It was my first day in third grade and my first day in public schools. I’d spent the first two years of my academic life under the protective wings of my special education staff at West Central Joint Services, an Indianapolis-based cooperative effort of multiple school corporations to provide a quality education for those children with severe disabilities. This was the 1970′s when the idea of “mainstreaming” students with disabilities was still an incredibly new concept and even the most progressive schools were still wary of the possibility.
There I was. After two years in my protective “special” school, the powers that be realized that serious physical disabilities and modest learning disabilities did not add up to a genuine need to live within the protective wings of West Central Joint Services. So, when third grade rolled around I found myself entering the realm of public schools at Central Elementary in Pike Township Schools on the Northwestside of Indianapolis.
I don’t recall being incredibly nervous. This was mostly because I’d never really been raised to stress my “differences” and, despite obvious physical disabilities, I didn’t feel all that particularly different from those around me.
Then, there was Mike.
I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but Mike was one of the cool kids – He was popular, athletic and sort of set the tone for those around him. When I gathered with the others at lunch ready to chow down on my beloved Spaghettios, I wasn’t really prepared for the fact that Mike would end up making fun of the way I held my fork and the way I ate my food.
Did this experience scar me for life?
No, not really.
But, it is an experience that has stayed vividly within my memory for years and, I’m more than a little willing to bet, it’s one of the underlying reasons that it took me years to become comfortable eating around others because of my hands that can shake and the funny way that I sometimes have to hold utensils, open things and otherwise handle my daily life while living as independently as possible with spina bifida.
I didn’t have a word for this experience when it happened in the 1970′s, but years later I recognize it for what it was – pure and simple bullying.
For those of you who know my story or who have read my book, “The Hallelujah Life,” you already know that this experience of being teased for the way I ate my lunch was incredibly mild within the complex spectrum of my life. Beyond the challenge of growing up with multiple severe disabilities, I am a sexual abuse survivor whose young adult years were filled with life experience after life experience that affirmed how firmly the abusive cycle had grabbed hold of my life. It wouldn’t be until my late 20′s that I would begin to gain insight into the abusive cycle in my life and the myriad of ways in which it had manifested, including those ways in which I had perpetuated it myself. While I am far removed from those years, it saddens me still when I think about the years lost to victimizing relationships, unhealthy behaviors, suicide attempts, depression, insecurities and so much more.
In no way do I “blame” Mike for planting the seeds of the abusive cycle, nor do I blame the environment in which I grew up. In my opinion, there is no “one” thing that leads one down the path towards living within the abusive cycle but, as a slight disclaimer, I will say I do believe that there are life experiences that serve as”trigger” experiences. I believe that these are the life experiences that can either help you break free from the abusive cycle or they can steer your life ever more on that long and winding road towards the abusive cycle.
From that one experience with Mike, I became insecure about eating publicly. I suddenly started to become more aware of everything about me that was different ranging from the way I walked with my crutches, which was really more of a “hop,” to my curved spine and my never stellar hygiene. I became more self-conscious about body fluids that I couldn’t always control and I became the “class clown” in an effort to deal with being “different.”
Again, after the initial experience I have no problem saying that none of these things are Mike’s fault. If I were to run into Mike, my gut feeling tells me he’d never even recall the incident and he’d probably even be appalled that it has lingered in my psyche’ all these years. I would dare say that a good majority of the bullying cases, excepting the most severe expressions of it, are not intended as “life changing” or “life destroying” events. Oh sure, the media loves to tell us about the extreme cases – usually either because it sells newspapers or gets ratings or has led to legal charges or a traumatic event. There is no question that there are those cases of truly reprehensible, intentional and willful bullying intended to do serious harm emotionally and physically.
Maybe these are the cases that lead to school shootings. Maybe these are the cases that lead to teen suicides. Maybe these are the cases that lead to acts of horrific violence. We all know that these things happen and, quite sadly, it’s not all that uncommon anymore.
