Greg Hatcher has written a gut-wrenching piece of his history in an article he posted today. He talks about the way it used to be: to enjoy reading, to enjoy comics, was to invite physical pain and an existence based on fear. I look forward to Hatcher’s columns just about every week because he writes with such passion about things I love from a perspective that often leaves a lump in my throat. This week, however, hit me harder.
He talked about the first time a superhero saved his life.
Please, go and read the article. I’ll sum up here in my own words, but take the time. I’ll warn you, it is a little lengthy, but it is so very much worth your time.
In short: for about four years, from third grade through sixth grade, Hatcher’s life became a living hell because his classmates found out he read comics. It started with verbal mockery, and by sixth grade it was flat-out constant physical abuse. Because he was different. Because he didn’t play sports. Because he preferred reading and comics.
And then… his principal found out.
And the principal did not judge him for enjoying such “inappropriate” things as comic books. The principal did not tell him to get over it or stand up for himself. The principal did not tell him to change who he was, because otherwise he just needed to expect more of the same. No. The principal called the bully in… and did something. And the bully that caused all that terror never bothered Hatcher again.
Hatcher remembers that day. He writes about it eloquently. Again, if you haven’t gone and read the article yourself, please, do yourself a favor and do just that.
Why did this hit me so hard?
Because I never had a superhero save me. No principal ever came to my rescue. No adult swooped out of the sky. No, I fended for myself. For two years it was hell for me. I remember them well. By freshman year of high school I had transferred to a very different place. I had learned to keep my head down. I had learned to just shut up when certain people were around. It still wasn’t great, but it wasn’t hell. And anyplace is better than hell. To this day, I do not keep in contact with anyone from that school with anything more than a distant Facebook relationship.
Seventh and eighth grade were hell. I don’t remember ever talking to an adult about it. Hatcher tried talking to his parents, and they ignored him or blamed him for his problems. I don’t think I ever even told my folks. This is not their fault in the least and I don’t blame them. Every day, though, in my little school, I feared. That existence of terror, of not being able to relax that Hatcher talks about – I identify with that. A lot of that terror still informs how I form relationships and relate to “normal” people to this day.
There was not a day when the other boys in my class did not mock me mercilessly. One in particular stayed silent. We’d been friends once, but that was “way back” in fifth and sixth grade. He didn’t participate in the mocking, but he sure didn’t stand up for me or remain my friend during that time. Every day getting dropped off at school caused panic. Lunch was hell. All the boys sat together. I had no choice but to sit next to them and endure through the eternity of lunch. And recess… I never got the hang of recess to begin with, and for those two years I was targeted with anything that could be thrown or “accidentally” chucked at my head. If I was not picked up immediately after school, I hid by a teacher… because I could not face those other boys.
We had a unit in Social studies aimed at boys. The idea was that we could point to a map and say where our favorite sports teams played. We were given season schedules and we had to figure out where all the cities were. Except… those schedules didn’t have the cities, just the team name. And I had no clue where most of those teams played, because I didn’t care about sports. Never had I hated a class more. It was like the teach had declared open season on me. Oh, and did I mention that it was a group thing, with all the boys working together?
One year I came in second for every event in track and field day. That should be awesome, right? Nope. I didn’t compete against the other boys. For whatever reason, only one girl showed up to class that day. The teacher had the brilliant idea of setting me against her. So I got to represent the boys in all the events against one lone girl. And, yes, I lost to her in every event. More fuel to the fire.
And middle school boys know how to dig under skin, through ribs, and strike at the heart better than any other person I’ve ever encountered. And those other boys spared no opportunity to torture me. It never turned physical, but it didn’t matter. If it had been physical, I could have done something about it. Gone to someone. But, no, they kept it “ok” in the eyes of any adults.
And so all the more I sunk into escapes from reality. I read more and more science fiction. In those days I soaked up Star Trek novels like a sponge. The Wheel of Time became a better world for me than any other I’d ever encountered.
And comics… oh, comics.
