Rant Alert: Adolescent Survival

Video via Upworthy.com

Being a kid has never been easy. We like to look back on childhood, or past eras in general, with rose-colored glasses, but the truth is adolescence has never been easy. While the issues kids have to face may have changed or gotten “worse” over the years, bullying, low self esteem, and abuse of various kinds have always been a part of the landscape. Shane Koyczan, the poet featured in the video above while he spoke at a TED conference, was very poignant with both his story and his words. Having worked predominantly with kids for the last fifteen years I saw this quite a bit. I personally dealt with low self esteem, name calling, bullying, myself when I was a kid, and still do on some levels. I spoke aboutit quite a bit in Down with the Thickness. Here’s a short excerpt:

 

Survival of the Wittiest

The school bus was also the place where I could develop another useful tool in the arsenal of fat people- being a smart mouth. See, when you’re big you really only have a few options for self-defense against the other kids: One, you can be the introverted fat kid that hardly ever talks and prays that the other kids just won’t notice you or care enough to mess with you. Two, you can become a bully and use your size to your advantage, coming from the school of thought that if they’re afraid of you they won’t mess with you. Three, you can become a smart aleck, because if you can make them laugh at something (or someone) else, then they’re not laughing at you.

I’ve tried the first option, and I have to admit that it really doesn’t work all that well. For one, when you’re as big as I am you never really “blend.”  When you walk into a room you’re going to draw attention regardless of what you say or do. Plus, when you act introverted and keep to yourself, it’s like wearing a bullseye on your back for all the less-intelligent social predators looking for easy prey.

The second option is very tempting to someone who’s been picked on all their life. The idea of not only fighting back, but having people be afraid of you is great, in an ideological sort of way. Every guy fantasizes about being the Clint Eastwood of the schoolyard where everyone shows you “respect” and all the girls swoon. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t live up to the hype. When you’re a bully, no one really likes you. They may act like they respect you, but it’s really only fear, and your so-called friends won’t hesitate to turn on you as soon as the opportunity presents itself and they think they can get away with it. Any kind of relationship built on fear is only an empty illusion, and a life devoid of true friendship, loyalty or respect can be worse than living with getting picked on all the time.

Plus, being a bully means you have to hurt people and the reality of seeing someone truly in pain and knowing that you caused it is far different than the romanticized version that we’ve grown so used to seeing in various types of media. The fact of the matter is when you’re a big person you have to be that much more aware of the kind of damage you can unwittingly cause. What is normal roughhousing for most kids becomes something that could be decidedly more dangerous when you add someone twice their size into the mix. This is a lesson I learned the hard way one summer when I was ten years old.

My cousin and I grew up together in Granite City, Illinois. Granite is a small steel mill city just across the bridge from St. Louis, and both sides of my family are from there. I lived there until I was seven and my dad, who worked for the Kroger Bakery as a supervisor, was transferred to Houston, TX. While my cousin and I were always close, he grew up on the bad side of town and tended to have a street mentality about things. By that I mean that if he gets mad he lashes out. If he feels you’ve insulted him he lashes out. Sometimes it means he just decides he’s going to be a jerk for no other reason than he felt like it at the time. I don’t mean to trivialize his issues, because he did have a lot of them. He didn’t have a great childhood or home life to begin with, and once my family and I moved, he really didn’t have many positive outlets left to him.

That summer, my parents had him sent down to stay with us for a while and most of the time he and I got along fine. The rest of the time our “fights” consisted of little more than calling each other names and going off to our respective corners of the house to sulk for a bit. However, one night things escalated into something physical.

The fight started over something pretty stupid, as most fights at that age do. My little sister, who was not yet six at the time, had fallen asleep on the couch while we were all watching T.V. and I wanted to carry her into her bedroom and put her to bed. My dad worked nights and mom was in another room at the time, so I asked my cousin to go in and pull back the covers so I could lay her down. For whatever reason, he decided he wanted to make an issue out of it and refused. We went back and forth a few times until I finally gave up and just put my sister in her bed on top of the blankets.

When I came back out he and I got into an argument about it. He pushed me. I pushed him back. He pushed me back harder and before I knew it we were in my bedroom doing our best to kill one another. Now, because my bed was fairly small my parents had taken the mattress off of the box spring and put it in the floor so we’d have more room and no one would fall and hurt themselves if they happened to roll off of the bed. This also conveniently gave him a frame to use like the ropes on a wrestling ring to jump on my back and choke me. Without thinking, I grabbed at his arm, which at this time was wrapped around my throat and doing a boa constrictor impression, and threw him over my shoulder to land rather spectacularly onto the mattress on the floor. His body bounced a few times before finally coming to a rest, at which point my mom, having heard all the noise, stormed into the room and separated us.

Now, this all sounds like a pretty silly fight like most boys that age have. The problem, as my father pointed out to me later, was that it could have ended up being something much more serious. My cousin was a year older than me, but I was still several inches taller and more than twice his size. Had that mattress not been there to break his fall I could have very easily hurt him. In fact, looking back on it, considering how forcefully he hit I’m surprised that he didn’t end up hurting his neck or back anyway. My dad really made sure to hit that point home with me that night when he got back from work. He wasn’t mad that I defended myself, but he did want me to realize that someone my size had to be extra careful in everything physical that I did, especially with other people. That night I learned that with great weight comes great responsibility to not crush people, and I’ve never been in a fight since.

So, if being the quiet kid just got you picked on, and being a bully wasn’t an option, then that left being a smart aleck. Now, it took me years to really come out of my shell and fully embrace my destiny as the outgoing geek I am today, but by the time I was a junior in high school I realized that when you can make people laugh and are generally a nice guy, they tend to like having you around. Liking you to be around doesn’t really correlate to true friendship or wanting to date you, but we’ll address that a bit later.

So, as a result, I’ve come to rely on my wit and sense of humor when it comes to dealing with people. I don’t do it just as a defense mechanism anymore, though it can certainly become one when I’m nervous or scared. Over the years I’ve genuinely enjoyed having the ability to make someone laugh, especially when you’re trying to help and need to get the other person to open up a bit.

Things have certainly escalated since I was a kid. Now if you say the wrong thing to someone rather than getting jumped after school you have to worry if he’ll come back with a gun and shoot up the place. It’s a scary thought in a very scary world and my girlfriend and I worry about her kid when it comes time for him to go to school. However, in everything there has to be balance, and while you want to protect your child the worst thing in the world you can do is smother them or shelter them to the point when it is time for them to go out and face the world without you they get eaten alive or go completely nuts. Its a very thin tightrope that parents and adults in influential positions have to walk- if you coddle them too much and they become too weak to fend for themselves; go too far the other way and they end up in therapy recounting for someone who makes $100 an hour just how horrible you were and how everything that’s wrong in life is your fault. I think the key to this, as in most things, is just showing them love and support. Knowing that they have someone that they can count on to be there when they need them, who will love them regardless of anything they say and do, will go a long way. It’s a very real reason why I’m still here and able to write this right now. If it weren’t for the friends and family in my life I would have been long removed from this world by my own hands. It’s still something that I struggle with, but that’s just it- it’s my struggle, not theirs. I know I have people who love me and are there for me. It acts a balm when I get low, but in the end there are some battles that can only be fought by yourself, and it’s that love and support that gives us the strength to be able to keep on swinging.

J.R. Broadwater is the author of the non-fiction book Down with the Thickness: Viewing the World From a Fat Guy’s Perspective,  the sci-fi detective novel You Only Die Twice, and the fantasy novel The Chosen: Rebirthing Part 1- all available now in digital and paperback formats. Sample chapters and more information about these books can be found here.

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