When I watched the heartbreaking video of 10-year-old Tom Held, a victim of relentless bullying, I choked up with tears, and I flashed back to my boyhood, feeling a burning sense of shame all over again.
That is because during one or two years in grade school I was a bully myself. It was back in the mid-1950s at Washington Elementary School in south St. Cloud. There was a girl in our class whose name was Elizabeth. She was a rather uncoordinated, clumsy girl with pitch-black hair that reminded us of the hair of a Halloween witch. So we teased her. Behind her back, we thought, but of course she had to have been aware of every slight and taunt.
Some of us students would play a mean playground-recess game we called “Lizzie’s Fleas.” One of us would walk or run up to Elizabeth, touch her, then run over to somebody else and “tag” that kid while chanting, “You got Lizzie’s fleas! You got Lizzie’s fleas!” And then, that student would hurry over to somebody else, tag them, and repeat the taunt, thus continuing the cruel game. All of the participants in the game were boys, not surprising considering the ingrained chauvinism so prevalent in that day and age.
Even as we indulged in that rotten game we knew it was wrong; we knew it was hurtful; and we did it anyway. What’s even worse is the teachers on the playground were completely aware of what was going on, and they never once did anything to stop it. At least they never told any of us to stop it.
Through the years, I’ve often looked back at the inexcusable, sadistic “game” and felt so ashamed. And years later, as I became more aware of the terrible outcomes of kids being bullied, the more I felt the burning shame. Poor Elizabeth. How she must have suffered in shame and silence. How could we have been such cruel kids? Bullying, not unlike the sexual assaults so much in the news these days, is always devastating to its victims. It can knock kids’ confidence right out of them quicker than a punch to the stomach; it can shred their sense of self-worth; it can cause them to turn inward or to lash out in violence. And, as we are so well aware in recent years, it can lead children to commit suicide. Suicide among children and teenagers, especially among girls, is on the rise, and most experts believe the increase is directly due to cyber-bullying, which can be merciless, never-ending, ‘round the clock.
I’d always wanted to apologize to Elizabeth, but I did not know where she was or how to contact her. Years ago, I wrote a column about the cruelty of our mindless, stupid, vicious game of “Lizzie’s Fleas.” A classmate from those grade-school years, a woman named Jeanine, happened to read that column and sent it to Elizabeth because she’d stayed in touch and knew where she lived. Jeanine wrote me at the newspaper to inform me that Elizabeth did indeed remember the mean game but that she had managed to brush it off, at least later. She told Jeanine to tell me she appreciated my reaching out to apologize but that the long-ago hurt was all but forgotten and certainly forgiven.
Thank you, Elizabeth. It’s ironic you have forgotten it, but I have not. It’s yet another reminder people who hurt others also hurt themselves in one way or another, somewhere down the line. It’s the lesson tyrants (and diehard bullies) never seem to learn – or learn too late.
Dear readers: Please read the story about bully victim Tom Held in today’s newspaper, and then sit down with family members and have a good discussion about how all forms of bullying, even mild verbal teasing, can hurt children so deeply, so badly.
As Tim Held, the father of Tom, told me: The real solution to bullying must start and stop in the home.
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.