Return to original story, “The wisdom of being brave in a cyber-powered world“.
I wrote this story for my friend Lisa Ford Berry’s book, Be B.R.A.V.E Say Something, Do Something, to address the cyber-powered bully culture our children endure today. She became an advocate to change the education culture after her son Michael took his own life in response to an intense cyberbully campaign arranged by an individual who started a rumor that he was gay. Michael’s experience was so horrific (imagine every friend you thought you had remaining silent as every other person who didn’t know you kept harassing you and defining you in ways that were not true) and was exacerbated by the lack of understanding of the devastating attack upon the individual made possible with texting and social media technology.
The story about Rocky, a boy about to enter the firth grade, demonstrates how children can witness the vulnerability of every human being, especially the bully, and how it is possible to disable the bully with a sincere and non judgmental heart. Rocky’s story illustrates how there is a hero and a bully in each of us. We get to choose which one to empower. (Discussion questions follow.)
Rocky and the Bully
Rocky lay in bed waiting for his mother to call him downstairs for breakfast. Soon he would be off to catch the bus and start fifth grade at Cedar Elementary School. Memories of the episode with Charlie at the end of fourth grade still haunted him, as he anticipated what would happen when he encountered Charlie on campus.
Starting fifth grade level work excited Rocky. He was a good student. He earned high grades – mostly A’s. It was not very difficult for him. He enjoyed learning. He was very good at memorizing facts and formulas, and he was a gifted writer. His mother helped him to turn studying into fun games when he was younger, and he always made time to do homework and study after school.
On this morning, contemplating the first day of fifth grade, Rocky wished Charlie didn’t exist. Charlie’s presence on campus cast a shadow over any joy he would derive from fifth grade curriculum.
Charlie was twice Rocky’s size. He had bright blond hair, which grew past his ears, and his bangs covered his eyes which were an intense blue that turned a hint of green when he was angry. He was a great athlete and was appointed captain of every team, from baseball to football and basketball. Rocky figured it was because he was the tallest and strongest and he had skill.
Charlie was used to getting his way, always picking on kids smaller and younger. People laughed at his jokes, even if they were not funny, or just made fun of someone. And all this would not have concerned Rocky so much, except that Charlie was mean, hurtful and he went out of his way to bother people who irritated him.
And Rocky knew he was now on Charlie’s radar.
At the end of the fourth grade, Rocky and Charlie were assigned as buddies for a relay race. It was a fundraiser for the new playground equipment. Rocky tripped and fell in the final lap and Charlie was not able to make up the lost time. They came in third.
Charlie doesn’t like to loose.
He blamed Rocky for this loss. He was furious.
The funny thing was Rocky had earned the most money – over $300.00. He signed up more people than anyone else to make donations for his participation in the race. And Charlie didn’t get a single sponsor.
The day after the race, Charlie bumped into Rocky in the hall. “ You are such a loser!,” he shouted, “You better stay out of my way. I do not hang out with losers!”
The remaining days of fourth grade, other kids on campus called Rocky a loser when they saw him. They stared and laughed at him when he walked past them in the hallway.
One student, Marcie, had started a rumor that Rocky’s father abandoned him because he was a dork. Rocky could hear the snickers, whispers and shouts calling him a loser and a dork. Rocky still feels the sting of kids telling him his father was right to leave him, because he was such a loser. The rumor kept cycling throughout the summer, as he received numerous texts about how worthless he is.
All of this cruelty to please Charlie, Rocky thought.
As he lay in bed, thinking about the day ahead, Rocky worried that the memories of his Dad, who died in an auto accident five years earlier, would fade into the lie that he was not worth living for. Rocky knew better, and he clung tightly to his cherished moments of his Dad’s bright smile, firm hugs and soothing voice, before the fatal accident.
Thoughts of getting off the school bus, stirred a very sick, uneasy feeling as he let go of his memories of Dad and focused on the present. Rocky’s stomach hurt and his body was heavy. Moving his arms and legs felt like moving heavy rocks. His chest felt like someone was sitting on it.
