When the passive bully grows up

I didn’t really “fit in” in elementary school. I was scrawny, awkward, and couldn’t afford nice enough clothes to avoid the taunting of my fellow pygmys. I had two outfits that “worked,” and I wore these on rotation, hoping nobody would notice that Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were “Rose Bowl Sweats” days, and Tuesdays and Thursdays were “long-sleeved, Pseudo-pajama Superman shirt” days. (When spring came around, I was reaaaaaaaly screwed.)

I didn't fit in growing up and was occassionally bullied

I vividly remember the agony of not quite understanding the social statutes, wondering if today would be the day that I’d commit a fashion faux pas or accidentally let gas pass during silent reading time.

Fortunately, for the most part, I remained unnoticed of the cruelest of my peers.

I was lucky.

Eugene1To protect this individual’s identity, I have used a fictitious name was not. The kid wore Malcolm-X-style glasses several decades too late, bell-bottom pants, and cartoon-themed shirts more fitting on a first-grader than a fifth-grader. The poor kid must have had terrible allergies–his nose was always running and there was always a crusty outline of dried mucus below his nose.

Photo illustration of a bullied (passive bullied and active bullied) elementary school kid

(Photo is not really Eugene. It’s for illustrative purposes only).

All unforgivable, according to the ruthless social mandates of elementary school.

When someone doesn’t “fit in,” people tend to do one of two things. They either ridicule them and attempt to force them to live up to their standards (the active bully), or they pretend they don’t exist (the passive bully).

I don’t know which is worse.

Particularly for Eugene. What nobody knew was what was going on at home.

But I liked the kid. He had a smile wider than a canyon that could lighten a black hole. Every day, he greeted me with that same warm smile and I felt drawn to him.

Photo illustration of bullied (passive bullied and active bullied) kid smiling

But social pressure pulled me another direction.

I can’t be seen with Eugene, I’d say to myself. But I really like the kid. But he was “weird” and didn’t “fit.”

But I liked him.

But he didn’t fit in.

As I recall, my behavior probably reflected my thoughts–warm on some days, cool on others.

One day, my relationship with Eugene changed. The day was rainy and deeply overcast–the sort of cloud-cover that makes you feel like you’re at the bottom of the ocean–dismal and suffocating. What I needed was to see Eugene smile with his characteristic optimism.

But he wasn’t there.

No big deal, right? It’s elementary school. Kids get sick. Sometimes they skip. Nothing out of the ordinary. Right?

A second day goes by. Eugene wasn’t there.

I started to wonder.

Until I heard the whispers….

“Did you hear about Eugene’s dad?”

My stomach turned and I felt sick. Something was off. I bent forward, attempting to find out what happened.

And I did.

There was a reason Eugene wore clothes that didn’t fit from decades of the past. That’s all his mom and dad could afford. Those hand-me-down glasses weren’t the right prescription, but Eugene could at least see the board.

No, Eugene wasn’t a social misfit. He was a victim of circumstances–deadly circumstances.

What I didn’t know was that Eugene’s dad was a known drug-dealer. I remember the guy–massive and foreboding, at least to a fifth-grader. The man had dreadlocks and a look that froze me in place. He was a man with a reputation for having cocaine and cash.

That reputation cost him his life.

Bullet hole. The bullied kid's dad was murdered.

While Eugene and his little brother were sleeping, three men broke into the man’s home, looking for a high and hard cash. His dad leaped from his bed and ran for the door, but not before the perpetrators fired–killing the man, right in front of his wife and two small kids.

Eugene watched his dad die.

Eugene did eventually come back to school, but only for a day. In the years since, I’ve wondered why. Why just one day? Why come back at all?

I can only speculate. I wonder if he came back to fill a void. With dad gone, with mother and brother vacant with grief, I wonder if he came to make a human connection.

What did he find?

Nothing.

Word had spread. As Eugene entered the room, it filled with whispers and sideways glances. But nobody reached out to him! Nobody asked him how he was doing! Nobody offered a handshake, or a hug, or even uttered a word of condolence!