Bullying doesn’t always look “dramatic.” Sometimes, bullying looks downright normal. Sometimes, bullying looks like “being a kid,” “innocent teasing,” “institutional hazing” or “competition.”
I didn’t become a bully. In fact, I became quite the opposite. I never shot up a school or sought revenge or committed some other act of violence. In the spectrum of my life experiences, my experience with Mike somehow managed to be both remarkably tame and absolutely unforgettable.
Instead of becoming a “bully,” I became an advocate determined to speak out about the abusive cycle whether expressed through child abuse, domestic violence, bullying or some other form of violence. I’ve become determined to share my own life experiences in an effort to initiate conversation, thought and an honest and open dialogue about why it’s so important for us to move away from a culture that too often considers bullying to be a normal part of life for children and adults.
I am not a huge fan of football, a “sport” that seems almost destined to perpetuate a cycle of violence disguised as athleticism and entertainment. Now then, before you start firing off those hateful e-mails to me let me also reassure you that I am not “opposed” to football nor do I deny that there is skill and athleticism involved in the sport. While I would never call myself a hardcore fan of the sport, I do consider myself a fan of my hometown Indianapolis Colts and I had the joy of watching Peyton Manning for years be a shining example of compassionate humanity while playing what has always seemed to me to be an overly aggressive “sport.” Even now, with Manning gone I find myself watching Andrew Luck and having much the same experience all over again.
I still remember watching “Revenge of the Nerds” and not being particularly surprised that these football players could resort to such an exaggerated expression of bullying and a strong sense of entitlement. It’s also no secret that within the sport the newbies, rookies or otherwise, tend to go through a bit of a hazing experience. This is true for many “teams” and it is certainly true for football.
I don’t know Jonathan Martin, a second year tackle for the Miami Dolphins. Martin, who was drafted in the second round out of Stanford last year, has been reported in the news recently to have left his team following a cafeteria incident this week that brought back to me my own memories of Mike and the cafeteria and that seemingly “tame” incident of bullying that has lingered in my memory for years. Fox Sports is now reporting about an alleged “abusive environment” towards Martin that, if true, far transcends what should ever be true within a professional (or amateur) sports team or organization.
I have no doubt in my mind that some who have read about these experiences are likely chuckling over the water cooler the image of this 6’5″, 312-pound tackle being a “victim” of bullying at the hand of teammates who have been alleged by Fox Sports to have engaged in what can only be described as a pattern of institutional bullying ranging from an abusive nickname, “Big Weirdo,” to regular verbal abuse involving personal and family insults. On the day that Martin left the Dolphins facility, it is reported that several team members promptly got up and “left” a table where he had joined them.
Sounds innocent doesn’t?
Sounds silly? Sounds maybe like Martin is being overly sensitive or maybe it’s all being blown out of proportion?
It always does. That’s the really weird thing about bullying – it can so easily seem “normal.” It can so easily seem “okay.”
What’s the big deal?
Here’s the big deal – Jonathan Martin is a human being. He may not necessarily “look” human at 6’5″ and 312 pounds. He may be seemingly living the dream as an NFL football player with a higher income than I am likely to see in my entire life. He may, in fact, be able to physically defend himself should someone be stupid enough to mess with him physically.
Maybe not. Who knows?
Bullying doesn’t depend on someone “looking” or “acting” like a victim. Bullying doesn’t depend on some horrific act of violence for it to be called bullying. Bullying, according to stopbullying.org, is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power.
Even if Jonathan Martin were known as a team slacker, and he’s not, this would still be bullying. Even if it is intended as some overly extended hazing episode, it’s still crossed the line into bullying.
I don’t know Jonathan Martin’s background. I have no idea what his childhood was like or if he’s had some traumatic event that gets triggered every single time these incidents occur. Truthfully, I don’t care because it’s kind of like when we play the stupid game of blaming a rape victim for their assault because of where they were or how they were dressed or such. In this case, the fact that we’re dealing with an athletically gifted young man of tremendous physical strength doesn’t change the fact that bullying is bullying.
