In elementary school, I had a bully named Harold. He tortured me and my friends every day on the playground at Phenix Elementary. Harold had the classic boys hairstyle from the 1980s: combed straight down like a kids doll you’d buy at a big box store. His haircut was like the protagonist in the film Problem Child, except instead of red hair, Harold’s hair was blonde.
Even the name Harold sounds like the name you’d bestow upon a bully.
Harold the Bully was bigger than I was — a behemoth of a child — and he knew it. He was bigger than everyone in our grade except my best friend at the time, Chad Dalton, whose mom worked at a chocolate factory. I remember this because when Chad had to present to Mrs. Blanton’s class what our parents did for a living, he brought in individual chocolates.
Much of what my dad did for a living was government classified. I had no idea what he did because he couldn’t tell us. When it was my turn to present to the class, I stepped in front of my classmates and said, “My dad works for B&W, but I can’t tell you what he does for a living because he said it’s classified and he’d go to federal prison if he told me and I told you. But you’ve met my mom. She’s a teacher’s assistant and works here.”
My best friend Chad was a nice kid and him being bigger than Harold didn’t help me in the least. He could have bear hugged Harold on the playground and squeezed the life out of him until Harold’s eyeballs popped out of the sockets, but that wouldn’t have been a very Chad thing to do. Where Harold was the Goliath-like giant described in the Bible, Chad was more akin to The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) from Roald Dahl’s classic novel.
Chad referred to me, much like the Skipper did Gilligan, as “his little buddy.” I kid you not.
Before holiday break that year, Harold the Bully came up to me in the hallway and handed me a school picture of him and said he was going to miss me. He then started to cry.
“I’m moving,” he said with tears streaming down his cheeks. “I won’t be back in January.”
As he was saying this, I was confused. I remember thinking why would he miss me? Would he miss bullying me? What’s going on right now? Is he getting ready to say ‘just kidding’ and punch me in the face?
I accepted Harold’s peace offering, a school picture of him, and told him I’d miss him, too, which was the biggest lie of my life at the time. It would soon be replaced with, “I don’t know where those individual pages from Playboy magazine came from.”
Harold inched closer and extended both arms toward me. He’s going to bear hug me to the point I can’t breathe, I thought. This was all an elaborate ploy. Then he hugged me. A full-on hug.
Harold the Bully hugged me; and as he hugged me, he kept crying.
In the opening narration of the Twilight Zone episode, “Where Is Everybody?” the narrator states:
There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.
I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone at that precise moment in my life. Another dimension. The fifth dimension that lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. An alternate reality previously unknown to man.
A few years ago when my son Henry was in pre-school, he’d return home almost every afternoon with cuts and bruises on his arms, knees, and face. He’s an energetic kid and likes to run around like a chicken with its head cut off. Him falling and getting scrapes wasn’t uncommon then nor is it now. He’s all boy. I didn’t think much of it as long as the pre-school was getting him cleaned up after the fact.
One evening as I was picking up my son, I noticed a bandaid on his knee and elbow. Blood poked through the bandage. I asked him what had happened. He said he was playing outside during recess and stumbled on a tree root and had fallen. As we were walking to the car, another kid who was leaving at the same time said, “Bye Henry. See you tomorrow” and smiled.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“J—,” Henry said. “He’s my friend.”
“Oh, okay. I’ve heard you talk about him a lot.”
“Yeah, we’re friends. He likes Spider-Man, too.”
J— was a big kid, the size of a third grader but still with the face of a four year old.
Later that evening, I received an email from Henry’s pre-school. A child in my son’s class had been charged with bullying. I was asked to sign a report that I was aware of the incident involving this child and my son. Since I had picked up Henry before the incident report could be finalized, I was to sign the report the next evening at dismissal.
The next morning, the same child who had spoken to Henry while leaving the day prior, walked with Henry into pre-school. They were chatting it up and laughing. I talked with the dad as we both walked in behind our sons.
