The Kid with the Funny Laugh

This is a reprint from August 29, 2007. I wrote it a few years ago for a patient (16), stayed up pretty late to do it, too. (It helped, so it was worth the work. See, there are different kinds of therapy, you know). Then I published it here, still writing under my name, and took it down when I went anonymous, but can't remember why.
Someone recently asked about it, so here you are.

In retrospect it's a little dark. But being on the receiving end of any kind of violence isn't exactly light, is it? Feel free to copy and use it, but I've got a copyright, for those of you kids who still like stealing things off the Internet.


by therapydoc

Once there was a boy who attended a Catholic school. It could have been a Lutheran school or a Christian school or a Mormon school. It doesn’t matter.

It was the kind of school where the kids pretty much follow the rules, and if they don’t follow the rules they try very, very hard not to get caught.

There aren’t any gangs in his school and you can count on one hand the number of kids who use drugs or even drink very much alcohol.

This was an average boy except that he had a terrible laugh and he was a little on the uncoordinated side. For as long as he could remember, almost all of the boys in his class made fun of these things and just about everything else they could think of.

Maybe there’s at least one scapegoat in every class, but it didn’t help the boy to know that. He had a few friends, but he felt really bad that all of the other boys didn’t like him.

It was an all-boys school and they were already at the age, seventeen, where they should have known better. Knowing they didn’t like him made him nervous which made him laugh nervously to disguise his feelings. That made him an even greater target for their jokes.

One day he could take it no longer and he blurted out, “Would it make you all happy if I killed myself?” The boys were surprised at first, and they took a long time before one of them shot back, “Go for it, do what you gotta’ do.”

That depressed him even more. But at least he had made them think. And for a whole week, whenever they picked on him he would reply, “Would it make you happy if I killed myself?”

Soon they thought of funny come-backs and they could laugh again at his expense.

By the weekend he was even more depressed. He thought to himself, “Why bother with these idiots? I’m a good kid, and they’re jerks. I certainly wouldn’t kill myself over them! They’ve tortured me all my life, practically. I shouldn’t care about what they think about me. They’ll go to hell in the end.” And he went ahead and entertained himself on his own like he always did.

Thinking about his classmates, who happened to be good kids in the eyes of their parents and teachers, by the way, did have an effect upon him.

It made him very, very angry. The more he thought about them, the more he wanted them to disappear.

The next day, when one of the kids called him clutz and all the other guys laughed, he snapped back, “Maybe it would make me happy if I came to school with a gun and killed everyone of you—you, and you, and you.” He said each "you" very slowly.

The boys were taken aback but then one of them said, “Sure, like you could even handle a gun, you weakling.”

But he kept repeating it every time they said something mean, which was often enough that day.

“Maybe it would make me happy if I came to school with a gun and killed everyone of you. It’s been done before. Hmm… now there’s an idea. Take you out, one by one, bullet by bullet.”

Well, one of the boys told the principal.

It didn’t seem likely, but maybe the boy could pull a Columbine, who knew?

The principal was very concerned and pulled the boy out of class. He called his parents and told them that their son wouldn’t be let back into school without a note from a doctor saying that he wasn’t dangerous.

This was something new. The boy hadn’t anticipated therapy, but he didn’t mind going. He wasn’t afraid of it at all, looked forward to it, in fact.

He couldn’t tell the doctor all the details because he believed it to be a sin to talk badly about others, but the doctor got the general idea.

“You need,” said the doctor, “assertiveness training.”

Then he went ahead and explained what that was. Apparently there are three types of responses to confrontation. One can be passive, assertive, or aggressive.

When someone budges in front of you in line at the movies, for example, the doctor explained, you can either be: 1) passive, which is to say absolutely nothing, or 2) assertive, which is to tell it like it is, “Excuse me, but the end of the line is actually back there,” or 3) aggressive, which is to hit him or swear, as in, “You blankety blank get your blankety blank to the back of the blankety blank line, blankety blank*@!#”

The boy thought about it and said to the doctor, “I could be assertive but it wouldn’t work. The guys in school actually don’t even swear. They’re just mean.”

The doctor explained that there are many levels of verbal and physical aggression, but being mean, using mean words, is aggression no doubt. “Words hit as hard as a fist,” he said. "I read that on a bus somewhere."

