Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In which I recommend Schools Let Bigger Kids Beat Up Smaller Kids

A video meme is making the rounds in which a fairly big kid is seemingly just standing there and a smaller kid bounces up to him and within a few seconds goes from annoying twerp to slapping the bigger kid, taunting him while their peers look on.  From the look of the video, it seems the twerpy kid got his friend to record him as he decided to demonstrate his alpha maleness over a target he must have believed would not fight back.  The big kid is heavy-set with red hair, a sort of blank expression...

You can see the video here, although the video has become controversial and keeps getting pulled down.  (So, I apologize in advance for the racy ads on this site, but I was tired of looking for the video).  You can read commentary all over the internet.

The video, which lasts only a few seconds, takes an odd turn when the big kid moves in, picks up the smaller kid, and then slams him into the concrete.  The big kid then wanders out of frame while the smaller kid gets up and hobbles, seemingly shaken (if not injured), toward the camera.

If I don't sound particularly sympathetic to the smaller kid, its because from 5th-8th grade, I was the big kid on infrequent occasions.  And I was witness to many more incidents with other kids who were just trying to avoid trouble, and I can't tell you how many incidents almost exactly like the one in the video played out in hallways and locker rooms when adult supervision wasn't around.

Being a big kid (6'2" by 8th grade) who people think won't hit back leaves you in a weird spot.  Those little kids are counting on the fact that if you DO decide to hit back it will be seen by your peers and adults alike that you took a swing because "you can't take it" - and that's a character flaw.  And even if that kid is hitting, its going to be seen as being somehow unfair to that smaller kid when you do smack him back.  There's this odd balance of "oh, well, the little kid couldn't actually hurt him" that comes into play, and it becomes this unreal set of rules that an alarming number of adults seem more than willing to play along with that if you're big, its your responsibility to just take it.

For example, if you're wondering what happened in the aftermath?:  the big kid got suspended, and may possibly have legal action taken against him.  There's no reported recourse against the smaller kid.

I am certain that in today's atmosphere of litigation and child psychologists the "appropriate" response is to run off to tell a teacher or an adult whenever you're unhappy.  But kids aren't stupid.  They know that getting an adult involved has an effect 100x worse than just standing there and taking it.  That little twerp is just going to be back at school the next day making sure everybody knows the big kid ran to tell the teacher because he was too much of a wimp to defend himself.  Yes, he has terrible parents.

Its unorthodox, and its hard to draw the line, but its hard not to believe that two important lessons couldn't have been drawn from by these two kids had the video never made its way online and this thing had just ended in that breezeway.

1)  The Twerpy kid would have learned exactly what line he crossed and thought twice before shooting his own mouth off
2)  The Big kid would have learned that you can actually stand up for yourself in ugly situations, and that may be one of the most important things you can learn in this life

By punishing that kid for, frankly, not taking it, what does that boy learn?  He learns that (1) he is forbidden from solving his own problems and needs to just deal with the ensuing humiliation, and that (2) he should be paralyzed with fear when challenged - lest he make a move and the consequences become infinitely worse than getting punched in the face.  

Now, of course, you can't advocate student-on-student violence, so don't hang that on me.  But what you can say is that there's video evidence, and anyone who was ever in middle school should be able to understand what they're looking at.

Here's the thing:  I can tell you exactly what happened after the big kid walks out of frame.  He cried like a baby.

I got in my first fight when I was about 12, and it was terribly odd.  I was sitting on an electric box in front of my house and a kid I knew, one grade beneath me and with whom I'd eaten graham crackers and played soccer, showed up with an older kid at my house.  The older kid must have been watching movies because they quite literally informed us they wanted to "rumble".  We had just been sitting there, and not talked to those kids in a couple days.  After we'd had a good laugh at the word "rumble" (which, I assure you, did not help), the older kid goaded my buddy into starting things off by going after me.  

The rest was just a blur of two chubby kids in glasses slap-fighting.  I distinctly remember the fact that my buddy ran away and I was told I'd won, but I just went into the front door of my house and cried.  It was - as I figured out from watching A Christmas Story, wherein Ralphie finally loses it and beats up the bullying Scoot Farkis he had yellow eyes!) - a pretty common reaction to kids fighting, once the adrenaline wears off. 