Rocky’s train of thought was interrupted by the smell of scrambled eggs, bacon and muffins that wafted up to his bedroom and it made him nauseous. “Rocky!,” he heard his mother calling, “Breakfast is ready!”
Rocky managed to pull himself up, and get out of bed.
“Hurry Rocky,” his mother hollered in a cheery voice, with a twinge of urgency, “I have to be to the office at 8:00, and it’s getting late!”
Hearing his mother’s voice, Rocky took in a deep breath, and whispered a prayer to help him get through this day. “Okay mom! I’m on my way down!” he hollered back.
Rocky hastily put on his new jeans and blue t-shirt which he and his mother purchased at Wal-Mart last week. Grabbing his back pack, prepared the night before, Rocky hustled down the stairs to the kitchen of the little duplex they rented near the bus stop.
“Thanks Mom,” Rocky said, as he sat down to eat the breakfast. He took a bite of the scrambled egg and the muffin, and then grabbed two strips of bacon and a napkin and stood up. “Okay, ready,” Rocky declared. His stomach was still uneasy, but seemed to handle the egg and muffin without more nausea.
“You look great,” his mother declared. Rocky smiled at her. They left the house together as they do every morning. His mother watched while she sat in her car, as Rocky walked down to the end of the block to join the other children waiting for the bus.
The summer months had made him leaner and taller.
Rocky climbed onto the bus, and felt a tingling throughout his body as he found an open seat on the aisle, and plopped himself down, placing his backpack on the floor in between his legs. This was the one saving grace for him on the commute to school. His bus stop was early in the route, and he could usually find an aisle seat near the front.
Some of the kids that took the bus had joined the “Rocky is a loser” campaign, and he considered it a great mercy that he did not have to walk past the trouble-makers to find a seat.
When Rocky arrived to the classroom, he discovered the fifth grade had split into two classes, and Charlie was not in his class. But one of his buddies was. His name was Max. And like Charlie, he was a good athlete and among the strongest and tallest of the class. He had jet black hair, an olive complexion and brown eyes.
Rocky could feel Max’s eyes fix on him as he found a seat near the back of the classroom. He looked over in Max’s direction, and Max held up is hand, with his thumb and forefinger making the shape of a big “L” over his forehead, and mouthed the word, “LOSER”. A couple of the girls who noticed snickered.
Rocky decided to ignore him. He turned his head to the front of the class, and then took out his notebook from his backpack to get ready for class to begin.
As the days turned into months, the “Rocky is a loser” campaign ebbed and flowed. Rocky was quick to delete texts insulting him and his father. And he just steered clear of the kids hanging out with Charlie. Occasionally, he would be caught off guard and get shoved from behind. “Get out of my way, dork!” was the refrain from Charlie’s entourage.
But what hurt more than anything, was the feeling of abandonment by Trent and Kyle, who he had befriended before the relay race incident last year. They were twins and had moved into the area at the beginning of the fourth grade school year. They too were good students, and enjoyed the same video games as Rocky. But after the relay race incident and Charlie declared war against Rocky, Trent and Kyle backed away from Rocky. They would not hang out with him, or respond to his texts or phone calls. The plans for summer fun had vanished. They became almost invisible, silent – muted. Their friendship had become a distant memory. Rocky knew they were terrified. He could see it in their eyes.
And it was difficult to make new friends when the school bully had made you a target. No one wanted to be associated with Rocky.
The loneliness was almost more unbearable than the taunting.
And then Rocky witnessed something on parent-teacher conference day that changed everything.
Parent-teacher conference days were minimum days, and Rocky usually took the bus home right away. He had a key to the duplex, and he would take care of his homework and play video games. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Mrs. Holmes would pick up him and take him to Karate at four o’clock. But on this Thursday, Mrs. Holme’s asked to pick him up at school because it would be more convenient for her. She had some errands to run near the school, which was on the way to Karate.