As I said bye to Henry, the other dad was asked if he had a minute to talk by the manager of the pre-school. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.
That evening at dismissal, the teacher handed me the incident report to sign. As I read through it, I stopped to ask Henry a few questions.
“How come you didn’t tell me a kid pushed you down?” I asked.
“You don’t need to do that,” the teacher said.
“Ask my son questions?”
“We have notified the other parents in class about this student as well and we’ve spoken with the parents. It won’t be a problem anymore.”
“Because he’s my friend,” Henry said back to me.
Halfway down the incident report, the alleged bully’s name was written. It was the same boy, J—, who’d said bye to Henry at dismissal the day before and had walked with him into class that morning.
“I’m not signing this,” I said.
“You have to sign it,” the teacher said. “It informs you of the incident and how we handled the situation.”
“But you’re calling a four year old a bully.”
“He has engaged in what we consider bullying, yes.”
“That kid is huge. He probably doesn’t know his own strength,” I said.
“He’s got Superman strength,” my son said.
“Did he push you down?” I asked him.
“No, I fell when he tagged me. We were playing tag. When he tagged me, I tripped on the tree root sticking out of the ground.”
“If you could just sign before you leave.”
I handed the teacher the incident report back, unsigned.
“Let’s go,” I said to Henry.
In Buddhist teachings, there is a concept known as wrong perception. Wrong perception is often defined as a form of ignorance (avijjā) and is considered one of the root causes of suffering.
Our perceptions are often erroneous, and cause us to suffer and cause others to suffer. It is very helpful to look deeply into the nature of our perceptions, without being too sure of anything. When we are too sure, we suffer. When we ask ourselves, “Are you sure?” we have a chance to look again and see if our perception is correct or not.Thich Nhat Hanh, River of Perceptions
That Saturday, my son had his first Hot Shots soccer game. When we arrived, the game before his was still taking place and there was J— dribbling the ball right down the middle of the field. Kids from the opposing team were bouncing off him left and right.
“This isn’t football,” a dad yelled.
“He’s going to hurt someone,” yelled a mom.
This was a soccer league for four and five year olds and poor J— was being eviscerated from the sidelines: a four year old. A big four year old, but nonetheless a child who only came into this world four years prior. His dad watched on in silence with a distraught look on his face.
I remember thinking back to my best friend in elementary school: Chad. Is this why Chad was so nice to everyone? Why he wouldn’t harm a flea back then even though he could have crushed us all like mites under his fingertip had he chosen?
The next week, J— was noticeably absent from pre-school. Same for the following week.
“I lost a friend,” Henry said. “J—. The teacher said he’s not coming back anymore.”
Whether his parents pulled him or the school kicked him out, I never came to know the answer. But the Friday they asked me to sign the incident report and I refused was the last day J— ever attended that pre-school.
I have thought about that day at Phenix Elementary School numerous times over my life — the day when Harold the Bully handed me a school picture of himself and started to cry. Was I wrong about Harold? Did I see a snake when it was only a vine?
Was Harold like J— in that he thought we were having fun and he didn’t know his own strength? Henry had recognized J— meant no ill intention, even if the teachers saw it differently. Was Harold the monstrous bully my friends and I once made him out to be all those years ago?
Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t.
I don’t recall Harold ever punching me though I was always worried he would. He did push me when we were running amok in the field during recess. But we all pushed each other at some point. I didn’t think any less of Josh, Dwayne, Andy, or Dustin. I did of Harold.
If Harold was a big bad bully, why would he have cried that day in the hallway before winter break and told me he’d miss me? Was I Harold’s friend and didn’t know it?
What I do know is that somewhere at my mom’s house back home in Phenix, that school photo of Harold and his straight blonde hair, his peace offering on his last day, sits in a shoebox.
A photo of who I once thought of as Harold the Bully.
Maybe I was wrong.
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