Including me.

Active bullies on the left and passive bully on the rightWe did as we always did–pretended he didn’t exist. Passive bullying at its finest.

I should have done something.

For years, I’ve regretted doing nothing that day and I’ve regretted doing little before that day. For years, I’ve wondered what might have happened had I reached out to him and offered a hand of friendship.

So here I am. Eugene–if you’re out there…

I’m sorry.

Combating the passive bully

In restitution for what I did, I have tried to reach out, tried to befriend the friendless, tried to defend those who couldn’t defend themselves.

But there’s something more I can do. Over the last few years, I’ve seen an influx in blog posts, videos, programs, and commentaries on bullying. But here’s my problem–we love to hate the bully. We love to throw our budgetary dollars at addressing the active bully.

But what of the passive bully?

Active bully on the left and passive bully on the right

What about the young, or old, Dustins out there that don’t actively taunt those who don’t fit in, but instead turn a blind eye when they should “love [their] neighbor.”

What can we do about the passive bully? I’m not sure programs and politics can fix that.

The solution, I think, is you. The solution is me. The solution requires recognizing the problem and taking a stand.

Today, I am taking a stand. I hope you will take a stand and say I will not be a part of it! When someone is alone or neglected or harassed, let us all have the courage to stand beside the one who stands alone.

In the words of Buddha, Muhammad, Confucius, and Jesus Christ–befriend the friendless, love those that are hated, and reach out to those who are alone.

But really, I don’t have all the answers. I need you. Let’s chat. It’s a problem and it needs to be fixed. What can we do? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know your thoughts.


Footnotes   [ + ]

1. To protect this individual’s identity, I have used a fictitious name

22 thoughts on “When the passive bully grows up

    • It’s interesting that that scripture doesn’t say, “you get to go to heaven because you never beat anybody up or ridiculed anyone.” It seems more is expected of us 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  1. Fixing me is the easy part. Breaking the cycle is incredibly hard. I stop and teach and challenge and question them constantly, but only time will tell if it is enough.

  2. I was a Eugene. I want you to know that I’ve never blamed the passive bullies. And I’ve learned to forgive the active ones too. To you and those who find themselves thinking as you do, I forgive you. I can’t do on behalf of all Eugenes, but for what it’s worth, I forgive you.

    I can add one thing to your story; it would have been wonderful had someone extended kindness to me, but I never trusted a friendly hand even when it was extended. I always expected that if I let someone be nice to me they’d turn around and hurt me worse for it. It’s a hard place to be.
    So I’ve got two things to say. First, to the Eugenes out there: the greatest healing you’ll find for the wounds you’ve suffered in in lifting others. Second, to the Dustins: Don’t give up. If you’re going to extend that kind hand you’re going to have to be patient. Like an abused animal it will take time to trust again. Don’t give up if you’re buffeted away at first. You could be saving a life.

    • Wow, Cole. That’s fantastic. I really appreciate you popping in and giving your insights, especially given your perspective. And it’s also a great reminder that our behaviors may not be appreciated at first, but over time, perhaps we can lift the Eugenes and Coles out there. Thanks again.

  3. I think everyone should be looking out for ways to help others. The problem is that we often don’t notice those that are alone or marginalized.

      • I’ve noticed if I pray for help in recognizing one who need a friend, often God will place someone in my mind and I’ll find myself thinking about him/her constantly. Then I know to whom He would have me reach out and for whom He would have me pray.

  4. Another great post Dustin. I think Cole has a point. My childhood was a nightmare, and among other issues, I was never dressed right, or had the approved style hair etc. because my mother wouldn’t allow it.

    I developed two coping mechanisms. Pretending to be oblivious to those making fun of me, openly or otherwise, cause if it doesn’t bother you, they get nothing out of it. The second was I developed a razor sharp tongue that went along with what appeared to be fearlessness, but was actually a symptom of my just not caring what happened to me.