I hit middle school shortly thereafter, and sure, I was big, but it wasn't like I was out telling other kids "I'm the fastest gun in the west, and ain't nobody going to knock me off this hill".  I was a goofy 12 year old who liked X-Men comics, Mr. Spock, Batman and robot novels.  I played the tuba, for God's sake. 

If you don't want to get into a fight, and you get drawn in, winning isn't any better than losing.  You have to already know that the minute you take a swing, you're going to be asked to pay for something that you did not start, but which, as they say...  you did finish.  Its bewildering, you've just broken promises to your parents, of codes of conduct for good kids, and seen your attempts to lay low resulted only in extending the inevitable.

The monkeysphere for most people is terribly small, and in middle school it usually consists exclusively of your immediate circle of friends and that one girl in your math class you can't figure out how to talk to.  Likely because I was such an enormous freak of a kid, I never felt like I needed to prove to anyone that I could intimidate somebody, and likely due more to nurture than nature (I had been told since toddler-hood that I could hurt other children my own age were I not careful) I spent more time making sure that swinging an arm to tell a story, or even falling over due to tripping over my own feet, would not mean injury to someone else nearby.*

Fights in middle school have consequences, and those kids who decided to bait me and looked for a fight didn't really get how much more trouble it would be for me at home if I got sent to the office for fighting.  ie - Kid, you may be annoying, but you have nothing on the creative punishment combos of interminable lecturing, grounding, and removing of comics that will last for weeks or months if I wind up in the office.

But, yeah, every once in a while a kid, and often a kid you knew pretty well and had been friendly with right up til that moment, would make this bizarro decision to earn his bones by taking on a much bigger kid.  Upon occasion, that could could sometimes be me.** 

I don't recall ever actually getting any of my classmates clear over my head, but I do remember holding one kid by the top of his head while his short little arms smacked me around the shoulder, and folding another kid in half against a bench in the locker room.  Usually, it just wound up with me pinning the other kid by the throat, which almost never got them to back down.  But, no matter what, it was always awful because it was so confusing.

But I did learn - when there isn't a coach or teacher around:
  • decide what your line is
  • let them know they're about to cross it, even if it sounds cheesy and they think its funny
  • be ready to commit (because if you never do anything, you're all talk, and that's bad, too)
  • or:  I found waiting until you're alone and then telling the kid "do it again, and we have a problem" was useful, although it often meant the kid would try to save face for a week by telling everyone you "lost it" and "couldn't take it", in which case a laughing, "oh, he practically wet himself" and alerting the crowd exactly what really happened usually got the final word in
And, frankly, that wound up working pretty well for me.

This all sort of ended before 9th grade, so I was a little surprised to read these kids were 16, an age by which most kids would have had enough trial and error.  By 16, I'd also moved, quit wearing Spock T-shirts (because...  girls) and people generally didn't know me at my school.  By my last two years of school when they did know me, I guess that stuff was all pretty much in the past.

So am I endorsing letting kids just duke it out?  I don't know.  But I also think "zero tolerance" policies are the shelter of cowardly and lazy administrators unwilling to make hard decisions and responsibility.  And as much as I also detest bullying, I'm not sure that the school administrators who decided to punish the bullied kid here aren't also bullying in their own way.

*I attempted physical bullying once, and it went poorly.  I was trying some BS Robert DeNiro stuff and slapped a kid lightly on the cheek, which sent his glasses sailing, and I remember watching in horror as his glasses shattered to bits.  I remember looking at the kid absolutely  horrified and making it worse yelling: "Jesus Christ!  You had GLASS in your glasses?"  My head was full of images of, had my finger caught the glasses going the wrong way, the poor kid with his eyes full of tiny glass shards .

Looking back, I can't believe what a goody-two-shoes I was.  I remember sitting down with the kid (who was just sobbing like crazy) and getting his home phone number so I could figure out how I was going to pay this kid back for his new glasses I figured I'd have to buy.  Well, apparently he was due for new glasses anyway or something and it all worked out.  And I still remember saying, before hanging up the phone, "Man, for god's sake, get plastic lenses.  You're going to lose an eye."

