Let's Talk About Bullying

I still remember the feeling I’d get in the pit of my stomach when I realized I was about to be bullied … and that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. It was a type of dread — a physical sensation. I’d describe it as fear mixed with hopelessness.

I was just a kid at the time.

This was right around when I was in elementary school, back in Clinton, Iowa.

Not a lot of people know that I was bullied growing up, but it’s part of my past, and it’s something that I haven’t forgotten about. Now, all these years later, I’d like to share some of my experiences so that kids out there who are dealing with bullying will know that there is hope — that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

So let me start out by trying to take you through it.

There was this boy in my neighborhood who liked to pick on other kids — for no reason or for any reason at all. He was bigger than me, and older, and if he wanted to push me, or smack me around, there wasn’t all that much I could do about it.

David Johnson
David Johnson /

My cousins and I would be out playing — just shooting hoops or running around in the park — and he’d show up, seemingly out of nowhere.

As soon as I saw this kid, my stomach would drop. In the blink of an eye, I’d go from doing kid’s stuff and having fun with my friends to being scared half to death. My heart would start pounding. I’d tense up. I knew there was going to be a fight-or-flight situation.

Sometimes we’d try to run and get away, but most of the time when he rolled through we knew we were going to be bullied. That’s just the way it was. He and his friends could catch us if we took off, and there usually weren’t any grownups around to help.

After the first couple of incidents, my cousins and I realized we needed to be on high alert. I tried taking roundabout routes home from school to avoid him, but I was still always looking over my shoulder.

I was scared to go places. I was scared to do things. I was scared … to be a kid.

David Johnson

Most of the time this kid hung out in the park where we all played. I was so scared of him, and so traumatized by the run-ins, that I was always super hesitant to go to the park. I felt like I couldn’t freely be a kid and hang out with my friends without constantly worrying if he would be there; that I couldn’t play sports or have fun outdoors without being picked on. At the time, I really loved basketball, but this boy and his buddies also played hoops in the neighborhood. So I had to be very cautious about what times I went to the park, because being bullied wasn’t worth the risk.

I was scared.

I was scared to go places.

I was scared to do things.

I was scared … to be a kid.

I vividly remember days where I felt that I had to call ahead to my friends’ houses before I left, to see if they knew whether this boy was at the basketball courts, or if anyone had seen him in the area.

For real. I would actually check in.

Imagine a little boy making those calls, asking if it was safe to go out and play.

Well, that was me growing up. I was that little kid.

I can recall how relieved and excited I would be when I heard that this bully wasn’t anywhere to be found, and got the thumbs-up that it was safe to head to the courts. I’d run out of the house, overjoyed — just happy to be outside, and spending time with my friends, and enjoying life.

Then, a lot of times, he’d show up anyway.

Out of nowhere.

And I’d have to make a call as to whether I’d get punched or I’d surrender my belongings.

And I’d be right back where I started.

This went on for a few years, and then it kind of died down. I’d like to tell you that someone stepped up and put an end to it, or that the boy’s parents got wind of what was going on and set him straight. But that’s not what happened.

There was nothing like that. It was more gradual.

I was fortunate because this bully didn’t go to my school, so the only times he could terrorize me were when I was out playing in the neighborhood. As I got a little older and moved on to middle school, I started playing organized sports and was always going to practices somewhere, so I guess I didn’t come into contact with him as much. I think that was probably part of it. That and, I don’t know, maybe he got tired of bullying us and moved on to doing something else.

Whatever the case may be, as I progressed through high school and on to college, those memories from back in the day helped to inform my decisions about what career paths I wanted to pursue. One thing I kept coming back to is that I wanted to do something that would allow me to influence kids and impact their lives. So I decided to study education so I could become a phys ed teacher.

At Northern Iowa, I enrolled in a bunch of classes that highlighted the challenges students face on a day-to-day basis. Not surprisingly, bullying came up often.

Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register/USA TODAY Sports
Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register/USA TODAY Sports /

Since most incidents of bullying occur at school, there are students all across the country who simply do not want to show up for class each morning, or are afraid to, because they are being bullied. When they do go, these children have a more difficult time learning because they’re so worried about being picked on or beaten up. And things are even more devastating now than when I was growing up, because there’s been an increase in emotional bullying and cyberbullying. People will spread rumors or make fun of you on social media. In so many ways, our young people are being traumatized — some even to the point of attempting suicide. And the more I learned about this problem, the more I wanted to help.

When I began student teaching as part of my degree program, I made it a point to talk to children about bullying. I also spoke with kids who were being bullied and listened as they detailed for me what they were experiencing.

Those stories broke my heart.

They will stick with me forever. I listened as children spoke of being humiliated, or of brutal beatings. And it made me even more convinced that bullying is a problem we should be working harder to address.

