Photo credit: Tage Olsin
I don’t like baseball.
I could give you a lot of explanations for that. The games are boring, with significant amounts of time passing with nothing happening at all. One hundred and sixty-two games is just too many for me to care about. The players are often un-athletic looking or even personally unappealing. But those explanations don’t really do justice to my disdain for baseball. That’s because, if I’m honest, none of those things are the reason I don’t like baseball.
The real reason has to do with a teacher and a bully.
Bullies have been on my mind lately. My oldest daughter has recently had to suffer at the hands of a bully. And, like me, her bully was a teacher. But her story is hers to tell — just as I haven’t wanted to talk about this for 20 years, she doesn’t want to talk about it, at least not now. So I will just tell you my story.
I can trace my dislike of baseball back to a single day. I don’t remember the exact date, but I know it was in the spring of 1993. I was a junior in high school, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. After all, high school wasn’t awful for me, but it wasn’t great either. But there was one truly awful part of high school: gym class.
Oh, goodness, how I hated gym class. But never more than on that spring day.
I remember we were doing the baseball unit in gym. I remember walking out of the gym, through the parking lot, to the closest baseball diamond with my class. I remember being split into two uneven teams with the defense manning their positions on the field and everyone else being up at bat. And I remember the teacher, everything about her — though I won’t name her here.
Now, when I was in high school, we were tracked, meaning the academic classes were leveled into advanced, college prep, etc. So, I spent most of the day with basically the same set of kids who were also in the advanced classes. Except for things like gym. There, you could see a clear divide between the “smart” (and likely not athletic) kids and the “normal” kids. That was good, actually — even though I was not particularly skilled at sports, there were enough kids like me that I didn’t stand out as a failure.
On this day, on the diamond, that divide was there, as usual. As I waited for my turn at bat, I knew I wouldn’t hit anything. But neither would a bunch of other people. So, while I remember still hoping class would end before I got to the plate, I wasn’t all that worried about it. It would be no more embarrassing than any other gym class deficiency.
The bell didn’t ring before my turn. So, I stood there and waited for the pitch. I swung — and missed. I swung again, and missed again. And then one more time. Three strikes, and I was out.
Except, not that day.
I remember trying to hand the bat off when my gym teacher said no. She said I needed to stay there until I hit the baseball. I remember smirks and snickers from my classmates.
High School Me!
I swung again. Strike four. Then five. Then six.
Now, that divide I told you about was apparent, but in a very different way. One one side were the kids who were openly grinning and joking at my expense, and on the other were the kids who were painfully looking away, sympathetic to my embarrassment but unwilling to draw attention to themselves. After all, better me than them, right?
Strike seven. Eight. Nine.
Then the bell rang, the one that signaled it was time to go back to the locker room to get changed. I remember how sweet that bell sounded.
Until the teacher said no one was going in — until I hit the ball. Now, the class wasn’t smirking. Now, they were mad. They were going to be late — because of me.
Strike ten. Strike eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.
Around the fifteenth pitch, I made a little contact with the ball. It bounced forward pathetically. I took a deep breath. Was the ordeal over?
But the teacher said it didn’t count. Strike fifteen. Then sixteen.
Finally, I hit the seventeenth pitch. Well, not really hit it — just a bit more contact than the last time, so the ball bounced a bit more forward. But the teacher nodded, and it was done. I don’t remember, though, the expressions on my classmates’ faces or their reaction. By that point, I was staring at the ground. I didn’t think I’d ever want to make eye contact with anyone ever again.
It took years for me to label that incident as what it was: bullying. At the time, it didn’t occur to me — nor to any of the people who witnessed it. If a math teacher had done something like that — made a kid stand in front of the class for several minutes and figure out how to do a problem beyond his ability — I think there would have been reports and complaints and disciplinary action. Even then, it wasn’t OK to pick on kids who weren’t as smart. But not a single person — including me — thought there was a problem with the gym teacher picking on a nerdy kid. After all, that’s all in good fun, right?
But it’s not. And it’s not OK. And people need to talk about it.
The vast majority of teachers are incredible people who sacrifice and work ridiculously hard to raise other people’s children. That’s a generosity that most of us will never match. Even though it is rare — or maybe because it is rare — it is a severe breach of trust for a teacher to act like my gym teacher did. In the workplace, it would harassment and jobs would be terminated. Between two students, it would be a clear case of bullying and there would be suspensions. But when it is a teacher and a student — where the power difference is so much greater than between peers — it is often overlooked. Especially when the victim is “nerdy.” Because we still live in a world where being smart is a put down for a kid, something to be slightly embarrassed about. High school athletes get pep rallies and star status; the kids who are academically at the tops of their classes get ignored (which might be better than getting teased).
As a society, we have been talking a lot about bullying. I’m glad we are. It’s hard enough to get through school that there’s no reason for anyone to have an additional layer of difficulty artificially created by a bully. We need to learn to stand up and say it’s not OK — no matter who the victim is. Or who the perpetrator is. And we need to talk about how bullying is born of inferiority — not of the victim but of the offender. Looking back, I realize that my gym teacher probably felt that a smart kid like me needed to learn that getting good grades wasn’t everything and to be taken down a notch. But why would she need to take me down if she didn’t feel inferior in the first place?
Me on my pro-nerdyness crusade
Like I said, it’s taken years for me to come to terms with what happened that spring day. And even coming to terms with it doesn’t make it feel better. The only good to come out of it is that I’m more vigilant about situations like this. Just as I would never let people around me say negative things about another person’s race, religion, or disabilities, I’m sensitive about what they say about another person’s abilities. I’m sure to tell kids whenever I am doing an author visit that of all the things that shouldn’t embarrass them about themselves, being smart is the least of it. And anyone who makes fun of their brains is…well, stupid. And not worth a second thought. This is one of the main crusades in my life.
And, in the meantime, I’m working on liking baseball.