The Use of Force

Bullying is imagined as a childish behavior, albeit quite harmful, often occurring on the playground or while riding home on the school bus. Bullying is generally perceived as a predictable event of adolescent development that we, as adults, are expected to discourage.

I can clearly remember a few times when I had been bullied as a child, by kids who were either bigger than me or just more aggressive.  The majority of my experiences with bullying, however, have taken place in adulthood, in my various workplaces while under the supervision of a bully – both male and female.  The broad leeway we give to managers in how they can use their powers over others less capable of fighting back is a bit more sanctioned – out of reach of the kind of criticism we use to judge children who bully.

I recall working as a child abuse investigator. I received a call from a person who reported that a seven-year-old boy was observed with bruises on his back. He’s covered with black and blue bruises.  His back looks like a Dalmatian.

How do you know this?

We were doing physicals at school this morning. I had to lift his shirt to listen to his breathing.  He’s really thin, by the way.  He’s not eating well.  He never takes off his coat. Poor little thing.

That morning I went to the school to interview the child.  I asked the secretary to contact the child’s mother and see if she could join us.

Can you bring the child out so I can meet him?

It was all very reflexive.

I’d done it a million times before.

I busied myself, sitting on a mini chair, trying to figure out how to get to my next investigation across town and still make lunch with a friend. I looked up from my notes to see a child standing silently in the doorway, hands by his sides, slightly slumped. He seemed frail, thin and withdrawn.  I greeted him by offering my hand, which he accepted.  He did not grasp my fingers; only placed his hand in mine and complied.  Staring at the floor, he whispered good to my question, How are we today? He was dark-haired with wide brown eyes and very pale skin. He was scruffy, somewhat stale looking – in need of some sprucing.  His hair was apparently cut at home. He was a bit underweight, but not exceedingly so. He was just small. He wore pants that were too short for him, tattered sneakers and a girls’ pink, quilted coat with a white, fur-lined hood. Somewhat confused by the coat, I continued with my standard introduction. My job is to help kids who need help.  I’m here to make sure you are doing okay. Are you doing okay? 

He didn’t answer; only looked at his sneakers.

I explained to him that I was told he had a problem with his back and I was there to help him, if he needed my help.  Can I have a look?  I just want to make sure you’re okay.

Mechanically, without saying a word, the boy complied.  He unzipped his pink coat and laid it across the seat of the chair.  He removed his shirt and turned around, revealing his back covered in various sized bruises.  My experience told me the child had been both punched and pinched.  He had apparently been choked recently, as well.  I contained my surprise and, instead, asked the child to put on his shirt and his coat.  Goodness.  Looks like something happened to your back; and your neck.  Can you tell me about it?  The child looked at me, tears brimming in his eyes, but didn’t speak.  His eyes, however, said, Help me.  I don’t know what to do.

My eyes said, I know you.

The boy’s mother arrived soon after and took a seat in the mini chair across from me. She was quite unremarkable, thin, with long brown hair and sunken cheeks. She wore a black, cloth jacket and jeans. She didn’t have her dentures with her that morning. A distant chime announced that the school-supply cart was making its rounds, selling novelty erasers, rulers, notebooks and stickers to the children who could afford to pay.  I reached for my wallet and handed the child a crisps five-dollar bill. Almost immediately the child’s mother reached and took it from the boy’s hand and pushed it into her coat pocket. I sat in amazement, not sure how to react.

He needs to go back to class, the mother said. You go on and get back to class.

The boy in the pink coat turned and left the room, ostensibly to return to his classroom.

Sorry we don’t have better chairs for you, I said.

The child’s mother folded her hands on her lap and looked at her knees.  I introduced myself and explained why I was there. I asked if she had noticed the bruises on her son’s back and neck.  Does he complain about pain in his back?

She leaned forward and folded her fingers into one another, as if praying.  She looked up at me, Kids do that.  They punch him in the back. They are forever punching him and choking him. His daddy is working with him – trying to make him tough.  He ain’t tough.  He’s more like a girl when it comes to things like that.  We are doing our best to make him into a boy. It’s gonna take time. The woman went on to tell me that her son was a sissy.  Her eyes told me she believed I would understand and not judge her for her son’s condition. Her eyes said, You understand; don’t you?

The woman told me her husband, the boy’s father, was concerned that the boy would grow up to be a queer and was doing everything he could to force the boy to fight back and stand up for himself.  That’s where that coat he has on comes from, she said. His daddy makes him wear it.  Things are just getting worse.  Them boys just punch him more.  Call him a queer.  His daddy told him when he starts standing up for hisself, he could take it off.  Don’t let him cry or nothing. Makes him wear it all the time. Day and night.  He even has to wear it to bed.

