Monday, October 24, 2011

Bullying Knows No Age Limit

Although I joke around a lot, and as my friend, Sydney, in high school said to me once, “You use humor to mask pain,” this is one time when I will not be using much humor if any.

On October 20, many of us where I work wore purple for Spirit Day, in solidarity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth who have been bullied and to decry bullying of all types. Spirit Day was established in 2010, and while I am one who shuns candlelight vigils, memorials, and ribbon wearing in general, this particular day, hits home with me.

A lot of what I am about to tell you I have never told anyone, not my family, not my friends, not even a therapist, and here I am telling my few followers and some strangers on the internet, but something happened in the last few days that made me want to speak out against bullying in all forms and let those who are bullied know one can survive.

I have also learned that the bullies do not care how old you are because a bully is a bully.

I was bullied.

From the time I was nine years old until around age seventeen, I was bullied. And, the bullies I encountered weren’t always teenagers, a few were adults – adults in positions of authority who were responsible for shaping the minds of young children.

In 1971, I was in the third grade at South Morrison Elementary School. My teacher was Mrs. Motley, and I hope she is reading this. Once a day, students went to different rooms for reading class, depending on their reading level.

When I returned to Mrs. Motley’s room after reading class one October Monday, one of my fellow students came up to me and asked me why I killed Jesus (although there is a large Jewish community in Newport News, we did not live near any of our tribe members, so I was the only Jew in my entire elementary school). I didn’t know how to respond. I was nine years old. Then, another kid asked me that. And another. As I would later find out, Mrs. Motley told the students who stayed with her for reading class that I killed Jesus.

Around five or six kids proceeded to push and shove me until another teacher intervened while Mrs. Motley just watched. Things were never the same after that. I also learned early on that raising the issue with anyone on the administrative staff was pointless. The teacher, no matter how anti-Semitic, was always right. I also never told my parents about this because of the shame I felt in being shoved around and not fighting back.

Magruder Middle School was a continuation of the bullying that began that October day in Mrs. Motley’s class. Now, what happened there would never happen at a school today. The busses dropped us off at 7:30 every morning, but we were not allowed to enter the school until 8:15. Therefore, around 300 students would hang around the school yard with one teacher watching them for forty-five minutes no matter the weather. The kids who bullied me in elementary school found this to be a perfect opportunity to recruit others to pick on me. They would come up as a gang and kick me in the shins every morning. I complained to Miss Cochran, but she laughed. I reported them to the assistant principal, but that just made things worse. So, I learned to buck it up.

Miss Cochran was also my sixth grade social studies teacher, and during the holidays, she asked me to tell the class about Hanukah like this, “Now, the only Jew in our class is going to tell you about Hanukah.”

Before, I could even speak, one girl in the class, yelled out loud, “Come on, Jew boy, tell us about it.”

I chose to keep my mouth shut.

One day, we had a substitute teacher in that same class, and that same girl told him we had a Jew in the class. He walked back to my desk (I always sat in the back due to my height although I could barely see the blackboard), put his hands around my throat and told me he was going to choke me to death, and no one was going to do anything about it. No one did. The bell rang, and I ran from that classroom. I didn’t even bother reporting him because I had learned that no one in this environment would believe me.

I had by now learned that bullies come in all forms, and often they are egged on by children. I suspect this is still the case today in some schools.

By this time, I had been called all kinds of names in the hallway, including kike and faggot. I also learned to ignore people and keep walking, looking straight ahead. By reacting, I would give them the power. Unfortunately, some who are bullied, don’t learn this and end up giving up, or worse, committing suicide.

I would have told my family, but my father was Mr. Macho, and from what I gathered from the behavior he displayed and the stories he told, he was a bully. I suspect my mother was also.

In intermediate school, the group that once bullied me, stopped. I guess they got tired of bullying someone who never reacted and never told on them. Sure, I was taunted a bit here and there, but not as much as before – until ninth grade. I then encountered a new kind of bully. The facilitator.

Ninth grade was a nightmare thanks to Coach Steven Umphlett and a group of bullies who would make my life hell later in high school. He was my gym and health teacher. For half the year, you took gym. For the other half, you took health. Well, you pretty much watched films. And, these former high school athletes with mail order diplomas never really taught you anything.