**it was also sometimes one of my pals, in which case I often just stepped between them and held the kids apart with firm reminders about detention


J.S. said...

Yeah, it's hard to know what to do. I'm not really in favor of ecouraging any sort of violence between kids, but I also remember the whole unspoken "no ratting" rule that separated kids from adults at that age. As memory serves, the mafia really had nothing on adolescent boys when it came to enforcing a code of silence.
And yeah, that little punk on the video definitely looked like he had SOME sort of retaliation coming. But man- that body slam onto the concrete looked like the kind of thing that could have really, seriously done some permanent damage.

The League said...

I am inclined to believe that was NOT the intention of the bigger kid, but a by-product of rage + adrenaline. I doubt if you'd caught him a quiet moment if he'd have said "yeah I saw something on WWE last night and I want to try it."

This is exactly the problem when a bigger kid DOES stand up for himself - he really can hurt the smaller kid even unintentionally, which is why (at least as we were taught in our house) you're not supposed to ever make a move as the bigger kid.

Again, I put it at 75% odds that bigger kid knew he did something he didn't want to do, and there were plenty of tears after this incident well before suspensions and police became part of the story.

thevike13 said...

What I remember from those middle school days (before you had contacts) was "Do not ever knock Ryan's glasses off" even if you're just playing around.

In fact, I was recently talking to Jas about that time you and him were wrestling and horsing around in the front yard of your house in Austin and Jas accidentally knocked your glasses off.

I still have never seen you as mad as you were that time. The non-stop joker, comic fanatic, younger brother turned into a caged animal full of rage. It was also one of the only times I ever saw Jas immediately start apologizing to you.

The League said...

I don't know if I remember that, but I do know that it was pretty clear I was responsible for my glasses (and all the grounding that that implies). I think when you have bad eyesight, and mine is terrible, I likely was pretty freaked out about the prospect of not being able to see for a week or two until new glasses arrived (this was on my mind constantly).

Anonymous said...

Seriously, the big kid got suspended?? There's no size requirement equivalence on the crime of battery under the law. If that smaller kid did not get punished at all then if I was the other kid's parents I would litigate the hell out of that school district.


The League said...

Well, to be accurate, this happened in Australia, I believe. And I'm not that surprised this could happen, what with all the Kangaroo Courts.

Oh yeah. I went there.

Fantomenos said...

I don't want to sound conspiracy-theorish, but is it possible that the extreme injustice of these bullying rules that punish the victim are actually designed for that express purpose? Is this meant to teach the big guy (and I've been the big guy) that they must suffer unlimited humiliations and never strike back because this is essential for our functioning society? I remember having junior high teachers seem genuinely puzzled that I would retaliate physically when getting spit on and having erasers thrown at me, as though this was an entirely normal (and tolerable) situation.

And there's laziness, too. A crying fat kid is easy to deal with (by ignoring). A small kid with a broken leg? Now things get complicated.

I honestly wonder what would happen if the bullied responded the way adults would. I mean, if I were walking down the street and a complete stranger fake punched me, then gave me two for flinching I'd call the police. I mean, of course! What if we charged the bullies with assault every single time? Seriously, I have no idea what would happen.

The League said...

well, these days schools ARE involving the police.

At the end of the day, a lot of it must come down to parents, I'd guess. What parent is going to believe their darling angel was attacking some kid, completely unprovoked? Or that whatever happened to their tiny, weasely kid was, really, just part of the natural order?

So when you have to balance it out with "all kids know they shouldn't fight" and big kids "should know they can hurt little kids" and little kids "know they can't hurt big kids" and trying to figure out what really happened... I think its just easier to come down on the side of "only one kid was going to get hurt, and you need to learn to be a bigger man when people are picking on you".

Which, of course, doesn't mean ANYTHING in 85% of the situations boys find themselves in walking the hallways of their school. And, yeah, I think its just straight up laziness and fear on the part of administrators.