Bullies seldom change, but I can
by Nancy Ford
I went to school with this kid we’ll call Danny O’Brady. We rode the school bus together for at least ten years. He and his younger brother and older sister would stand out at the end of their long, winding driveway—really, it was more a dirt road—waiting for the big yellow bus. Each day Danny would climb the bus’s steps and take a seat in the first available empty row, eyes always downturned to avoid catching anyone’s stare.
Known as “the poor kids” in our small school district, the O’Bradys’ clothes were second-, if not third- or fourth-hand. That winding dirt road they stood at the end of hid the crumbling shack they called home from our prying, youthful eyes that squinted curiously from the bus windows. Grimy brown paper sacks held their jelly sandwiches, maybe, and contrasted sharply with our cartoon-character lunchboxes that carried our Wonder Bread/Spam/Miracle Whip sandwiches, carrot sticks, and Twinkies. Their shoes had holes. There were no winter coats for the O’Bradys, despite Ohio’s snow.
Shortly after the school bus picked up the O’Bradys, it picked up a neighboring set of twins, then, a couple stops later, a set of triplets. All five of the multiples were boys; they traveled in a pack, all proudly wearing their athletic letterman jackets.
Then it would start. The twins and triplets apparently lived to torment Danny and, to a lesser degree, his two siblings. Every day, a siege of verbal assaults would begin, all aimed at the way the O’Bradys dressed and, sometimes, the way they smelled. Sometimes the five of them would take turns slapping the back of Danny’s head with their books. One day the pack smashed his thick glasses against his head, drawing blood. Every day the attacks came, and Danny’s chin would drop lower and lower into his chest until our bus deposited us all at school. There, the pack of bullies widened to include, seemingly, the entire playground.
Every single day. Our bus driver did nothing to stop the bullies. Then again, neither did I.
Mind you, this was before Gay Straight Alliances were established in schools, way before the “It Gets Better” campaign, and even before the “faggot” taunts that are currently prevalent. Danny wasn’t gay, or even effeminate, for that matter; “retard” was the bullies’ slur of choice for Danny, though I doubt he had any organic developmental problems other than the cumulative effect of that unrelenting abuse by his peers. Mostly, he was abused for his poverty. He just wasn’t wearing the right ensemble.
Danny never, ever fought back. I saw him cry, silently, only once, and then only briefly. More than forty years later, I can still see that single tear etch a trail down his dirty little face.
Odd, how I feel compelled to protect Danny by using a pseudonym now, but I didn’t feel compelled to speak up to protect him then. Maybe it was because, as a fat kid, I endured my share of bullying, too; I selfishly didn’t want to draw any extra attention to myself. No excuse; my ordeal paled in comparison to Danny’s. I somehow developed a sense of humor that would sometimes divert and distract my bullies that serves me to this day. Danny didn’t. In fact, in the ten years’ time I went to school with Danny, I never heard him say a word. Not one word. He just took it.
Spirit Day, a day designated by GLAAD to wear purple as a visual tool to help bring awareness to the anti-bullying movement, has come and gone. It seemed that everywhere I looked on Spirit Day last month, people were wearing purple to show that the days of ignoring bullying are gone.
I wore a purple shirt on Spirit Day, but I’m sorry I didn’t stand up for you, Danny, when it mattered. I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you that the twins and triplets had to gang up on you together, because they were too weak to take you on individually. I’m sorry I didn’t use my sense of humor to help shield you. I’m sorry I didn’t point out to you and the other kids on the school bus that, for three of those five young bullies, it was taking at least 14 years to finish 12 years of schooling. I am so sorry.
Sorry is all well and good, but regret doesn’t equal remorse. I can’t change the effect my youthful complacency and cowardice had on Danny, but I can change the way I react, as an adult, when witnessing bullying now. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anyone’s glasses smashed against his head, but bullies still travel in packs, and they still hurl hurtful words. Every single day.
By the time we had finished high school, the O’Bradys had stopped getting on the school bus. Rumor had it their house had caught fire, forcing them to move to a neighboring school district. I never saw or heard from the O’Bradys again. I hope it got better, as we say, for Danny.
On Spirit Day, I indulged in some Internet research. A quick Googling revealed that both of the twins live within mere miles of where our school bus picked us up all those years ago; both have arrest records. The triplets are nowhere to be found; locals tell me that two of them are dead (natural causes; I know you were wondering). Apparently no athletic scholarships had accompanied those athletic letterman jackets.
Two men bearing Danny’s real name popped up on my screen: one is a doctor, the other is in prison. Either way, he has a winter coat now.