The word bullying is a word that we frequently hear and read about in the news. It certainly was present when I was growing up. I remember when I was a 10-year-old, there was a 12-year-old boy who was not particularly well liked by the older kids and who was picked on fairly frequently. As a matter of fact, I was encouraged to play a role in picking on this boy. The moment that I, through peer pressure, decided to join in, still to this day stands out in my mind and is a blemish on who I was at that time. But, I believe that it was also instrumental in who I was to become.
I was the oldest of nine children - seven boys and two girls, and I lived in some fairly tough neighborhoods. I was taught by my father to box at an early age. I also was a fairly decent athlete when I was growing up. I could have been identified as a leader if someone cared to do so. At the time, I was not very confident outside of my athletic abilities. It was at age 10 that I was convinced by the older kids to fight the kid that was not so popular. So, I fought the boy, but it was not much of a fight since he did not offer much resistance. I remember the boy was crying, and I was congratulated for beating up this kid that no one seemed to care for. Soon after, I saw the boy, Eddie, and his mother walking across the playground towards my house. I knew that I was really going to be in trouble. Within minutes of Eddie and his mother arriving at my house, my own mother called for me. My mother said, “Jimmy, Eddie and his mother are here, and he has something he wants to say to you.” All I could think about is what I was going to say in defense to Eddie and his mother. I was already thinking of a story that might deflect some of the punishment that I would receive as a result of my actions. In my family, you were never allowed to start a fight, or lose a fight. But, starting a fight was strictly prohibited. Each of us knew that if we started a fight, we would be severely punished. It wasn’t bad enough that Eddie and his mother were at my doorstep getting ready to tell what I had done to Eddie, but I knew that when my dad came home, I would without a doubt be punished.
Astonishingly, Eddie’s mother said, “Eddie is so sorry that he has done something that would make you angry enough to want to hit him, and he wants to apologize.” I was absolutely shocked. This was nothing at all what I expected. I immediately burst into tears and ran into my bedroom. I could not believe that this poor innocent kid, whom I picked on, was apologizing to me for something that he felt he had done when he had done absolutely nothing wrong.
At age 71, I am starting to forget names. I sometimes even forget faces. But, I will never, for as long as I live, forget the name of Eddie Kuhl or the incredible lesson that his mother taught me. I made a mission after my bad behavior with Eddie to change my life.
At age 10, I began thinking for the first time about bullying. I thought, what made the kids that encouraged me to pick on Eddie want to do so, and why did I allow myself to be talked into playing the role of bully! I made up my mind that this would not ever happen again to me and that if I could do something to stand up to bullies, I would do so.
As I grew older and approached the eighth grade, I began playing football for the Charleston Catholic High School junior high team. It was at that time in my life that I observed first-hand the seniors bullying the eighth and ninth graders. They would make them run errands for them, and they would push them around and slap them with towels. It seems, looking back, that it was somewhat like a fraternity initiation. I thought to myself that if I was ever strong enough and in the position of a leader that I would change that. When I became a senior, I thought I could assume a leadership role, and in that role, I could encourage my teammates and classmates to look out for the smaller and weaker kids - the underclassmen. It started as just a discussion between my close friends and I that we would not allow the things that we saw as underclassmen happen to the underclassmen now. It would not be tolerated by us as seniors. We also identified the younger and weaker ones on the football team and made a mission to make them feel special and really a member of the team. For example, during away games, we would sing songs on the bus home after we won. We would call out the names of those who were known as the stars of the game. John Shemo, a smaller sophomore who didn’t get much playing time, led us in song every game of my senior year, followed by every classman who did not get to play much. These were the younger kids on the team. We also that year attended daily mass as a unit. Since some of the football players were extremely popular, that encouraged others in school to frequently attend mass.