During the gym portion of the year, we had a wrestling sequence, but we weren’t taught how to wrestle by Coach Umphlett. We were matched up and told to wrestle in front of everyone. I was matched up with the biggest guy in the class, who as it turned out was on the wrestling team. He pinned me in no time. I thought that would be in the end of it, but he was continuously asked to pin me while the coach watched. To his credit, and I won’t mention his name, he felt really bad about it and apologized after class. But, when our “match” was over, Coach Steven Umphlett told the class, and I quote: “Stern, you should have been a girl because you are always on your back.”

This set me up to be harassed and bullied like I had never been bullied before with the blessing of an asshole who just wanted to be known as the cool teacher.

During the health portion of the year, every time the lights would go out for a film to begin, which was just about every day, someone would throw a book at the “faggot’s” head. I learned to duck, but I was not always successful. I could not wait for the year to be over. Surprisingly, one of the football players in the class felt sorry for me and started to defend me because I wouldn’t defend myself (and how can one boy stand up to a group of twenty boys?). But whenever he was out of class, the book throwing would begin again. Where was the coach? Sitting there laughing the whole time. I even suspect he threw the book a couple of times, himself.

I always wondered how many other students suffered at the “supervision” of this prick, and I always said that if I ever ran into him again, I would punch him in the face.

Outside of gym class, there was this group who drew swastikas on my locker, put thumb tacks in my chair and did other humiliating things to me while teachers watched.

I did not get into the National Junior Honor Society on the first round because two of those teachers said I did not get along with my peers. This time, I did speak up. I went directly to the sponsor, who was not one of my teachers, and told her everything. She was appalled and as a victim of racism, herself, sympathetic to my cause and made sure I was inducted. She was one of two allies I had on the faculty at Huntington Intermediate School.

Enter Warwick High School and the beginning and the end. At the insistence of my mother and brother and against my wishes, I was forced to apply to join the Key Club, which stands for Kiwanis Encourages Youth. There were the Key Club and the Keyettes. To this day, I do not know the purpose of this club as it stood in high school. I was already on the yearbook staff, an officer in both AFS and the Spanish Club, and a member of the Math club. My mother felt I should be like other boys and be in a masculine club. As you know, I have no desire to be like the others and especially a part of a club full of guys who made my life hell in intermediate school.

But wait until you hear how it worked in the late 1970s. One had to pledge and then be voted in by the present members. What does that sound like? Yep, a fraternity.

And, here is how they got away with it in high school. On Wednesday evenings, they would hold a “business meeting” at 7:00 pm. At around 8:00 pm, the PTA sponsor and faculty sponsor would say, “you boys are doing a great job” then leave. They would leave! Yes, leave a bunch of high school students in a room with no adult supervision at night in an almost empty school. That is when the hazing began. Those two adults were as responsible as the kids for what ensued.

I actually put up with all of the hazing and volunteered for all their activities the two months of pledging. Then came the final evening, and after the adults left, the pledges were left in the girls’ room and brought into the classroom one at a time to answer questions. When it was my turn, I was told to close my eyes while they put a piece of candy in my mouth. I objected, but they said it was just candy.

It was a used condom.

I have to stop here.

# # # #

I was then bombarded with personal questions that a fifteen-year-old should not have to answer by a group that included those same guys who put swastikas on my locker and thumb tacks in my chair. There were also quite a few Jewish jokes. I did notice that one guy in the room seemed upset, and after about fifteen minutes, asked his colleagues to stop. They let me go, and for the first time, since my initial encounter with bullying, I let it get to me. When I got home, I went to my room, closed the door and cried my eyes out. The irony was I never wanted to join this group.

A note to parents: Never force your child to join a club or team he doesn’t care to and be sure there is an adult present at all activities.

The following day, the “invitations” to join the Key Club were delivered to the lockers of new members. I didn’t get one, but someone who did not even go through the hazing process, and a bully himself, did.

It would be my first encounter with a clique.

