On the last day of anti-bullying week, I made a difference. I hope.
Circumstances conspired so that I was walking my dog just after noon – it is usually my husband who does this walk, and it is usually earlier in the day. I walked along our customary route, which took us around the perimeter of our local elementary school. Partway along the walk, I saw four teenaged boys across the street who seemed to be jostling each other – at first, I thought they were all joking around. But as I watched, I saw that three were ganging up on the fourth, yelling, swearing and intimidating. Two of the three had their fists cocked. I stopped across from them and stared at the group.
The leader of the group looked across at me, and then went back to his swearing and threatening. I stayed where I was, looking at the group. The leader paused and looked back at me again, while a second member of the bullies started going through their victim’s backpack (which was still in place on his back). I called across to the leader that I wasn’t leaving until they stopped harassing and threatening. The leader replied that the victim owed them money and wouldn’t pay. I asked the victim if he owed them money. He said no. I asked if I should call the police. He said yes. I walked across the street to discuss the situation.
Because I didn’t have my cellphone with me, and didn’t want the harassment and possible violence to continue while I ran home to call the police, I instead asked the leader how much it would take to pay off what he perceived was owed to him, and to have them leave the victim alone. He told me $30. I asked for assurances that if I paid the $30, they would not harass the victim again. The leader said it would not happen again. I asked him to give me five minutes and I would return with $30. He asked me where I was going and when I said around the corner to get the money from my house, he said they would come with me.
I walked my dog back home, followed by four youths, one of whom was terrified and three who were bullies who now know where I live. I scrounged up $30, told my husband that I would explain it all in a few minutes, and went outside to pay off the thugs. I told them that this violence and bullying couldn’t happen again, and with payment in hand, they again assured me that it wouldn’t. I am under no illusions that they were telling the truth.
The bullies left and the victim asked if he could come in for a minute. I brought him in, introduced him to my husband and explained the situation. He seemed like a sweet kid, not long at the high school a couple of blocks from us, and held up for payment by these bullies every day for the past month. He cried – out of fear and humiliation – and said he would be grateful if I spoke with his principal and the police.
I did call the school, and spoke with the head teacher, who was concerned, thoughtful and pro-active. It was he who noted that that November day was the last day of anti-bullying week and how ironic that this situation had occurred. While I expressed concern that my actions might make it worse for the victim, who I learned is one of the best students in the school, the teacher thought the fact that I was an adult who is not involved with the school and who had witnessed this bullying off school property might actually help the situation, as there would be no issue of student snitching. He confirmed that he would speak with the student, the parents and the police if necessary, and that he would take action against the bullies.
Later in the afternoon, I received a thank-you call from the victim. He expressed how relieved he was that he would get help with this situation and that there were responsible adults who now knew what was happening. He also told me how hard he is working at school and how important it is to him.
When I saw the situation unfolding, my only thought was that this young man was not going to be hurt – I was not going to walk away and let that happen. I had no fear that I was in danger. Well, actually, I didn’t take time to think about that. I did have a big (although harmless) dog at my side, and there were people around that I could call out to if things got out of hand. I confronted the bullies, and while I’m sure I didn’t reform them, I hope that I at least helped in this particular situation and that my young friend can travel to and from school without fear.
It doesn’t always work to confront bullies with strength, but sometimes it does. Perhaps it worked because I was willing to pay them off. Perhaps they are rookie bullies and are thinking they got a good deal because they ended up with the money they were looking for. And perhaps when they experience the consequences of their actions, they will rethink the benefits of bullying.
I believe I got a good deal, though. For $30, I helped a young man who works hard at doing well and who, I hope, can concentrate on the schoolwork he enjoys and not be distracted by threats against him.
Marsha Abramson lives in Toronto.