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The Most Important Thing to Know about Bullies and Predators

Angry little boyHey, do you want to hear a secret? I was bullied as a kid, and it was not the moderate, teasing variety. Throughout grade school I was extorted for money, chased through alleys, beaten up, and repeatedly had my coke-bottle glasses knocked to the ground. (The Glasses Game went like this: someone would knock my glasses off, after which I would crawl around looking for them. The other kids found this more amusing than I did.)

It didn’t happen every day—probably far less frequently than I remember—but it was enough to make me dread getting up in the morning. Sometimes the thought of going to school made me ill. My grades suffered. I developed a lingering anxiety problem. I was a mess. Life sucked.

Somehow I survived long enough to begin middle school. That was a mixed blessing. There were rumors among my classmates that our new school, Merrill Junior High, was like a prison.

The scuttlebutt was that Merrill was a cold, hard, institution with sadistic wardens and grizzled lunch ladies who ashed their cigarettes on your sloppy Joe. Cruel teachers, buzzing fluorescents, and thick wire baskets over the clock faces to protect them from airborne staplers and lunch boxes.

Worst of all: there would be daily fights with kids who sported facial hair and carried switchblades.

Well, as you might guess, it wasn’t nearly that bad. In fact, my life improved dramatically within the first days of seventh grade. Oh sure, bullies targeted me at first, but for some reason I handled it differently.

I still don’t know exactly why, but I didn’t retreat when a mustachioed eighth grader named Julian singled me out as his next victim during our first day of gym class. Maybe I was tired of running, or maybe I was experiencing my first tiny surge of testosterone. Maybe my new fortitude had something to do with the cutie I’d spied in the girls’ gym.

Whatever the reason, I faced Julian head-on. I was certainly scared of him, but I experienced one of those strange, incorporeal moments when the wiser-than-me autopilot takes over. I was watching myself from a distance, wondering, who is that self-destructive kid picking a fight with Julian? Nobody picks a fight with Julian. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how the scene unfolded.

There must have been 50 of us in the class. The teacher had us stand on the perimeter of the small gymnasium and announce our names one-by-one. When my turn came, I must have mumbled my name: “shawnsmith.” The teacher didn’t hear me, and he jokingly shouted, “JOHN SNIFF?”

Everyone laughed, except for one person: Julian. He was looking straight at me, a sneer beneath his wispy little mustache. He had found his next victim, and that victim’s name was John Sniff.

Julian mad-dogged me over the next 45 minutes—pointing, calling me names, and eliciting evil laughter from his lackeys. He was testing me, and I knew that this would eventually end with the usual humiliation, and possibly with me making weekly payments to him. I’d been in this situation before, and I knew the drill. As frightened as I was, another emotion was welling up. Something new and strange. I was getting cheesed off.

We were filing out of the gym en route to our next classes when the autopilot took over. I heard myself challenging Julian, right there in the hallway in front of everyone. I gave him the stink-eye, and I told him that he was all talk. I accused him of fearing me. (In my business, we call that “projection.”) The other kids smelled blood in the water and began to chant, Fight! Fight! Fight!

We circled each other briefly, then Julian balled up his fists and hit me twice. I’d never defended myself before, and I didn’t think to raise my hands to protect myself. That gave him convenient access to my face. I fell to the ground—I believe boxers call this a TKO—and then a very bleary-looking teacher hauled us both to the principal’s office. Someone was kind enough to return my glasses, which I had somehow misplaced while being punched in the nose.

And that’s about it. We were each suspended for three days, after which Julian and I would occasionally say “hey” as we passed each other in the hallway.

Here’s the interesting part: I was never bullied again. Ever. Clearly this was because I had stood up to Julian, and no one stands up to Julian. I had earned a reputation.

But a reputation for what, exactly? Having a glass jaw? Exhibiting poor judgment under pressure? Possessing the ability to bleed through both nostrils simultaneously? These hardly seem like factors that would discourage predators. Yet that one little TKO somehow gave me the freedom to walk the halls of Merrill with impunity.

Before I go on, allow me to acknowledge the fact that my strategy was ill-advised and entirely unsophisticated—if you can call being punched-out a “strategy.” It was a primitive reaction rather than a measured response, and I don’t recommend it.

But let’s get back to the question: Why did bullies avoid me after Julian had trounced me? The answer doesn’t lie in how I responded, but simply that I responded. The magic moment didn’t happen when Julian punched me. It happened moments earlier, when I publicly responded to his testing behavior. And I responded on my first encounter with him—that’s important. The fact that I lost the fight was irrelevant.

This is the most important thing to know about bullies and predators: they rarely rush in. Instead, they test the boundaries of potential victims to weed out the troublemakers. When Julian was dogging me in gym class, he was actually baiting me and measuring my response. He was simply sizing me up, like good predators do.

As adults, bullies and predators are more sophisticated, but their basic methods remain the same. They test, and they prod, and they scan for vulnerability. When they do, responding quickly is more important than responding perfectly. This is the part where I talk about the brand-new second edition of Surviving Aggressive People.

Since childhood, I’ve had a deep fascination with aggressive behavior and, more importantly, how to avoid violence. Julian was just one in a long series of people who would punch me in the nose—literally or figuratively—while I was working in dangerous places, making plenty of mistakes, and trying to understand aggression. (My motto: “Taking abuse since 1975 so you don’t have to!”)

The purpose of Surviving Aggressive People is to offer techniques for stopping violence before it starts. Julian’s left hook taught me the importance of that. If you’re interested in what else I’ve learned over the decades, there are a couple of free chapters right here. Enjoy!

And if you see Julian, tell him I said, “hey.” Also, “thanks.”

—Shawn