Rocky’s mother had already met with his teacher on Tuesday, so Rocky was on his own until Mrs. Holmes arrived to take him to Karate. When Rocky arrived at the school library to start his homework, he realized he left his history assignment in the classroom. So he headed back down the hall towards his classroom to retrieve it.
At the end of the hall, he saw something he could not believe. Charlie was cowering as his dad who easily stood six feet tall, towered over him while shaking his fist yelling, “You are such an idiot! You are such an idiot you could not be my son!”
Charlie was hunched over, as if he were trying to disappear.
“I am sorry Dad,” he whimpered, holding his arm across his head as if to shield from his dad’s shouts and waiving fists. Seeing that, Rocky wondered how many times his dad had struck him like that.
“You loser! Listen to you whimper,” his dad jeered, “What are you going to do now? With this ‘F’ on your report card, you are not eligible to play basketball. And all you can say is ‘I’m sorry?”
His Dad’s tone saying the words “I’m sorry” was high pitched, like he was imitating a young child.
The disdain he had expressed for his son hung in the air. Rocky could feel it reverberating down the hall. It made his stomach queasy, and nausea started to set in.
Just then, Mr. Shank, fourth grade math teacher, opened the classroom door, and peered out. “Is everything okay?, he inquired, looking at Charlie’s dad, whose face was red and he was breathing heavily and Charlie continued to cower, his head tucked into his chest.
“Mind your own business,” his dad sneered. And with that he turned, and marched out the door and the steps towards the parking lot. “You can walk home Charlie!” his dad shouted, “I don’t want to be seen with such a loser!”
Mr. Shank stepped outside the door, and put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder, “Are you alright?” he asked, in a very comforting tone.
Charlie shrugged his shoulder to shake off Mr. Shank’s hand. “I am fine,” he said, and headed towards the exit doors, his head hanging low. Mr. Shank shook his head and returned to his conference in the classroom.
Rocky spotted Charlie’s backpack propped against the wall in the hallway. So he picked it up and followed Charlie outside and saw him in the distance walking along the fence. Charlie was banging a stick along the chain fence outside the school grounds parking lot.
They were alone. In fact the campus was desolate. Most of the parent-teacher conferences had been completed, and there was a feeling of isolation and a strange peace.
Rocky stood inside the basketball court boundary lines on the asphalt, watching Charlie from a distance, wondering what to do next. He was holding the backpack by its straps. Charlie was in his own world, unaware, mesmerized by the clanking sound of the stick along the chain linked fence.
It was probably his escape, Rocky thought to himself. “Dare I disrupt him?” he wondered, fearing there would be outrage after what just happened in the hallway.
Rocky took a deep breath, prayed for courage, and headed for Charlie. He figured, without an audience, perhaps Rocky would be safe in returning the backpack. And he felt a strange empathy for this kid who had tormented him. Rocky’s own memories of his father who was so kind and supportive, gave him comfort as he approached Charlie.
“Hey dude, I found your back pack in the hall,” Rocky hollered, hoping that Charlie did not know Rocky had witnessed the altercation with his dad.
Charlie looked up and saw Rocky approaching with his backpack. “Oh yeah? What do you know about it?” Charlie asked in his “tough guy” voice.
“I saw your dad left in a hurry,” Rocky replied, “I took a chance you might still be around. So here you go.” Rocky held out the backpack.
Just then, Charlie’s mobile phone alerted him there was a text. He reached into his pocket and pulled it out to read it. Rocky watched the expression of curiosity turn into dismay. He became quiet, sullen. And then tears started to stream down his cheeks.
“Get away you loser!,” he shouted at Rocky as he snatched his back pack, and turned to face the chain fence, trying to hide the fact that he was crying. And then he started to sob, and the emotion flooded out with heaves and sighs.
