Bully Proof

My second job out of college was designing book jackets for pulp fiction. Seven men and I hunched over drawing boards, lettering Stalker Perv from Hell and Nevada Nut Case on lurid illustrations. Water pipes dangled from the ceiling. Fluorescent lights sizzled, men hawked and wheezed. When I brought in a radio, ambience improved. But a few months later, a better job came along, and after teary goodbyes, I bent down to unplug my radio.

"Whudya think ya doin'?" Eddie, the office manager, said.

"Taking my radio."

"No way, kid." He shook his head.

"Why not?"

"Because we got used to it, kid."

That made sense. That was true. So I left without the radio. Then I started brooding. By the time I got home, I was The Maniac from Manhattan.

I dialed Dad.

There's something you should know about my father. He was 9 when his father died. Abandoned, Dad survived by inventing rules that drew a road map for life. The one he thought applicable to my radio was "The Bully on the Block." "A little boy comes out on the street," Dad said. "And a big bully comes along and starts punching him in the face. The little boy has three choices. He can stand there and take it, fight back, or go away. It's his decision to make."

Dad paused, then added the magic words: "Nobody does anything to me. I do it to myself."

I could have left the radio.

I could have taken the radio.

I could have pulverized Eddie, then stomped out with the radio.

Dad was telling me that my response to a bully is my choice. It's exhilarating to know this. Anytime an interaction doesn't feel right, ask yourself: Am I going to stand here and take it, fight back, or walk away? In the end, you have nothing to complain about because you, you thoughtful, clever girl, have made the decision. When you're in charge of your fate, you can't be a victim.

Which brings me to my all-time favorite quote. It's attributed to that goddess of words Maya Angelou. Here's how it goes: When you complain, all you do is broadcast, "There's a victim in the neighborhood."

Alas, there's no shortage of bullies out there. I have a neighbor who thinks might makes right, that he'll always prevail because he's 6'2" and loud. Bob likes to stand over me and snarl. I smile back up at him and hold my ground. Inevitably, he withers like the Wicked Witch of the West. I hope his quivering wife reads this essay.

In a generous mood, you can feel sorry for a bully. Bullies resort to primitivism to make their points. Intimidation is their skill set, that's all they've got. You, on the other hand, have my darling father's philosophy. Dad had no role models. He self-created. He believed his job as father was to protect me. But he went one better. He showed me how I could protect myself. You're armed now too. Bullies beware.
—Patricia Volk

Next: Finding inspiration in dad's bravery


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