I was more than a little surprised the day my older sister, Carol, invited Peggy Wilson* to our house to do homework.

Peggy was a violin prodigy who had started studying the Suzuki method at an age when Carol was still studying Wednesday and Pugsley Addams’ techniques on how to torture your youngest sibling. (In our family, that meant me.) Moreover, Peggy was so accomplished on her instrument that by fifth grade she had already been the featured soloist with the Kalamazoo Symphony.

But that wasn’t why I was surprised to see her at our house.

No, the reason I did a double-take when Peggy Wilson walked through the door, chatting amiably with Carol as if the two had been best friends all their lives, was that for the past two months since the school year had started, I had heard nothing but what a wretched person this Peggy Wilson was — this arrogant, conceited girl who had moved to town and thereby threatened Carol’s sense of entitlement as Perpetual Teacher’s Pet.

“That Piggy Wilsow is so conceited,” Carol would fume. “The teachers think she’s so big just because she was the soloist with the Kalamazoo Symphony.”

Or, “I hate that Piggy Wilsow. She gets everything she wants just because she was a soloist with the Kalamazoo Symphony.”

Or this: “Piggy Wilsow is so stupid. She only gets good grades just because she was a violin soloist with the Kalamazoo Symphony.”

On and on it went. You get the idea. Peggy Wilson was, hands down, the absolute worst thing that had ever happened to truth, justice and the American Way — and certainly to Noelle– since time began.

A slap in the face — literally

So you can imagine my shock when Peggy Wilson walked into our living room and the first thing she said to me, in an accusing tone of voice, was this:

“I hear you think it’s funny to call me Piggy Wilsow.”

OK. I have to confess, I had laughed the first few times when Carol used that moniker. And, I had probably used it myself once or twice in conversation with Noelle.

But this had a whole different feel to it. Somehow the insulting name had become my idea, rather than Carol’s.

Speak up, my mind shrieked. Tell her the truth.

But as was often the case when Carol would twist the truth around in a way that left me looking guilty and defensive, I stuttered incoherently, despising myself for my inability to mumble even a few words that made sense.

“Oh, really?” Peggy said sarcastically. Without another word, she slapped me smartly across my cheek, while Carol smirked triumphantly.

I stood still for a moment, my cheeks burning as much from rage and humiliation as from the stinging slap. Everything in me yearned to strike her back. But I knew from experience that if I did that, Carol would incite Peggy to join her in tackling me, and then I would have a fight on my hands I couldn’t possibly hope to win.

Without another word, I turned and walked stiffly out of the room, trying to muster as much of my tattered dignity as I could. I could feel their contempt burning into my rigid spine as I made my way clumsily across the room and stumbled up the stairs.

‘You be the bigger person’

Later that evening, as I recounted the incident at the dinner table, I asked my mother to speak to Peggy about it, and perhaps to Peggy’s mother. At the very least, I hoped against hope that she might reprimand Carol.

No such luck.

Mom shrugged indifferently, a reaction I had come to expect from her by then. “Why should I?” she said. “She didn’t hurt you, so it doesn’t matter. Besides, you’ll be the bigger person for it if you just let it go.”

But I did not feel the bigger person for it — not at that moment, nor at any other time as I grew older and reflected on that incident from the perspective of time, experience and maturity.

Quite the opposite. I felt exceedingly diminished by it.

Bullies and wimps

In his online article, “Dignity Beats Back Bullies,” Domenick Maglio, Ph.D. and self-described neo-traditionalist, asserts that because so many of us have been taught similar messages about turning the other cheek and Being The Bigger Person, we are becoming a nation of bullies and wimps.

“Bullies and their counterparts, wimps, are increasing in number,” he writes. “This should not be surprising given what we tell our kids. The child is told not to retaliate in self-defense because if he does he is the same as the bully. He is taught to ignore or accept the bullying until the perpetrator gets tired of abusing him and goes away. The problem with this is it doesn’t work.”

When a bullied child is pressured to “understand” and “befriend” the bully, it merely compounds the dynamic that has already been developing. The aggressive child, Maglio says, “sees this as weakness and becomes more emboldened, while the compliant child is further humiliated.” Furthermore, it solidifies the roles of victim-aggressor in the eyes of others, who may decide that it’s okay to join the aggressor in tormenting the victim.

Maglio further observes that all too often, school authorities take the easy way out by treating bullies and their victims equally.

“It is easier to avoid a comprehensive, time-consuming investigation [that would] get to the truth,” he writes. “It is more P.C. and less disruptive to give each child an equal consequence, avoiding all the problems of judging who was the initiator, eliminating parents being irate in defense of their child.”

‘Strike back’

In other words, Maglio suggests, a kind of pervasive moral cowardice prevails, so that even those who are in a position of authority tend to take cover rather than taking a meaningful and appropriate stand.

Among his more provocative suggestions: Teach your child to hit back when provoked.

“Bullying is part of human nature,” he says. “It has and it will continue to exist. Society, with proper standards and expectations, can keep it under control. Without an understanding of how our current practice of coddling and appeasing is fostering abusive behavior, we will continue this epidemic of bullying.”

In light of Maglio’s observations, I ask myself, all these years later, Should I have struck Peggy Wilson back? The answer, given my particular circumstances, is still a resounding no.

Not that she didn’t deserve it. She did. But she and Noelle together no doubt would have subjected me to a far worse drubbing than a mere slap if I had retaliated — and I didn’t deserve that. Moreover, it was clear from my mother’s response that there would be no consequences whatsoever for either one of them.

Another way

Still, l think Maglio is onto something. Maybe there’s a larger lesson here, and it has something to do with each one of us — you, me, teachers, parents, everybody — deciding to be neither bully nor wimp nor heedless bystander. Maybe it means that we all need to develop and heed our own internal moral compass that can determine the right course of action. Perhaps only then can we hope that onlookers and others not directly involved will intervene and stop leaving it to the bully and victim to “sort it out for themselves.” Given everything we know about the dynamics of bullying, and how it escalates over time if allowed to continue unchecked, such a moral compass seems to be our best hope of dealing with the issue of bullying.

*a pseudonym

© 2012 by Ann Graham Price. All rights reserved.

Your turn

OK, readers. It’s your turn. What do you think? Should children be taught to fight back? Should schools, parents and others take a stronger stance against bullying? Do bystanders have a moral obligation to intervene if they can? Please share your thoughts and ideas.

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