The first violent encounter I had in middle school was with a big bully named Tommy.
It was the fall of 1965, at the start of seventh grade at Beaumont Jr. High in Lexington, Kentucky, my hometown. I was standing in line outside the cafeteria at lunchtime, when a big kid in front of me dropped a quarter on the floor.
I have never met a stranger. I will joke and talk with anyone I meet, and I was the same way when I was a kid. So when I saw the quarter drop, I did what a lot of kids did back then when their friends dropped money. I put my foot on the quarter and yelled, "Grimes!" That meant the quarter was mine. Everyone knew it was a joke except Tommy.
He exploded with rage and shoved me into the wall. Tommy was a lot bigger than I was. He had been held back in junior high, so physically, he was far ahead of me. It was no contest.
"If you ever do that to me again I will beat you to death!" he screamed into my face, holding me against the wall. I believe he slapped and punched me a couple of times.
I was so shocked at the sudden fury that I didn't even feel the punches. I was stunned. Then it was over, and we went on through the lunch line, with Tommy looking back and making threats.
A Cycle of Bullying
And that set up a cycle of bullying for the next two years, when I would see Tommy and hear his threats, taunts, and see the sneer on his face. It seemed as if his greatest desire was to beat me to a pulp. I found ways of avoiding him.
That continued until one day, a couple of years later in 9th grade, Tommy was taking on all contenders in an arm-wrestling contest on the playground. I had begun to add on a little weight and muscle by this point.
"Come here, Four Eyes," he sneered.
I thought, "What the hell," and went over to take him on, knowing that I did not have a chance. A crowd of guys surrounded us, cheering and shouting and laughing.
I beat him. When it was over, something changed in his face. He never bothered me again.
Being a scrawny, friendly kid who wore glasses, I was on the receiving end of bullying all the time. One particular bully, Rob Brewster, would sneak up behind me and hit me in the hallway. For years, I looked over my shoulder for Rob and his friends, Dan Cotter and a big, dumb kid named Prentice. They were mean boys. Dan grew up to be a doctor on the East Coast. I'll bet he is still mean.
Bullies Pick On People Who Won't Fight Back
Then one day in 1971, I ran into Rob at a pickup softball game. His bully pals were not with him, so I walked up, reminded him of when he used to punch and spit on me, and I punched him in the nose. He backed away, his eyes watering. I punched him again. He ran and hid in his car.
This is what bullies understand. Later, a friend who witnessed this incident saw Tommy and told him that I had beaten up a guy who bullied me. Tommy reportedly looked worried and said, "Tell Kenny I always liked him."
I guess he thought I was coming for him next.
I didn't see Tommy until my 20th high school reunion. He was talking and laughing with some old friends when I walked up to him and shook his hand.
"You were a real prick at Beaumont," I told him, "but you seem to be a pretty good guy now."
He looked down as if he knew he had been a prick. We talked for a minute about what we were doing, then went on to mingle with other people. That was the last time I saw him.
A decade or so later, I heard from another friend that Tommy had a reputation as a bully in the workplace, too, as an adult.
All of these memories flashed through my mind last night when I received a text telling me that Tommy died. He reportedly killed himself in his home after suffering a painful degenerative illness.
My first reaction was sadness, and it surprised me.
Bullies Driven to Bury Their Internal Pain
I don't necessarily believe bullies are born that way. I believe some of them are made. Something puts rage inside of them, or insecurity that makes them need to lash out. It could be that they were abused, or constantly humiliated as children. I guess it is possible that they could simply have mental issues that make them sociopaths, able to hurt others without feeling pain.
Bullies often feel shame and humiliation, so they try to bury those feelings by making others feel shame and humiliation. Check out the psychology of a bully.
I never felt shame or humiliation when I was bullied. I felt anger, and if a bully actually wanted to fight, he found someone who would fight back, and the bully lost every time. I whipped several of them and the script always played out the same way: the bully taunted and threatened; I would try to avoid the fight; the bully would back me into a corner or begin hitting; I hit back and the bully would give up.
I will never understand what made Tommy a bully, but I was not his only target. I was not the only one who encountered his violent temper.
One day around 1966, Tommy and another big guy got into a slugfest in the hallway at Beaumont. By the time a teacher broke it up and dragged them to the principal's office, they both had huge red circles on their faces from the force of the punches, like red crop circles left by angry aliens. I remember thinking that I did not want to mess with either of them.
Still, to think that someone like him might have carried that anger with him, and then reached a point in his own life when he would decide to end it all, is a realization that can only bring sympathy and compassion.
A bully is dead. I am not happy about it. I would have been much happier if he had never felt the need to intimidate, humiliate or attack anyone.
I wish he had lived long beyond his early 60s, dying peacefully in his bed as an old man, leaving behind a legacy of happiness and laughter, instead of memories by people who knew him and who are sharing the news about his passing, always with one word that keeps coming up over and over; the word "bully."
What a shame.