Rocky stood still, in disbelief trying not to stare at Charlie having an emotional melt down. He didn’t know what to do. There was a part of him that felt like Charlie had it coming, all the pain he inflicted and conflict he stirred was coming back to Charlie with such intensity that was incredible to Rocky. But it gave him no joy or relief. He just felt so sad for Charlie, and so grateful for his own dad who had never treated him like that. Finally Rocky spoke up. “Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked, almost pleading.
Charlie caught his breath, and turned to Rocky, tears welling from his eyes, “It is hopeless,” Charlie declared, “I flunked math and there is no way I can stay on the basketball team.”
And then Charlie sneered, “I bet that makes you happy, loser!”
For some reason, Charlie’s loser comments to Rocky lost their impact. There was no more stinging power.
“Well,” Rocky hesitated, and Charlie looked at him curiously – surprised that his loser comments didn’t cause Rocky to leave. “I could help you with math,” Rocky suggested. “I am really good at it, and I can share with you some tricks that help. That is…” Rocky hesitated again, and Charlie stood still, his head cocked, curiously considering what Rocky was suggesting.
“You would help me?” Charlie inquired with a tone of disbelief.
The two boys stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, but was really a matter of seconds. The silence between them was deafening. In the distance, echoed the sound of the school door closing and the custodian rolling the cleaning cart across the grounds towards the girls’ bathroom.
“Sure,” Rocky said affirming, “That is if you want help.”
Charlie stood holding his backpack, looking far off to the soccer fields where students started to arrive for practice. Rocky wondered what he was thinking. Would he come back with another loser comment? Would he threaten him to keep quiet about the altercation with his dad?
“Well, okay then.” Charlie declared. “Let’s do it.”
Rocky and Charlie walked back towards the main building and headed for the library.
The next day at school, Rocky noticed that Charlie’s “followers” were staring at him, but not with contempt and disdain as before. They nodded their heads approvingly as he walked past them in the hall to first period. There were no more loser or dork comments, or sneering.
That week, Rocky and Charlie met with the school counselor, Miss Eileen. She was very easy to talk with and always had a positive and encouraging thing to say to every student. She spent a lot of time on the playground during recess and lunch periods to try to keep up with what is happening with the kids on campus.
Rocky hoped that she would be able to make arrangements for Charlie to return to the basketball team with improved math scores.
After hearing about Charlie’s circumstance, and Rocky’s offer to help him lift his grades, Miss. Eileen agreed to help. She would discuss the situation with the coach and Charlie’s dad. And Charlie seemed relieved. In a few weeks there would be another math test that would have a grade worthy of making Charlie eligible for play again.
So Rocky and Charlie got to work. Every day after school, they went to the library. Rocky’s mom picked him up at school, except on the days he had Karate.
A month later, Charlie took the big math test and made the minimum grade to be eligible to play. While he and Rocky were not hanging out together, they did maintain a friendship based upon respect for their differences. Rocky learned how to shoot free-throws, and Charlie understood how to study math.
A short time after Charlie was reinstated to the basketball team, Miss Eileen called Rocky to her office.
“Rocky, can you tell me what prompted you to help Charlie?” she inquired, very curious, interested and concerned.
After gaining her assurances she would keep their story confidential, especially the part about him witnessing Charlie being humiliated by his dad, he shared the entire experience that was trigged by the fall in the relay race.
Miss Eileen sat quietly, intently listening to every detail of Rocky’s story, including the loss of his friends, who reappeared after it was known that Rocky was in good graces with Charlie.
“How do you feel about that?” Miss Eileen asked, “That your friends came back only after they knew you were no longer Charlie’s enemy?”
“At first I was angry, and still felt upset that they did not stand by me when I needed their support,” Rocky replied. “But then I realized that they were afraid too. We are friends again, and it is not the same. It is different. I feel stronger. I am glad we are still friends and like to do things with them, but I realize that sometimes when people are afraid, they can let you down, and it doesn’t mean they don’t like you or care about you.”