Kids should love going to school, and we, as a society, should be doing all we can to ensure that every child feels secure when they’re trying to learn. It’s so unbelievably sad to see kids being treated badly because of something like their socioeconomic status, or what they wear, or how they look, or because they’re “different” in some way.

It’s not right. Period.

And we can all be doing more to help make things better for our children.

In trying to lend a hand to the kids I met when I was student teaching, I realized that where I could make the most impact was in the context of one-on-one discussions. Such conversations would allow me to share details from the bullying stories of my childhood and help kids realize that they can make it through — that there really is hope. Sometimes, in bigger groups, I’d run into the problem of students not believing that I had suffered from some of the same sorts of attacks that they were experiencing. They thought that since I’m a big guy with some muscles this kind of thing could never have happened to me; that I was making it up or something.

But when I was able to sit down with a child and really take him or her through my experiences as a little boy back home in Clinton, we were able to make important connections. Suddenly there was someone in their life who really got it — someone who understood, firsthand, what they were going through.

It wasn’t always easy for me to share my stories, but I saw that it was making a difference in these kids’ lives. Sometimes at lunch, I’d go sit at a table in the student cafeteria, and I’d see a few children who were sitting alone. They were all by themselves. So I’d just go up and talk to them — about school, or sports, or life in general — and you could see that it made an impact. Just taking the time out to chat with those kids, and brightening up their days for a few minutes, helped.

And if helping a little kid feel better meant that I needed to be vulnerable for a few minutes by reliving some truly awful memories, well, then, that’s what I was going to do.

I’d encourage you to do the same if you find yourself in a position to have that sort of impact. And, trust me, you don’t have to be a professional athlete to step up in that way. Regardless of who you are or what you do for a living, you have the ability to make a difference by simply showing that you care — by providing empathy and support to kids who sometimes feel as though the entire world is against them.

If you’re willing to put yourself out there like that, you might just be surprised at what happens next.

Scott Boehm/AP Images
Scott Boehm/AP Images /

I remember a few years ago I went and spoke to a high school football team back in Iowa about bullying issues. Going in, I just kind of figured it would be your typical guest-speaker-type talk — I spoke about doing the right thing, and leading by example, and treating people with respect, and being good people. I also spoke about bullying and the impact it has on kids their age. Then, after I had finished, I watched as that group of players went over and talked to this boy they knew who was being bullied at their school.

That floored me.

It was at once amazing and inspiring. I was so proud of them at that moment, and I still think about it often.

The experience really brightened up that kid’s day. But it also allowed him to understand that he wasn’t alone, and that he had some allies at school. That’s huge when it comes to bullying because, as I can attest, sometimes when you’re stuck in a terrible situation it feels as though you’re all alone, with nowhere to turn.

For those kids — and grownups — out there who are witnessing incidents of bullying, believe me, I get how difficult and complicated it can be to try and do something about it. During my childhood there were several times when I was a bystander to other kids being bullied, and I didn’t take any action. Today, thinking back to those moments — and knowing that I didn’t alert a teacher, or intervene, or do anything to help — is tough. But at the time, I was just really scared. It’s extremely daunting to stand up to a big, powerful bully who could just as easily squash you instead. So in many cases we just kind of freeze, or we go along with the crowd.

But it’s important to realize that taking action when you see bullying occur doesn’t have to mean verbally or physically confronting the bully. One of the most valuable things I learned while being trained as a teacher was the importance of encouraging people to be “upstanders” instead of bystanders. You don’t necessarily have to intervene by injecting yourself into an altercation. You can alert a teacher or another adult who may be able to help. Or, if that’s still too difficult, you can go and speak to the child who is being bullied, and let her or him know that they have a friend — someone they can rely on and talk to. And remember, the concept of “power in numbers” can be critical to addressing bullying. If one person stands up — or says something, or befriends a victim — it may encourage others to do the same. And that can make a real difference.

Even a seemingly small act of kindness or empathy can go a long way for someone who is being bullied. Those efforts help provide some semblance of hope for children who — like me, when I was a little kid who just wanted to shoot some hoops back in Clinton — are living with fear and anxiety on a daily basis.

The last thing I’d like to say is meant for all the children out there who are being bullied. Please hear me when I say this: You are important, and wonderful, and loved. People care about you.

I care about you.

I know it is hard right now, but trust me when I tell you that it will get better. I’m living breathing proof of that.

If you can, please go and talk to a teacher or a counselor or someone else who you trust. Tell them about what is going on and ask them for help. But beyond that, please do everything in your power to try and enjoy life as much as you can, and to find happiness in whatever you enjoy most. Keep your head up and never lose hope.

You and me, we’ve been through some stuff. But, you know what? We’re gonna be O.K.

At the end of the day, we’re the tough ones.

And we’re the people who show the world what real strength is all about.

David Johnson is an advocate for STOMP Out Bullying. To learn how you can help stop bullying, please visit http://www.stompoutbullying.org/.