Bullying. It's a childhood rite of passage. Just ignore it. You'll get over it.
Except most likely you won't. Frank Peretti knows this firsthand. He's one of the many walking wounded who suffered at the hands of classmates — and sometimes teachers. His is a wounded spirit, and he believes a large number of adults carry some kind of psychological hurt from their childhood years. And the cycle continues. A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly a third of children in sixth through 10th grades had either bullied or been bullied.
The best-selling author of supernatural thrillers such as This Present Darkness, The Visitation and The Oath, the 50-year-old Peretti did not have a very pleasant childhood. His was a loving home; the problem came at school but grew from much earlier roots.
Shortly after birth Peretti was diagnosed with cystic hygroma, a growth on the side of his neck that grew so large it threatened to strangle him. Barely two months old, he was rushed to the hospital, where doctors tried to remove as much of the mass as possible. After 10 days in the hospital, he went home, "a tiny bag of bones with a long scar and black sutures that made it appear as if my head had been nearly severed and then sewn back on," he says.
Peretti underwent many surgeries in the following years, and because of his physical struggles his body did not mature as quickly as other children's. Aside from the scar on his neck, the most obvious symptom of his malady was his tongue: swollen to the point it stuck out of his mouth, black, scabby and oozing. If Peretti ever wanted to forget about it, his classmates were sure not to let him. Not only was his tongue grotesque, but it left him with a speech impediment.
A virtual prison
Peretti describes his junior high school years, particularly the physical education classes, in harrowing terms. Going into the locker room meant sure torment from the stronger boys — just about everyone, that is. Being slammed up against lockers. Snapped with wet towels. Name-calling. And a coach who seemed not to notice or care. He felt trapped.
Peretti grew up in a Christian home, and "what you learned at home, you conducted yourself accordingly at school: You obey your teachers, you do what the teachers tell you."
Peretti blames the school system's sense that "that's just the way things are" for some of what he endured. "There's the idea that somehow manliness is equated with cruelty; if you're cruel, if you're tough, if you one-up everybody physically, that makes you a man," he says. "That's the way it was in gym class anyway. The teacher's demeanor just permeated the rest of the class. But in that environment, that suck-it-up, no-pain, be-a-man environment, you're not going to complain about being picked on. And Mom and Dad said I had to be there. The teachers said I had to be there. No one, not one adult anywhere, said, 'You know what, Frank? What's happening to you is wrong. You shouldn't be putting up with that.'"
The bullying extended beyond the school yard. At a neighborhood store, where a classmate worked, Peretti needed help finding the deodorant aisle. The boy took him there and pretended to be helpful, picking up a spray can and asking if that was what he needed — just before spraying the deodorant in Peretti's face. In pain and humiliation, Peretti stumbled outside, collapsed on the curb and cried from the deep anguish in his soul.
He retreated into his own world at home, picking up an interest in movie monsters such as Frankenstein and the Creature From the Black Lagoon. "What made monsters cool to me was they were ugly," he says. "They were rejected. They were misunderstood. They were picked on, but the thing about monsters I liked was they seemed to have some kind of control over the situation. They weren't victims. They made victims."
But one teacher finally made a difference. It was something as simple as noticing a downcast young boy and taking the time to ask a simple question: How are you doing? Such concern from an authority figure was a revelation to Peretti, and it inspired him to write a note to the gym teacher, detailing what he had to suffer every day in P.E. class.
"I wrote pages and pages," Peretti says. "I worked on it every free moment that day. I worked on it at home. I just prayed so much when I was writing the letter." He then put the multiple-paged, single-spaced, both-sides-of-the-paper note in the teacher's mail slot.
A few days later, the gym teacher gruffly called Peretti into his office. Peretti was expecting the worst. Incredibly, the coach and a guidance counselor had arranged for Peretti to be exempted from P.E. "He was real kind," Peretti says of the teacher, still sounding a bit amazed. "He smiled at me. I told him, 'If you were a girl, I'd kiss you.' He just smiled back and said, 'You're welcome.' It just took one teacher to care. One teacher to ask me how I was and not make excuses and shrug it off."
Peretti believes more teachers and principals need to show such concern. While in no way excusing Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris, the two gunmen at Columbine High School, Peretti says he does in a way identify with them. "At Columbine, my word, the kids were slammed against lockers, they were squirted and pelted with food in the lunchroom. They were being run off the road by the jocks in their cars. There were kids actually getting to class by going outside the school building and circling around and coming in the other way so they wouldn't be picked on in the hallways, and all this going on in a school environment, and nothing was done about it.
"If you've got the disposition to let anger fester, and that's what happened with Klebold and Harris, something is going to happen. They had so much anger. These guys were pretty warped in the first place, but if I had that kind of disposition, and I was back in seventh grade, and I had Mr. _____ for a gym teacher, and I had a gun, who knows? I was a Christian, so I had a moral base to prevent me from doing anything like that."
But, he is quick to add, many children today do not have that base and are immersed in a culture of violence and decadence.
The making of a bully and a victim
"Where does it start?" Peretti asks. "At some point in a child's life he becomes the inferior one, the different one, the ugly one, the fat one. For whatever reason that shapes the way he interacts. He becomes retiring, quiet — either that, or overly compensating and defensive. It's like painting a sign around your neck: 'Beat up on me because you'll get away with it.' You begin to expect to be treated that way, and the other kids pick up on that like an animal smelling prey."
And everyone, even victims, can in turn be bullies themselves.
"I think human nature, being what it is, it's kind of the natural thing we do," he says. "It's easy to be mean." He remembers one of his own victims, a boy in his Boy Scout troop. "I remember how I and the other scouts would make him the fall guy. I don't think we were real cruel, but we were hard enough on him."
Girls can be bullies just as much as boys, he adds. "Boys are more into the physical stuff. The girls are more into the social. They'll ostracize, insult, leave out, ignore, put down a girl."
Peretti divides bullies into two basic types. "One is the bully who bullies because he has a deep troubling need of his own. He's picked on or he's got a very unsuccessful life. Trouble at home, an underachiever, for whatever reason, he has a real need to elevate himself by picking on somebody else.
"The other kind of bully is the one you may not expect: the very successful kid. The good student, the athlete, the kid who has everything going for him. He falls into a trap of thinking it's just the cool thing to do, especially with his friends."
Whichever type of bully, the results can have lasting implications. In Peretti's case, they affected a major life decision. He had been accepted at Seattle Pacific University and was in a college office for administrative matters before the school year started.
"Some upperclassman came in — had his letterman's jacket on, big guy — and immediately made some snide comment: 'Oh, this must be a poor, dumb freshman.' I went outside and said it's not going to happen again. I am not going back to the seventh grade. I didn't go to Seattle Pacific University. I didn't go to college until I was 25. That was a life decision born out of a wound that began when I was a child."
And whether bully or bullied, the wounds are often carried for life. He cites a friend whose two boys were being harassed at a Christian school. What made it worse for the dad, however, was that he had been a bully during his school days.
"He said, 'I'm on the other side of this. I still remember the names and faces of the kids I picked on, and I'm troubled today with their memory and the haunting question of whatever happened to them.
'Are they still carrying wounds that I put there?'"