The door suddenly swung open and the school secretary, with her hand still gripping the doorknob, said, He’s up to it, again!

The woman and I entered the hallway, only to the see the boy in the pink coat sitting on the back of a much smaller child, pounding his fists into his back. Stop! the school secretary shouted.  I moved forward and lifted the boy off the smaller child and attempted to calm him.  Leave me alone, faggot! the boy shouted. I looked at his mother.  Watch your mouth! she shouted.  You wait until we get home.

I left that day, imagining what the discussion would be like at the boy’s home that evening, when they all got home and sat down to point out, as they apparently were accustomed to doing, the flaws in the child’s language and behavior. Maybe the child had finally won the right to put away his pink coat and replace it with a coat more fitting a boy, one worn with the stipulation that he would have to earn the right to wear it, every day.


14 responses

  1. Bullying is not going to get fixed any time soon. Unfortunately, everyone has an agenda and until very one of us starts looking out for everyone else without the proverbial, what’s in it for me, this type of behaviour will also continue. We have to learn to love one another for the sake of the other, not for our sake! It is a tough job and everyone has to be on board. It only takes one not in the loop to make it a noose! Good artilcle, thanks!

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  3. I like to think it starts with the adults who propagate these beliefs in their children. Kids learn by our examples. I take action to fight bullying by never letting classist, sexist, racist, or other types of degrading comments or actions to go unremarked in my presence.

    My children have grown up to be assertive, caring people and that came from seeing me stand up when others turned their heads and ‘tolerated’ what they knew to be wrong. I like to say that my only prejudice is against prejudice. We must all take a stand when any degradation, humiliation, or superiority is demonstrated in our presence.

    Only in that way will we pass on to our children the inner strength to stand up to bullying. Show your kids how to use the tools of assertiveness and justice.

    • >I take action to fight bullying by never letting classist, sexist, racist, or other types of degrading comments or actions to go unremarked in my presence.

      This can be a form of bullying itself depending on your definition of “-ist”.

  4. This blog, to me at least, seems to point to the fact that people are forced/coerced into specific gender roles. My Dad also tried to “Toughen” me up, though not in the same ways. Teaching a kid that to be male is to be violent is deplorable, even if violence is related to bullying. There was a much better way they could have taken care of this issue. There is no way to “make someone not queer”, you either are, or you aren’t. The kid in this story sounds like one who could benefit from counseling that would help him deal with what it was that made him feel different from the other kids.

    I take to a model that people tend to adopt behaviors according to the people they identify as, or with. I.E. A boy who identifies as a girl, or with girls is not going to behave like a boy no matter what you do to him. This identification isn’t always a sign they are “transgender” but it can be. The treatment he was receiving from his family to me reminds me some of Conversion Therapy. It is coercive by nature to expect someone to behave beyond the bounds of their own nature through reward and punishment. I sincerely for child’s sake hope that he can find some peace with it, and that he can come to terms with himself without becoming a statistic.

    However, there is a very real issue of coercive abuse of gender variant children, or children with GID. I was one of those children, to a degree being abused because I wasn’t “like” the others. If I was assaulted at school for being soft, small, and passive, I as also assaulted for it at home (verbal, mental, or emotional). I am and never will be a violent person. I only once got in a fight at school, only after getting picked on at school then at home repeatedly over several months did it build up until the event and all I really did was chase him. I find the behavior of a parent attempting to “conform” their kids to social gender stereotypes, GID or not, as deplorable and abusive on its own.

    You can eventually break down a person to get the desired behaviors you seek from them, however, this is never conducive to good mental health and eventually the underlying issue will come out. From my experience, this always comes to a head eventually and the child becomes and adult still dealing with issues that could have been laid to rest when they were younger, when such issues had more reversible side effects. The unfortunate side of this story is that when the person in the story is homosexual or transsexual it increases the odds they will attempt or commit suicide. I hope for the eventual end to such forms of treatment, especially for children who are homosexual or have GID like I did.

    • thank you reneta! you are very perceptive. the original essay was directly related to gender identification. i had a question from a reader about bullying, and i was going to include issues of gender, but i thought it might be too confusing. i really dont like it that people these days use the word gender to mean sex. sex and gender are not the same thing. the confusion makes discussing gender difficult. it seems i would have to explain the difference between the two terms before i could explain the term gender alone. thanks again!

  5. Very sad boy, sad case.

    Beyond the obvious abusive situations via bullying, set up for this boy by his own father by way of the furry pink jacket is a matter of personal discomfort & issues of this boy’s father’s.
    He is deflecting his own beliefs on to a son who does not fit into the kind of young man his father needs him to be.
    Frankly this story curled my heart strings as a mother and grandmother, as a CASA I can only pray that a hero enters this young man’s life very soon. before the court system does.

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