|The famous sign of a weenie.|
The author, an ex-marine,
had no tolerance for bullying.
One year it was Phillip, a seventh grader so immature he told me, when he asked permission to go to the bathroom, that he was suffering from “a poo poo problem.”
Another year, it was Michelle, a sweet-tempered girl, but inept when it came to personal grooming. She’d come to class after lunch with a red ring of Hawaiian Punch round her mouth and I had to be sure to tell her to wipe her face before classmates came flooding in behind. Sometimes she asked to sit in my room as I worked on grading papers during lunch.
She didn’t have many friends and only wanted someone to talk to while she ate a sandwich and drank her Punch.
I remember when the “L” sign (for “loser”) came into vogue in the 90s, remaining popular with students for a number of years. From the start, I found it offensive.
When I couldn’t break classes of the habit—forming the “L” with thumb and forefinger and placing it to the forehead—I took preemptive measures. Now, when I thought kids were really getting on each other, I started raising three fingers to form a “W” for “weenie” and stuck them to my head. It was a stupid “insult” but made it hard for teens to focus on their own disagreements when their “beloved” teacher was standing there with three fingers stuck to his forehead and telling them, “Yeah, you’re a weenie.”
Almost all teens, though, are kind-hearted if they stop to think about what they’re really doing; and my kids caught on quickly. We began elaborating. A “weenie,” as I explained it to students, was anyone who zoned out during my history class or disparaged my excellent jokes. According to students, I was the biggest “weenie” of all.
I can’t argue that.
We began inventing new forms of the sign. If a kid complained about homework I scratched my head in distracted fashion, using three fingers, giving the “Inadvertent Weenie.” Kids invented the “Armpit Weenie” (three fingers and a tickling motion), the “Quadruple Weenie” (two students at once) and the politically-incorrect “Indian Weenie” (three fingers behind the head). Erin Morrison, one of my strongest students, made everyone laugh by demonstrating with various leg kicks and appropriate sound effects the “Karate Kid Weenie.”
A few days later Erin spoke up: “Mr. Viall, make Chelsea show you the ‘Sammy Sosa Weenie!’”
When I called on her to demonstrate, Chelsea McCarty grinned widely. At the time steroid use was still unproven and Sosa, the Chicago Cubs slugger, was widely admired. So, Chelsea tapped her heart three times as Sosa did with his index finger whenever he came to bat, only using the three-fingered “W.” Then she touched her lips with the “W,” just as Sosa touched his (with an index finger). Then she pointed to the sky like Sosa, using the “W” instead of an index finger. The class applauded and laughed and so did I.
UNFORTUNATELY, THERE’S NOTHING HUMOROUS about being truly bullied. So I interceded to protect victims whenever I could. Near the end of my career I had to step in to protect one of my favorite students.
Ross was a thoughtful young man, serious-minded, never a problem for anyone. Nevertheless, there were times when you could see he was down. He and I talked. He revealed his problems, but only in part. A group of tough kids—none in any of my classes—were lined up against him.
I offered the usual advice for dealing with tormentors: Keep a poker face. Don’t give bullies the pleasure of knowing they’re getting to you. Learn to poke fun at yourself, leaving no room for others to deliver a real insult of their own. I told him about how I suffered in seventh grade, when a group of boys picked on me for being skinny.
This seemed to make him feel better, knowing that there was hope in surviving adolescence.
Most of the kids liked Ross. But outside my four walls the bullying was worse than I realized. One evening Ross’ father (a former student) called me at my home. He said his son had great respect for what I said, as did he. Would it be possible for the two of us to meet? I said yes and suggested he bring Ross along, a tactic that usually proved beneficial in dealing with teens.
The three of us sat down together after school the following afternoon and the story came pouring out. The problem had started the year before, in sixth grade, when a group of poor students singled Ross out for abuse. They never let up, with summer vacation the boy’s only respite. Mr. ----- brought up an incident that left me shocked and angry. One of Ross’s tormentors, who towered over him by a foot, had seen him coming down the hall. Ross was carrying an armload of books, his less-scholarly nemesis none. As they passed the bigger boy spat in his face.
“Nobody deserves that, Ross,” I said with outrage, “I don’t care what you have ever said or done. No one deserves that.”
Dad spoke of his love for his son. His eyes brimmed and he reached out and patted Ross on the shoulder. I felt a lump in my throat. This was even more serious than usual.
“Don’t tell anyone I said this,” I continued, “but if they’re going to keep picking on you then you might have to fight.” I described my experience in seventh grade when one of the bullies and I tangled after gym—and after that how he and his friends left me alone. “I don’t think your dad would blame you and it might be worth the three-day suspension to win a little respect.” A hint of a smile finally showed on Ross’s face.
I promised to speak in general terms to the biggest boy, the leader of the enemy pack, the following day.
During conference period next morning I looked the young man up and asked him to step into the hall. He was tall enough to look me in the eye. So I looked him in the eye. I told him that while I had not been witness to any incidents, “other students” had informed me that he was bullying classmates. I didn’t mention names, didn’t bring up the spitting. I said “a parent” had also called.
Anatole France once said, “The more you talk, the less people remember.” And that’s still the best advice I ever heard when it comes to talking with teens.
I didn’t threaten or lecture. “I don’t know you personally, young man,” I continued. “You don’t know me, do you?” He said he knew who I was, but no, he didn’t know me.
“I’ll tell you what,” I explained, “I hate to see anyone bullied. You’re a big guy. You look like you can take care of yourself. I doubt you get bullied. But if someone told me you were getting picked on by two high school kids, I’d stand up for you, even though I don’t know you.” He nodded and, I think, saw my main point. “People who bully others pick on the weak. That’s a form of cowardice,” I added. I wanted to call his manhood into question.
“Cowardice,” I repeated.
Before I let him go, I said again: “If I heard you were being picked on I would come to your defense. If I hear that you are picking on others from now on, I will consider it a personal insult. A personal insult. Do you understand?”
He had nothing to add and I let him go in peace. After that he left Ross alone.