Lesson from a Bully

My hate affair with Alberto began in my junior year of high school.

That something so torturous for me as gym class could be fun for other kids boggled my mind.

I sport pale skin where every hair follicle stands out, forming an army of angry red dots and which never, ever tans, making me a lily-white freak in Southern California. Changing into the navy-blue shorts and white T-shirt uniform in the locker room amidst a giggling gaggle of girls with varying shades of toasty brown skin, I loathed my existence.

Alberto stood on the pitcher’s mound, tall and wiry with bronzed skin glowing in the early morning light. I saw him roll his eyes as I tried to keep the aluminum bat with the handle wrapped in tape like a mummy from trembling in my hands. My legs trembled even more than the bat.

I placed the bat in a hitting position, emulating my favorite slugger, Steve Sax of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but I felt like a complete poser. I pleaded with the gods of gravity to let my bat make contact with the ball. Even a foul ball was better than whiffing.

First pitch floated out. I swung the bat. Whiff.

The second pitch looped my way. All I struck was a breeze.

That’s when Alberto sneered and pointed a long, thin brown finger at me. “Hey, look guys, it’s Casper!”

Everyone laughed.

“Casper! Casper! Casper!” The gleeful, mocking chorus spewed from the infield and outfield, a team of sun-kissed demons chiding the phantom interloper.

I felt the urge to defend myself. I shouted out, “At least I’m friendly!”

Worst. Comeback. Ever.

The third pitch came through a veil of tears that threatened to eclipse my vision. I swung with vicious desperation, imagining Alberto’s smirking face instead of the ball. Striking out, I dropped the bat with a defeated thud and disappeared behind the dugout.

That day, Alberto chose to mock me instead of show me an ounce of mercy. His actions shouldn’t have surprised me; I also had a bullying streak.

Sylvia was a girl in my fourth-grade class who loved wearing frilly dresses and bows in her hair and cried like a baby when hit during dodgeball. Her nickname was Saliva. I created a fake school newspaper called The Saliva Times. Every article was about Sylvia, reporting how dumb and annoying and ugly she was and how everyone hated her.

Maybe that moment at home plate was just karmic retribution.

Over the years, I’ve carried that one P.E. class in my soul, a wound I picked at, never quite letting heal. I have never owned another pair of shorts. That last at bat was my swan song for performing in front of a crowd. I’d rather not try than fail at something. I prefer to be invisible, flitting through life unnoticed.

Those who are bullied as children often harbor revenge fantasies. Instead of becoming sports legends, jocks will be doomed to punching a time clock at a job they hate. The homecoming queen won’t become Miss America; instead, she’ll end up a bloated breeder with a jerk who cheats on her. And the tough guys? They end up in prison or six feet under before they turn 40.

Over the years, I wondered what had become of Alberto. Was he married to a nagging wife and saddled with an army of whiny kids? Did he land in jail? I figured he could be dead, a casualty of a drive-by shooting or robbery.

As it turns out, he was dead.

I learned through Facebook that Alberto died of cancer when he was 30 years old. Despite pain, sickness, and exhaustion, he focused on fulfilling a lifelong dream before he died—earning a bachelor’s degree. He’d arrive on campus just after dawn so he could score a parking space that allowed him to get to class without overexerting himself. When he landed in the hospital, he worried about assignments instead of medical issues. He was determined to fulfill his goal, to beat cancer at something.

No sacrifice was too much. He broke up with his girlfriend because he didn’t want her to be saddled with the burden of a dying man.

Alberto earned his degree, but he didn’t live long enough to walk across the stage at graduation. His twin brother stepped in to do the honors.

For years, I had made Alberto out to be my own personal villain, but he ended up being an amazing human being. A stronger person than me. Definitely braver.

In that moment, the bully became the teacher.

And I, the eternally grateful student.

About the Author | Joy Johnston

Joy Johnston is a digital journalist based in Atlanta. Her collection of essays about family caregiving, The Reluctant Caregiver, received a gold medal at the 2018 IPPY Awards. She received the 2015 Rick Bragg Prize for Nonfiction from the Atlanta Writers Club. When not writing, Joy enjoys spoiling her cats, sipping bourbon, and learning new things.

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4 comments to "Lesson from a Bully"

  • Rachel Van't Land

    Wow, this gave me goosebumps! Thanks so much for sharing it. It’s just so…HUMAN… getting picked on while simultaneously having our own mean streak. I love the way you bring out the gifts in the whole experience. Great story. <3

  • Lori

    Joy, this was a really well told story. It’s inspirational that it appears you have come to forgive your bully.