Friday, November 12, 2010

Bullying and the Art of Catching a Softball

"Hate and force cannot be in just a part of the world without having an effect on the rest of it.” Eleanor Roosevelt

We’ve all been bullied…at least everyone I’ve ever talked to has experienced the painful attack of a bully whether it was directed at them or someone they knew.

When I was in fifth grade, we moved to a new neighborhood. Walking the new route home one day, some kids--about six of them waited in the bushes outside one of the houses on my route home. As I approached, they rushed out, pushed me to the ground, took off my shoes and my socks and ran off with them. I had to walk home the rest of the way in my bare feet.

Now this may seem like no big deal…but the truth was I was incredibly self-conscious of how “skinny” I was. In my mind I was the skinniest girl around and my legs were the skinniest in the whole universe…so skinny in fact that I always wore thick wool knee socks whether it was 20 degrees outside or 90 to camouflage both my thin calves and my insecurity showing them. (We had a dress code that required us to wear skirts or dresses every day.) Somehow the embarrassment I felt for my body had become evident to some of the kids in my new neighborhood and they capitalized on it.

For weeks, I altered my route home. I would take a different route each day, sometimes adding as much as ten minutes to my estimated time of arrival back home. I made every effort to avoid the girls at school, often holding back a much-needed visit to the bathroom to avoid running into them in the hall.

And then the bullying just stopped. One of the girls, the girl who had actually been the ringleader didn’t show up at school. For two weeks, she was absent. I remember feeling this incredible sense of relief. School felt safe again.

What I didn’t know at the time, but discovered later that year, was her older brother, a tenth grader at the local high school, had hung himself on the back porch of their home. She had found him when she came home one afternoon. Apparently, he had been struggling with his sexuality. Rumor had it that his father had repeatedly humiliated him for his apparent lack of masculinity and the kid just couldn’t live with his family anymore, much less himself.

We are all well aware of the effect bullying is having on kids. The news we hear on the topic tends to often focus on the extreme cases: The recent suicide of a Rutgers student after being videotaped without his knowledge; the young girl who committed suicide after a nude photo of her had been passed through hundreds of cell phones at her high school; a group of high school students (both boys and girls) who ruthlessly beat another girl to near death; the violent tug of a ponytail, by an opposing teammate, during a much publicized soccer game.

What we don’t often see or choose to give any attention to is the significant amount of bullying that goes on in the adult world. We either are oblivious to the fact that it occurs or we don’t want to fess up.

I admit that I’ve all but completely disengaged from the entire political debate because I am no longer willing to listen to the hateful and derogatory comments from all sides that are ultimately unproductive in and irrelevant to finding solutions.

I am excited by much of what is coming out of Hollywood these days; but am also challenged at times to find television shows, movies and news coverage of the Hollywood industry that don’t at times glamorize and glorify bullying behavior.

We, as adults, are becoming lazy. We bully the bully. We bully ourselves. We bully each other. We choose the easy route…the one that sieves it down into a few easy words…words which alienate…a quick fix to help us feel safe over here on our side…to feel connected to each other…even at the expense of those who don’t always fit our cultural, social, political or economic standard. We fight, claw and force our views on people with the language of anger, defensiveness and aggression because we need to win…win at all costs…to be right, victorious and vindicated.

Is it any wonder, based on the anger being expressed by adults in our culture that our children are bullying? Where we put our energy, time and conversations is where our culture and society will land. We create our reality with where we choose to put our vision. Children see and learn from the world around them. They are not inherently mean, racist, sexist, homophobic, or evil. They are simply the long arm of our own adult views. They are what we are. They see what we allow them to see. They become us.

I have never forgotten something Ms. Godfrey, my P.E. teacher, shared with me, not too long after the sock-stealing incident. She described the proper way to receive a softball in your bare hand. Rather than allow the ball to come straight into your hand…you should gently move your hand in the direction the ball is traveling, as you receive it. This way the impact is not hard, direct and painful to your palm…but instead the additional space it travels serves as a cushion, a buffer— a little extra time and space for the hand to absorb the impact.

I remember making the connection, even at that young age, that giving a bit of space between the harsh words of a bully and their impact to my spirit…was not only a good thing for me, but for them as well. To recognize that bullying is not okay and to confront bullying behavior in a healthy and assertive way meant also NOT “throwing it back” --that to receive the ball, deal with it assertively, constructively and with love rather than throwing it back with anger, words, name-calling and vengence was without question the bravest and most courageous contribution I could ever make to humankind. My impact is that great!

I realize now, that it is ALL just so darn connected. Of course, the issues surrounding racism, sexism, age-ism, homophobia, some elements of poverty, even war are very complex, but deep down I wonder if they aren’t really all the result of insecure people feeling the need to elevate their own status through the use of bullying words, actions and images, and that to end its painful and often life-threatening results someone has to be brave enough, secure enough and loving enough, to catch the ball and simply not throw it back.

And as I write to you now, I realize that I have much gratitude for the girls, who hid in those bushes, waiting for me. They showed me that being hurt doesn’t feel good and that years later I would, thanks in part to the pain I felt and the pain they felt consider creating a space where ALL girls and women, including them, could come together and know that they are loved—that part of being human means figuring it all out—evolving to a high place whether we are the bullied or the bully.

It’s not easy to be THAT secure and rooted in our own self-worth to view with compassion rather than judgment the anger and hurtful words of the bully, but I’m willing to try. How ‘bout you come along with me? Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we start a program…where all people can join…feel safe and know that they are loved. What do ya say?

What is your immediate response to this? Feel free to post. I’d love to hear.


  1. Whew, this post is the first I've read of your's, but it won't be my last! I just today found out about your program, Girls on the Run, through the radio station 104.7 The Fish, out of Atlanta.

    I have realized there is no such program close to where we live. I've been wanting to train for a 5K for several months and have been racking my mind to find a way to help my 3rd grade daughter and 4 year old daughter grow up with healthy minds and bodies. Setting the example at home is first. A program like your's is next. I am truly hopeful we can establish one in our county.

    Regarding bullying, I am a teacher and have three kids in public schools. Although we haven't experienced bullying directly, I am so concerned about it because I know it happens everyday. As awful as the news is that we hear, it's necessary we hear it to bring it to the forefront of people's minds. It is horrible what so many kids are faced with just to get a basic right, an education.

    Thank you for sharing and opening up about your experience. Thank you, too, for having the courage to start such an awesome program aimed at girls.

  2. Hello Molly, I also read recently about Girls on the run and really like it!! congratulations.
    I just wrote a post about it in my blog, sorry, it's in Hungarian :) Can I publish the photos, displaying the url of
    My blog is about topics related to women and sports.

  3. of course! You can use any photos you wish!