Throughout my life, I continued to have concerns about people being picked on and singled out even as I entered the legal profession. One of the most traumatizing moments I had in my legal career involved a local judge. I had just finished my first criminal case. My client was charged with delivery of LSD, and a policeman had witnessed the transaction and acted as an informant. The only defense we could offer was entrapment. It was the only time that I ever used that defense, and likewise, was the only criminal case that I ever lost. After the verdict, I made a motion for bond to be set for my client so he could remain out of jail while his appeal was being perfected. The hearing was to take place while I was out of town on vacation with my wife. This was the first vacation that I was able to take within the first two years of practicing law, so I arranged for one of my associates to cover for me. This was a routine task for the Court to continue bond until the appeal was finalized. Unfortunately, the associate forgot to attend the hearing. Since the associate did not show up, the Judge called the senior partners at the law firm I was working at and told them that I had missed the hearing and wanted me to call him. I then telephoned the Judge, who I had believed to be my friend. The judge informed me that I had missed the hearing and asked me what had happened. I explained the situation, seemingly to his satisfaction. He then told me to come to Court in the morning and to bring my client with me.
When we arrived at the courthouse, I noticed two different television trucks. When we got inside the courtroom, the television crews were setting up and there were a couple of local newspaper reporters. When the Judge entered the room, he glared at me and said, “Mr. Bordas, I am glad that you could make it today. I want you to tell me why you chose to thumb your nose at the Court and ignore your responsibilities to your client this week by failing to attend the bond continuance hearing that had previously been set.” I was stunned. I then said, “Judge, as I told you last night over the telephone …” The Judge interrupted and said, “I don’t want excuses, I want you to tell me what happened.” I then said, “My associate, Greg, was supposed to cover for me. He forgot. Nonetheless, this is my client, and I was the one who was supposed to be there, and I take full responsibility.” The Judge then found me in contempt of Court and ordered me to write a 500-word paper. All of this was being filmed by the television stations and being taken down by the newspaper reporters. I was the subject of the news that day. I later found out that the Judge, whom I thought was my friend, had an ongoing battle with the senior partners of my firm, and they detested each other. He would do anything he could to get at them. In this situation, he got back at them by embarrassing me in front of the county. In fact, this instance was covered locally and nationally. Friends of mine that lived as far away as Florida and Wisconsin called to tease me about what they had seen or read. It was obviously incredibly embarrassing to me and my earliest recognition of bullying by adults. This taught me to be stronger.
I have since witnessed first-hand the attempt by others to bully adults throughout my career, and I have found that bullying can occur at any stage or situation in life. Five years ago, my law firm started the anti-bullying program. We recognize children in Ohio, Marshall, and Belmont Counties who most exemplify the ideals of anti-bullying. That person is kind, considerate, courageous, and strong. That person stands out among his or her peers as one who has been able to help prevent bullying that has become so prevalent in our society. A teacher, or anyone for that matter, can identify someone who they think should be recognized. The award is a $500 check, plus tickets to a Pittsburgh Pirates game at our law firm suite, with food and drinks provided by the law firm. This seems to have been a success. The reason we started this is because I wanted to make it popular to be the nice person, the good guy, the one with the courage to stand up to bullying, although it seems to me that the message has to start with the parents and teachers, so it can filter through to kids.
In order to get the message to my children, who I hoped would pass it on, my wife and I impressed upon our boys the fact that they needed to be aware of the people who were not blessed with the same opportunities as they were. Hence, if they ever saw someone sitting alone in the cafeteria, they were required to sit by them and talk to them. If they saw someone being bullied or picked on, they were to stick up for them.
On the flipside of that, sometimes it is a difficult thing for a parent to ‘walk the walk’ after they were done ‘talking the talk’. I have passed up opportunities to enjoy being with some of my friends to sit with the lonely. This was not necessarily always because it was the right thing to do, but because the message that I have told my kids resonated within me. So, the message I want to relay today through this blog is that in order to try to put a dent in this bullying curse that we have in society, first we need to make it a popular thing to be against bullying. I especially think we need to make it popular to prevent bullying. I think that once we get the kids to buy into this idea, we can begin to bring the bullying curse to an end. It’s going to take a lot of work, courage, and preaching, but I think that with the right attitude, we can greatly reduce the incidents of bullying.
Finally, I recently had the fortunate opportunity to watch the movie, Wonder. This is a movie that our law firm took all the Ohio County fifth graders to. I was not able to attend with the fifth graders, but my wife and I were able to watch the movie in Naples, Florida, with practically all of the moviegoers being over the age of 50. My wife and I both cried at times during the movie. Although no producers, actors, or so forth were present in this showing, when the movie was over, there was a round of applause. I have been told this has happened in many of the theaters across the country. It seems that the anti-bullying message is truly one that sells under certain circumstances. We all need to work to find the right buttons to push – then push them.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.