My dad had milk crates full of old issues. I read through a lot of his collection. Things like the old Marvel Comics Star Wars. Superman. Dreadstar. Teen Titans. All good stuff. He collected then (and still does). He’d pick up a bunch of stuff every week, and I’d get my one (sometimes two!) issues. I’d read what he got. And this is one of the series that he picked up on occasion:
I remember this issue well. It was the first of its kind that I ever read. The Fly was a teenage superhero. He went to high school. Fairly standard. In this particular issue though, a friend attempts suicide. And that issue stung. It hit me… hard. I envied her.
She found a way out.
That appealed to me so much. Not taking my own life. Not even the scream for attention. I didn’t want attention, after all. Attention meant mockery. Attention meant pain. No, I just wanted a way out. I wanted a hero.
Hatcher talks about how if his hero, if his principal had not stepped in, he very well could have wound up dead. I didn’t have a hero. I did escape, though. I transferred to another school, giving me a chance to start over. And again, two years after that, I moved schools again, and finally found my stride.
I don’t know what happened this morning with the man who shot into a movie theater, taking the lives of so many. I do know that the victims of bullying sometimes fight back, and in some cases, they have done so with fatal consequences. I do know that the victims of bullying turn inward, and far too often their lives end in a cry of despair, because they have no heroes to save them. Not every victim has an escape like I had. Not every victim has a hero like Hatcher’s principal.
Victims need you.
Listen, nerds and geeks are not targets in the same way they used to be. In some ways, our culture has wised up that the nerds and geeks in high school sometimes end up the bosses of the jocks, and it’s wise to be nice to the guys who might end up signing your paycheck. But there’s still bullying.
Bullying is not something to “get over.” It’s not something to survive. It is an evil that must be stood against. And victims so often do not have the strength to stand up in any way that is good. They will turn violent, either against themselves or their tormentors, and either way ends in tragedy.
We cheer when heroes stand up in movies against the bad guys. We puff up our chests when Aragorn stands at the Black Gate. We applaud when Maximus stands in the Coliseum against the emperor insane. We honor the sacrifice of William Wallace as he cries out one last time, “Freedom!”
There is a victim that needs you to be a hero. They need you to be like Hatcher’s principal and stand against the bully. They need you to stand bravely with them and for them. They don’t need another program to teach them self-esteem. They don’t need someone to tell them to walk it off and rub some dirt on it. They need heroes that will show the bullies that what they have done is wrong. That the one who intimidates is evil. That he is a sinner.
Because that’s what this comes down to. This isn’t just a matter of outward evil actions. It is a matter of a heart that worships at an altar that says that pushing someone else down makes me better. It is a heart matter, and a hero will show the bully that what he does isn’t just “displeasing.” It’s not just hurtful to someone else. It… is… wrong.
I do want to be clear. That’s not to say the victim is always or even often squeaky clean. The victim may well have to be shown some sin of his own. But the victim needs a hero… just like the bully. They need heroes that show them their sin.
I never did that with those who tormented me. I don’t know if they ever realized how much pain they caused, that even today I have trouble related to “normal” guys who get into sports. When I meet men like that, my default is “they don’t care and will even try to hurt me if they know the real me.” Let me tell you, this is not a good default for a pastor who tries to reach out to men and women alike. I am still healing, decades later.
But those who torment and those who are tormented don’t need to be shown just their sin.
They need to meet the ultimate Hero, the one who really did sacrifice himself for them. The Hero that died thinking of them. The One that has provided justice by dying for their sins, and given them a perfect record. They need to be shown that they have been given the ultimate escape: They have escape from their slavers, their sin. They have escape from the slavery that keeps them in a constant desire to beat someone else down so they can feel better. They have escape today. And those who are in Christ are conquerors right now. They don’t need to beat someone else down, because Christ has already made them kings – but not in this world. And they need someone to tell them that.
So you… be a hero. Be a hero to a victim. Show that bully that what he or she is doing is wrong. Period. And, should God bless your efforts, show them also the one who took away that sin.
Be a hero.