    Being an underdog myself, I tended to jumping to the defense of other underdogs. It’s a wonder I didn’t get my face pounded in. The interesting thing was though, that bullies of any kind aren’t used to being directly confronted and challenged about their behavior. Since I had developed my razor tongue to the level of fine art, I could shame the bullies by making them look petty and stupid. I didn’t confine myself to kids either, because, unfortunately, their are some teachers that shouldn’t even be around kids.

    So I had quite a rep, and nobody messed with me anymore, because they were afraid of my tongue. I don’t advise that approach, because I often paid dearly for it, and I didn’t trust anyone who reached out to me. Always thought they were trying to trick me into something.

    • Well said, C.C. It’s always interesting hearing from the bullied perspective. My brothers were my greatest adversaries growing up (and they’re currently my best friends). But, same here, that bullying helped me develop thick skin and a sharp tongue, which has served me well.

      There’s always lessons to be learned, it seems, from all perspectives. Except, perhaps, those who refuse to learn from them.

      Thanks for your comment, C.C.

  5. One of the biggest regrets I have from middle school is not realizing how rough one of my fellow students had it at home. She lived with her grandparents, and was definitely the kid in school who was most “off” — outdated clothes, not particularly nice hair. She didn’t hang out with the cool girls. But hell, I wasn’t a cool girl either — we both hung out with the small group of guys in our GT class. She liked Brian, I liked Kevin. We were all band kids. We all made fun of each other. To me — to the rest of us — it was no big deal. But looking back at the time in 8th grade when we had a new girl in school and were like “hey, you should hang out with us instead” on a day when that girl wasn’t sitting with us because Brian had been doing something stupid that boys do with girls they like, hiding her binder or something and upset her, and later when her mother tried to pay that same girl to beat her up… I wish I’d had the maturity to realize that she needed a FRIEND, not a social group that assumed everybody else was well-adjusted and happy home lives and could handle the teasing. I know she did okay once we all hit high school, but looking back, I really do feel bad that none of us realized how mean we were actually being. Because that’s the thing that I’ve learned from growing up and becoming a teacher — a lot of that stuff, people aren’t doing on purpose. People aren’t laughing AT the girl in summer camp who dropped a soda and had it explode everywhere. They’re laughing because it’s exciting and something to talk about and kind of scary at first. But she’s still going to be devastated, especially if she’s the kid that’s a little “off.” And unless someone explains to the other kids that they’re hurting someone’s feelings, they probably won’t even realize.

    • Very good point. It’s human nature to think that everyone’s looking at you as closely as you’re looking at yourself. But nope. They’re too busy worrying about themselves! And, that’s where the problem comes in when somebody needs help. We’re too busy focusing on our own problems to see others’

      Well said, Eleanor. Well said 🙂

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  7. It’s hard and sad reading the whole post and the comments but don’t worry. We all grow up and we all realized that what was done to us by our classmates, they don’t really mean it. Some of them just do it because of what Eleanor said and some of them which was my case, they want to feel good about themselves so they put people down.

    I am a Eugene but what I got from my classmates was active bullying since elementary even until I got into college. It stopped eventually because I made a friend who scares a lot of people. But in elementary and high school, it was worst. Only one friend of mine stood up for me.

    Everybody was just so busy focusing on their selves. I don’t hold it against them now because we all didn’t know better.

    This is an issue that needs to be rectified, but we can only start with ourselves and when we touched other people’s lives, we could hope that the kindness and consideration we gave to them, they could pay it forward.

    Wherever Eugene is, I’m sure he understands and he won’t take it against you or the others. He forgives you.
    And he probably already has someone in his life who accepts and loves him for him.

    Dustin, this is a great post and a very helpful one. You ought to forgive yourself. You’ve grown into a mature and sensible man who will help people like Eugene and me. I can’t speak in behalf of every Eugene but thank you for giving us your voice and your kindness. We appreciate it a lot.

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