a problem, which he or she really has the slightest control over, the ONLY way to "help" solve the problem is to FIRST be kind and accepting toward them. If instead they isolate, exclude or abuse the person, the only outcome they can reasonably expect is for that person's problems to GET WORSE.

David N. Brown
 Mesa, Arizona