Bullying. It’s a childhood rite of passage. Just ignore it. You’ll get over
Except most likely you won’t. Frank Peretti knows this firsthand. He’s one of
the many walking wounded who suffered at the hands of classmates — and sometimes
teachers. His is a wounded spirit, and he believes a large number of adults
carry some kind of psychological hurt from their childhood years. And the cycle
continues. A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical
Association found that nearly a third of children in sixth through 10th grades
had either bullied or been bullied.
The best-selling author of supernatural thrillers such as This Present
Darkness, The Visitation and The Oath, the 50-year-old
Peretti did not have a very pleasant childhood. His was a loving home; the
problem came at school but grew from much earlier roots.
Shortly after birth Peretti was diagnosed with cystic hygroma, a growth on
the side of his neck that grew so large it threatened to strangle him. Barely
two months old, he was rushed to the hospital, where doctors tried to remove as
much of the mass as possible. After 10 days in the hospital, he went home, “a
tiny bag of bones with a long scar and black sutures that made it appear as if
my head had been nearly severed and then sewn back on,” he says.
Peretti underwent many surgeries in the following years, and because of his
physical struggles his body did not mature as quickly as other children’s. Aside
from the scar on his neck, the most obvious symptom of his malady was his
tongue: swollen to the point it stuck out of his mouth, black, scabby and
oozing. If Peretti ever wanted to forget about it, his classmates were sure not
to let him. Not only was his tongue grotesque, but it left him with a speech
A virtual prison
Peretti describes his junior high school years, particularly the physical
education classes, in harrowing terms. Going into the locker room meant sure
torment from the stronger boys — just about everyone, that is. Being slammed up
against lockers. Snapped with wet towels. Name-calling. And a coach who seemed
not to notice or care. He felt trapped.
Peretti grew up in a Christian home, and “what you learned at home, you
conducted yourself accordingly at school: You obey your teachers, you do what
the teachers tell you.”
Peretti blames the school system’s sense that “that’s just the way things
are” for some of what he endured. “There’s the idea that somehow manliness is
equated with cruelty; if you’re cruel, if you’re tough, if you one-up everybody
physically, that makes you a man,” he says. “That’s the way it was in gym class
anyway. The teacher’s demeanor just permeated the rest of the class. But in that
environment, that suck-it-up, no-pain, be-a-man environment, you’re not going to
complain about being picked on. And Mom and Dad said I had to be there. The
teachers said I had to be there. No one, not one adult anywhere, said, ‘You know
what, Frank? What’s happening to you is wrong. You shouldn’t be putting up with
The bullying extended beyond the school yard. At a neighborhood store, where
a classmate worked, Peretti needed help finding the deodorant aisle. The boy
took him there and pretended to be helpful, picking up a spray can and asking if
that was what he needed — just before spraying the deodorant in Peretti’s face.
In pain and humiliation, Peretti stumbled outside, collapsed on the curb and
cried from the deep anguish in his soul.
He retreated into his own world at home, picking up an interest in movie
monsters such as Frankenstein and the Creature From the Black Lagoon. “What made
monsters cool to me was they were ugly,” he says. “They were rejected. They were
misunderstood. They were picked on, but the thing about monsters I liked was
they seemed to have some kind of control over the situation. They weren’t
victims. They made victims.”
But one teacher finally made a difference. It was something as simple as
noticing a downcast young boy and taking the time to ask a simple question: How
are you doing? Such concern from an authority figure was a revelation to
Peretti, and it inspired him to write a note to the gym teacher, detailing what
he had to suffer every day in P.E. class.
“I wrote pages and pages,” Peretti says. “I worked on it every free moment
that day. I worked on it at home. I just prayed so much when I was writing the
letter.” He then put the multiple-paged, single-spaced, both-sides-of-the-paper
note in the teacher’s mail slot.
A few days later, the gym teacher gruffly called Peretti into his office.
Peretti was expecting the worst. Incredibly, the coach and a guidance counselor
had arranged for Peretti to be exempted from P.E. “He was real kind,” Peretti
says of the teacher, still sounding a bit amazed. “He smiled at me. I told him,
‘If you were a girl, I’d kiss you.’ He just smiled back and said, ‘You’re
welcome.’ It just took one teacher to care. One teacher to ask me how I was and
not make excuses and shrug it off.”
Peretti believes more teachers and principals need to show such concern.
While in no way excusing Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris, the two gunmen at
Columbine High School, Peretti says he does in a way identify with them. “At
Columbine, my word, the kids were slammed against lockers, they were squirted
and pelted with food in the lunchroom. They were being run off the road by the
jocks in their cars. There were kids actually getting to class by going outside
the school building and circling around and coming in the other way so they
wouldn’t be picked on in the hallways, and all this going on in a school
environment, and nothing was done about it.
“If you’ve got the disposition to let anger fester, and that’s what happened
with Klebold and Harris, something is going to happen. They had so much anger.
These guys were pretty warped in the first place, but if I had that kind of
disposition, and I was back in seventh grade, and I had Mr. _____ for a gym
teacher, and I had a gun, who knows? I was a Christian, so I had a moral base to
prevent me from doing anything like that.”
But, he is quick to add, many children today do not have that base and are
immersed in a culture of violence and decadence.
The making of a bully and a victim
“Where does it start?” Peretti asks. “At some point in a child’s life he
becomes the inferior one, the different one, the ugly one, the fat one. For
whatever reason that shapes the way he interacts. He becomes retiring, quiet —
either that, or overly compensating and defensive. It’s like painting a sign
around your neck: ‘Beat up on me because you’ll get away with it.’ You begin to
expect to be treated that way, and the other kids pick up on that like an animal
And everyone, even victims, can in turn be bullies themselves.
“I think human nature, being what it is, it’s kind of the natural thing we
do,” he says. “It’s easy to be mean.” He remembers one of his own victims, a boy
in his Boy Scout troop. “I remember how I and the other scouts would make him
the fall guy. I don’t think we were real cruel, but we were hard enough on
Girls can be bullies just as much as boys, he adds. “Boys are more into the
physical stuff. The girls are more into the social. They’ll ostracize, insult,
leave out, ignore, put down a girl.”
Peretti divides bullies into two basic types. “One is the bully who bullies
because he has a deep troubling need of his own. He’s picked on or he’s got a
very unsuccessful life. Trouble at home, an underachiever, for whatever reason,
he has a real need to elevate himself by picking on somebody else.
“The other kind of bully is the one you may not expect: the very successful
kid. The good student, the athlete, the kid who has everything going for him. He
falls into a trap of thinking it’s just the cool thing to do, especially with
Whichever type of bully, the results can have lasting implications. In
Peretti’s case, they affected a major life decision. He had been accepted at
Seattle Pacific University and was in a college office for administrative
matters before the school year started.
“Some upperclassman came in — had his letterman’s jacket on, big guy — and
immediately made some snide comment: ‘Oh, this must be a poor, dumb freshman.’ I
went outside and said it’s not going to happen again. I am not going back to the
seventh grade. I didn’t go to Seattle Pacific University. I didn’t go to college
until I was 25. That was a life decision born out of a wound that began when I
was a child.”
And whether bully or bullied, the wounds are often carried for life. He cites
a friend whose two boys were being harassed at a Christian school. What made it
worse for the dad, however, was that he had been a bully during his school
“He said, ‘I’m on the other side of this. I still remember the names and
faces of the kids I picked on, and I’m troubled today with their memory and the
haunting question of whatever happened to them.
‘Are they still carrying wounds that I put there?'”
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