Because they did not vote me in, I was not allowed to join the National Honor Society during the first induction period because – you guessed it – I didn’t get along with my peers. Being the only guy not to be allowed into the Key Club in recent memory branded me. The bullies from the Key Club got into the National Honor Society on the first round. Teachers thought they were cool.

Now, one would think that was the end of it. It wasn’t. Now my home was the target. The Key Club toilet papered our house, egged our cars, dumped trash in our yard and harassed me right and left throughout the tenth and eleventh grade. By twelfth grade, they were exhausted.

Funny thing happened. One of my friends got into the Key Club our senior year, and he said some of the guys felt bad about how I was treated and wanted me to join. I refused. To this day, I don’t go where I am not welcome or invited. I don’t even go to parties with friends unless I am personally invited.

When I returned to Warwick High School as an English teacher, the first thing I asked about was the Key Club. It had been reorganized after numerous complaints, including letting anyone who wanted to join to do so without being voted in or hazed. They also performed charity work with adult supervision at all times.

I actually made it to my early thirties with no problems, until I moved to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Washington, DC. For those who don’t know me, I am six-four, wear colorful clothes, and at the time had a nine-pound parti-poodle. While walking my dog the first few years I lived there, I would be harassed by this group of young adults, I assumed were former bullies. I heard:

“Look at the faggot walking that shitty ass dog.”

“Next time you come out here, we’re gonna kill your faggoty ass dog.”

“Go back to your mother you faggoty ass bitch.”

In Rockville, there was a similar group of teenagers who would call out faggot while I was walking my dog.

Faggot never bothered me and neither did these new forms of bullies. I do hate the word queer. My mother once said, “God hates queers.”

What did I do? I did what I did all those years in school. I ignored them and continued on my way. I survived, but there were times I wondered why I was the subject of their bullying. Did I have a target on me?

Now, I am a gay Jew in a trailer park. Although the average age of our residents is fifty-five, there is this small group of teenagers who smoke pot in the woods and say things as I walk by  the playground with my dog. One of them found out my name, and he likes to say, “Nice outfit, Mister Milton.” “Looking sharp, Mister Milton.” “Nice shoes, Mister Milton.” I haven’t figured him out, but I hear him giggling with his friends when he thinks I am out of earshot. Little do they know I have the hearing of a twenty-year-old.

The other day, four months after moving in here, one of them egged my car in broad daylight. They had to have gone to a lot of trouble to do this. Get an egg, walk over to my car then throw it. I mean one doesn’t walk around with eggs all the time. My car was the only one targeted.

My neighbors were appalled, and it is nice to have adults on my side. One said it is just a bunch of bored teenagers.

Oh, I think this was more than boredom.

Like acne, bullying never really ends, but the secret is never letting them see you sweat, or you give them the power.

If you know someone who has been bullied, I hope this gives you a better understanding of what they have been through.

If you have been bullied, I hope you find inspiration in my story because although I still encounter aspects of it, I survived, and I will never let them ruin or take over my life. They will never win.

If you are a teacher who encourages or tolerates bullying, I hope someone reports you. Times, thank God, have changed.

If you are the parent of a bully, shame on you.

If you are an adult who still bullies people, go fuck yourself.

If you like what you just read, follow me, get on my email list and tell your friends.


  1. "Like acne, bullying never really ends, but the secret is never letting them see you sweat, or you give them the power."

    TRUTH! When I was bullied that was the one thing that I always held true too. With the exception of a couple of times when I had enough and lost my temper. A few years after I graduated from high school one of my former bullies from jr. high told me that not getting a rise out of me pissed him off even more. Eventually by the time high school came around the bullying was less frequent and those of us who were formerly bullied started backing each other up with insults of our own. By Sr year we were left alone.

    Thank you for sharing this Milton. Kids can be some mean little shits.

  2. Thank you for sharing this Milton, my heart broke for you as I read this. I was never a bully myself, but my family is full of "religious bullies" and I was bullied a lot, I was bullied yesterday. I've gotten in the habit of not telling anyone anything, of keeping it all to myself, the hurt, the pain, the intense desire to just...disappear. But you said it bullying never really ends but the secret is to never let them see you sweat. Reading your story has helped me pull my feet through the sludge of all that bullshit just a little bit easier that before. So thank you for that.