If the allegations set forth by Fox Sports are true, this is an epic failure of the Miami Dolphins and by those young men whom Jonathan Martin is supposed to be able to call his “teammates.” Fox reports that the Dolphins knew about this bullying and did nothing about it. It is also reported that the team’s leadership/captains/veterans have done nothing about it.
This is failure. This is the kind of institutional failure that allows things like Penn State to happen because the “institution” becomes bigger than the people who comprise it. If these allegations are true, there should be serious repercussions for the team’s leadership up to and possibly including termination.
Remember how the Indiana Pacers were deservedly decimated following the debacle in Detroit?
If these allegations are true, that’s what deserves to happen here because this kind of behavior can’t be allowed to be considered “normal.” The NFL as the broader organization simply must speak up and speak out on behalf of its players and fans in refusing, even in a “sport” where aggression is rewarded, to allow bullying to be considered normal behavior.
Jonathan Martin, who until this past Thursday hadn’t missed a single game, deserves to be advocated for and treated with dignity and respect. It also goes beyond Jonathan Martin, a fact in which Martin himself would likely agree. My hope is that when Martin got up from that table, he got up from that table determined to break the cycle of abuse and bullying that had been allowed to continue for far too long. In so doing that, he began to lay the groundwork for what needs to happen here.
Whether or not anyone ends up unemployed or suspended or fined, there needs to be an acknowledgment of failure here both personally and institutionally.
There needs to be a public commitment towards discovering, with transparent authenticity, what went wrong and how it can be fixed (including making healthy personnel decisions that treat everyone with dignity and respect).
There needs to be community outreach, because there are children and youth and adults living in Miami who are watching this unfold and who are going through similar experiences in this very moment. They are watching to see how the organization responds because, in the end, this response may help give them the strength they need to overcome their own bullying.
Why do I believe so strongly that the coach, Joe Philbin, should be canned?
Beyond the “bullying,” this is a failure to effectively coach. This is a failure to create a cohesive and effective team unit and this is an epic failure of leadership and guidance. If, as is likely, he claims ignorance that it was going on then even that is a massive failure of leadership and facilitation. In fact, the ultimately leadership would be to now resign and acknowledge the failure to effectively lead. There are now reports coming out that the team members “support” Martin.
Philbin has said “bullying will not be tolerated,” but he needs to realize that it HAS BEEN tolerated. The Miami Dolphins have perpetuated negative stereotypes and, perhaps most sadly, they’ve hurt one of their own. They’ve hurt their community. They’ve hurt the children and youth and families who look up to them including their own.
There are Jonathan Martins everywhere – people who are talented, strong, athletic, intelligent and, yes, “weird” who have suffered silently for too long because when it comes down to it we still tend to see bullying as “normal.” “Man up,” I’ve heard on more than one occasion.
Bullying isn’t just the stuff you see on the newscasts when the latest Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold or some other teenager is shooting up a school. Bullying isn’t always found in the dramatic acts, but instead it’s often found in these quieter acts that seem “normal” yet they leave wounds that sometimes never heal.
For Jonathan Martin, I applaud you for having the strength to stand up and say “Enough.” I applaud you for speaking your truth and, I hope, also breaking your cycle. May you get the support you need to heal from this experience and continue playing football whether it’s with the Dolphins or in a team environment that is healthier for you.
For the Miami Dolphins, I call on you to enter into a period of transparent authenticity in exploring what broke down here and how it can be fixed whether that involves personnel moves, cultural awareness training or a stronger commitment to building an organization that is free of bullying.
For the children and youth who are watching this unfold, I hope this serves as an example that the cycle can be broken and perpetuating the violence is not the answer. If you are experiencing bullying, reach out to a trusted adult.
Finally, for all of us, may this be a reminder that our actions big and small can and do make a difference. May we stop using words and actions that hurt and commit ourselves to words and actions that unite rather than divide.
In response to all of this, Dolphins coach Joe Philbin has said “Bullying will not be tolerated.”
That’s the perfect place to start.
Now then, excuse me, I’m getting back to my Spaghettios.