Rocky’s friends told him they were amazed at how he managed to turn the situation with Charlie around. They wanted to know the details, which Rocky shared to a point. “Wow, I can’t believe you went out to the yard by yourself to return Charlie’s backpack,” Trent declared in awe. Rocky didn’t share the details about how Charlie had broken down and started to cry. But he did share the general arrangement to help him with math. Most people knew that Charlie was benched for a poor math grade.
Then Miss Eileen asked Rocky, “Why did you not tell Trent and Kyle about Charlie crying?” she inquired, very curious.
“Because,” Rocky replied, “It would make things worse for Charlie. And how would that help Trent or Kyle? They didn’t need to know that. I really did not want to give other people a reason to pick on Charlie. I know how bad that feels. Maybe Charlie will be less likely to pick on others knowing that I didn’t use his crying against him.”
Miss Eileen sat back in her chair, and gazed at Rocky. Her face was softened by an expression of a smile, that was gentle – and her eyes filled to the brim, but no tears leaked out. She took a deep breath.
“Rocky,” she declared, her voice cracked a little from emotion, “That is the most kind and mature perspective a human being can have. You are inspirational. You have demonstrated true leadership by taking charge of your own behavior, Rocky. You did not allow the actions of others to influence you away from doing the kind and civil thing for another person.”
“Thanks Miss Eileen,” Rocky replied, “I have to get to my next class. Thank you for taking time to talk.”
“Thank you Rocky,” Miss Eileen replied, “If you ever need anything, please do not hesitate to see me.” She stood up and folded her arms, smiling.
Rocky gathered his backpack, and nodded to Miss Eileen with a smile, and left her office. He headed down the hall towards Ms. Landing’s fifth grade classroom, where Trent and Kyle were waiting outside the door eager to talk about plans for the upcoming weekend.
The hustle and bustle of students moving to their next classes swirled around the boys, who were excitedly talking about the new video game coming out on Friday. Trent had saved enough money to make the purchase, and this would be the highlight of their weekend.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR PARENTS/EDUCATORS
- Why do you think that Rocky didn’t tell his mother about the bully problem with Charlie?
- How do you think Rocky must have felt about being called a loser for tripping in the relay race – even though he earned the most money for the fundraiser and Charlie didn’t earn any money?
- After watching Charlie getting abused by his dad in the hallway for failing math and getting benched for basketball, why do you think Rocky had empathy for him? Have you ever been in a situation where someone you feared needed help you could offer? What did you do? Why?
- Why do you think that Rocky didn’t want others to know that Charlie was crying after his Dad yelled at him? What does this say about Rocky’s character?
- How helpful was Miss Eileen? Do you think it mattered to Rocky that someone noticed how he handled the situation with Charlie, by not sharing the details of his crying after his Dad yelled at him? Why?
- Do you think that Charlie and Rocky now have respect for one another? What makes you think that?
- How do you think Rocky’s friends could have handled things differently? By avoiding him, were they being his friend?
- Why do you think that Rocky decided to forgive his friends for avoiding him when Charlie was bullying him? Have you ever been in a situation where someone you liked was being treated badly by someone you feared? What did you do? What could you have done differently?
- Did Rocky or Charlie have to become different in order to be friends? If yes, how so? If not, why not?
- Has your opinion of Charlie and Rocky changed since the beginning of the story? Why?
- Based upon Rocky’s experience with Charlie in this story, has your opinion of a “loser” and “winner” changed? If so, how?
- Discuss the meaning of the concepts below and how they apply to the characters in this story.
Joanna Jullien is an author and speaker on strengthening the parent-child relationship in a cyber powered world. She is the author of The Authority In Me: The Power of Family Life in the Network Culture, produces The Sacramento Cyber Safety Examiner column on Examiner.com, and is the CyberParenting advisor on The Fish 103.9FM, Tuesdays.
- CyberParenting Topics on The Fish 103.9FM Tuesdays
- Follow Joanna @CyberParenting
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- Like Three Moms and a Mike
- Sacramento Cyber Safety Examiner
Return to original story, “The wisdom of being brave in a cyber-powered world“.