Some parents seeing the news about a Bay Area, California father avenging his autistic son by pummeling an 11-year-old bully may cheer his protective instincts without realizing that those kinds of actions can frighten our own child as much as the bully.
According to CBS, Burnis Hurd, 44, got on the bus with his son, age nine, who identified the boy who had been bullying him, age 11.
“The father grabbed the 11-year old by the hair, pulled hard and raised the child out of his seat, then shoved him on the side of the bus where the window meets the wall,” Richmond, CA Police Lt. Mark Gagan told CBS-TV affiliate KPIX Channel 5 in San Francisco.
When I read about the incident, I admit that as the mom of a son, age 10, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Aspergers and, as a result, has continually suffered all manner of bullying, I had what I call a “Dumbo’s mom moment.”
A “Dumbo mom” or dad, as the case may be, harkens back to the fictional Disney elephant mom who went into a stampeding rage when people bullied her baby “Dumbo” for his enormous ears.
My moment passed quickly when I recalled some Dumbo parental moves in my own past.
The actions of Mr. Hurd brought to mind the time my own father performed a very similar assault on a bully when I was in the second grade.
Because I never had a positive relationship with my father, this is a rare “good memory” of him that I cherished for many years.
My heritage is both Roman Catholic (mother) and Jewish (father) leaving me with the maiden name Goldenthal, a very Jewish name that acted like a bully magnet when I transferred into a Catholic school in 1973 in New Jersey.
A boy, two years my senior, took it (as he often told me) as his “religious right and duty” to physically bully me at the bus stop daily.
For the record, I don’t think the nuns who taught at the school during that politically incorrect time realized that by teaching lessons in which they repeatedly referred to the Jewish people as “Christ killers” ever realized they had sealed my fate with the bully and his pals.
When my father learned of the bullying situation and that it was his surname triggering my tormentors, he took my hand (something he rarely did) and walked me to the bus stop where he – like Hurd did with his child – asked me to point to the bully.
My father let go of my hand and lunged at the boy, sweeping the bully into the air where he held him against a tall hedge, the boy’s feet still inches off the ground.
“If you or any of your rotten friends EVER come near my daughter again I will kill you,” my father said in a smoker’s voice like truck tires rumbling over gravel. “I will find you and I will kill you.”
I have to hand it to the bully, who managed to stammer out, “My dad can kill you easy.”
“That’s fine,” my father said in a voice that could have made Chuck Norris whimper. “I’ll just come to your house then shall I?”
The bully began to cry. His tough kid image was now ruined, dispelled for all time in that neighborhood the second my father put him down.
My father made a show of placing a proprietary kiss on top of my head before walking away without a backward glance.
I admired my father’s actions that day. He made me feel like a princess, a winner.
Therefore, 20 years later, the first time one of my four sons, Zoltan, was physically bullied, at almost exactly the same age I’d been bullied, I thought I knew just what to do.
This bully was hitting both Zoltan, 8, and Ian, 7, at the time. I took Zoltan’s hand, marched him to the bus stop and had him point out the older boy bully who had hurt them both him and his brother.
Because, as he told me later, I apparently had “a scary look” on my face, Zoltan would not let go of my hand. Thankfully, this meant I was left to shout at the offender, rather than get physical with the bully.
I pitched my voice lower so as to add weight to my words as I put the fear of Dumbo’s mom into this kid who I considered totally rotten. Towering over the boy I recalled my father’s words and called the bully and his actions “rotten.”
The bully cowered, cried, and promised never to hurt my sons again.
Zoltan and I walked home without a backward glance.
Then I heard the sniffling beside me and looked down to see my son’s petrified, tear-streaked face. I tried to hug him, but he let go of my hand and ran as fast as his legs could carry him to a fort he’d built in the garden where he hid from me.
My performance had terrified my own child as much as the bully.
It took quite a while for me to rebuild my son’s trust, that I would never turn that parental rage on him for any reason. Then it took even longer before he would tell me when someone wronged him because the compassion I’d been so careful to teach him had kicked-in and he felt sorry for the bully.
Instead of demonstrating my love and helping my child know I would keep him safe, my actions had done the opposite.
Today, when my youngest son Quin is bullied, there is still a mama elephant in the room, but also in my heart where I keep my protective instincts in check.
I have learned in the 12 years since the bullying incident with my son that the right way to end bullying is to take that long, frustrating road through proper channels. And they have taken self-defense classes.
I do this because I learned that when we, as parents, take the fight back to the bully, the collateral damage could be our relationships with our kids and perhaps their relationships with our grandchildren.