Seeing bite marks on my little boy’s arm poked at an old wound. I thought of it again when my older son complained about a bigger boy stopping littler kids from getting back into school after recess. | Sun-Times files

Having kids, now I know how I should have dealt with my own childhood bully

SHARE Having kids, now I know how I should have dealt with my own childhood bully
SHARE Having kids, now I know how I should have dealt with my own childhood bully

The arc of pink teeth marks stood out on my son’s forearm like a tiny branding.

They were, my wife tried to explain, the other boy’s way of defending himself against my son’s aggressive and unwanted hugs.

I didn’t care. I was furious — even more so when my kid, then 3, came home in the days that followed with more bite marks. I didn’t want explanations or excuses. I just wanted it to stop.

I wasn’t really angry with the otherwise-sweet boy who didn’t like Lucca’s hugs. My anger went back much further, to a gravelly playground at Eliot Bank Primary School in Sydenham in 1970s England, a place where — day in and day out — I was bullied.

It’s funny how this stuff stays with you even after so many years.

I am 51 years old, have never been arrested, am not prone to violence. But were I to meet my childhood tormentor again in the sort of clichéd scenario that Hollywood might conjure, and were he to yell “titch” (a very small child back in England) or “Duracell” (for my “copper top”) at me, I can’t promise I wouldn’t slug him. I might even enjoy it.

I had a good childhood. My parents loved me. I had my own bedroom on the top floor of a slender Victorian house on a hill near a park where life-sized clay dinosaurs lurked in ponds and behind shrubs.

But I was short — almost always the shortest kid in my class each year. And I had a shock of unruly red hair — they called it ginger where I grew up.

The bully’s name was Jason. He was a lean and not especially big, with curly, dishwater-blond hair. I was 7 — the same age as my oldest son is now.

Jason would find me in the playground, then order me to hand over pocket change, toys, sweets — one time, even my brand new winter coat. He’d threaten me if I didn’t comply — or if I told a teacher. I never told anyone.

It’s hard now to untangle these decades-old fears and motivations. But it probably comes down to shame that I said nothing — shame that I’d not stood up to this kid, that I’d let him push me around. Telling my parents would surely have only made things worse. Papa once stormed in to a shop to return a damaged gym bag he’d bought for me, tearing it to shreds in front of the shopkeeper just to demonstrate its fragility.

So I kept quiet. Eventually, Jason moved to another school. And I moved to America.

Forty years later, I’m not pursued in nightmares by the sneering face of my bully. I’m a mostly happy, married guy with two fantastic kids. Sometimes I think the shame of my past cowardice has pushed me to do things I might otherwise have avoided — like doing theater and voice-over acting and, a few weeks ago, standing up in a bar in front of a group of total strangers and telling a story.

But seeing those bite marks on my child’s arm poked at an old wound. I thought of it again when my older son complained about a bigger boy stopping the little kids from getting back into school at the end of recess.

These are more enlightened times. I checked the website at my kid’s public school in Chicago, where I found plenty of information about bullying and how to deal with it.

Still, the other day, when my kid clenched his tiny fists in imitation of a Ninja warrior, I couldn’t help myself: I told him that if he didn’t tuck his thumbs out of the way, he’d break them when he threw a punch.

I wanted him to be prepared — just in case. I know it’s foolish.

Much like the feelings I still harbor for Jason and the other kids who bullied me. Truth is, I wouldn’t want to encounter a middle-aged Jason. Besides, for all I know, he might be a pastor now. Or have gout. Or maybe he’s just lost his mother.

What I want is pure fantasy — to return to that playground 40 years ago, face the bully and say: “You’re wasting your breath. Threaten all you want. My Matchbox cars, my pocket change, my new coat — you’re not having any of it. Beat it.”


Tackling ‘Daddy, are you the enemy of the people’ and other tricky kid questionsWhy my boys will learn their grandfather’s native language

Dancing on the Riverwalk: the ‘Papa’ I want my boys, his grandkids, to remember

A dangerous question: ‘Daddy, what kind of music did you listen to as a kid?’

What I’ll tell my kids some day about the drug-addicted uncle they never knew

Learning to be a father at the knee of an expert: my grandfather

A father’s gift to his young sons: a letter a month to read when they’re older

Stefano Esposito. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Stefano Esposito. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times


This is one of an occasional series on fatherhood by Sun-Times staff reporter Stefano Esposito, the dad of two young sons.

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