“Why do they do this?” shouted the boy. “Why? Why do they all gang up on me?”

The doctor explained that it only takes a couple of leaders to be mean for the rest of the group to join in. Not that it’s fun for everybody, not everybody enjoys bullying, but rather than risk getting picked on by certain leaders, the weaker boys conform.

By conforming they feel protected, like they’re a part of a club. These are children, after all, and they need to fit in and be liked. So if that means picking on someone for no good reason, that’s the way it is.

The doctor called it Group Think when people don’t think for themselves. Some may realize it’s not nice, but they don’t want to go against the popular kids and jeopardize their own popularity.

And they surely don’t want to become the class scapegoat.

Group think is exactly what makes street gangs work. Weaker kids join stronger kids for protection. Even gang rape is just a bunch of guys hanging out and being criminal together to prove to each other that they’re bigger and stronger than their victim.

Same principles operate when an entire class bullies one kid. They’re bigger and stronger and feel better about themselves for being on top. Wow, we sure showed him, strut strut.

The boy still didn’t get it. He didn’t need to put anyone else down to feel good about himself. All he had to do to feel good was get good grades or watch TV. Why couldn’t they just live their own lives and leave him alone?

The doctor explained that kids who are violent—either verbally or physically—are sometimes copying their parents or older siblings.

If kids are allowed to fight at home, or if they witness fighting in the home, they think it’s what people do. If they watch their parents fight, then they might be afraid there’ll be a divorce. In those cases, the "leader" is often a jealous child, jealous of other kids who seem to have happy families.

For some people there’s no better way to feel better when they’re down than to make someone else miserable. That's just the way it is.

Sometimes bullies are unhappy with themselves because they aren’t good enough students or because their parents demand too much. The most common cause for teenage suicide, the doctor told the boy, is parental pressure about grades, feeling sure that you’ll never make it in life because you can’t do well enough in school.

The doctor, in the end, had the boy come back three days in a row, just to be absolutely sure that he was, indeed, not violent.

The boy didn’t mind at all and welcomed the vacation from school.

School could have been a good place for him, if it weren’t for his class. He was smart enough and had a nice way about him. He wasn’t mean to anyone, not ever, in fact he helped people out when they needed him. Teachers liked him very much.

He focused on the positives in his life and thought to himself that in six months his classmates would all graduate and go off to college, probably marry (not invite him!) and have kids.

At some point a classroom bully would be mean to his wife or maybe their kids, and at some point a woman would say, “That’s it, I’m out of here. I'm taking the kids and going. Bye bye.”

Or maybe the kids who teased him would turn out to be nice, after all, would grow up and feel guilty, even, for having made fun of him as teenagers. That was a satisfying thought, almost as good as becoming rich and laughing at them when they came to his company to apply for jobs.

After that third day away he returned to class.

Surprisingly, no one made fun of him. No one even talked to him, except for one of the nice boys in the class, a boy who had never made fun of him to begin with.

The rest of the class seemed to keep a distance. One of his teachers told him that while he had been away a team of experts had come to the school to discuss violence and what is called “peer rejection.” The kids had a violence prevention workshop.

Just when the boy thought he was spared, one of the kids came up to him and whispered, “Laugh, dude, I love it when girls laugh.”

The boy mustered up his courage and leaned forward so that his face was very close to his classmate’s face and said, “One day you’ll learn to think for yourself. Until you do, you’re just a little boy.”

He walked away as his classmate mimicked him and teased him behind his back.

Another classmate came up to him and said, “Did you really plan on getting a gun and killing everybody?”

“Why?” asked the boy. “Does it really make a difference? Are you going to be nice to me one way or another?”

“Just wanted to know, is all.”

“Oh, man. There's no way I'll ever tell. You’ll never know. The kids in this school don’t deserve to know. They can all think what they want.”

therapydoc, copyright, 2004


Anonymous said…
Ok, but I wonder to myself, how do you give over that lesson to a teen thats in their freshman year of high school. Fours years is a long time to suffer.... How do you promote love of self and resiliancy is a battle field that seems to never ending at that age?
Anonymous said…
I wish I'd had that lesson looong before high school.
Mondo said…
Well Doc,

You had me on the edge of my seat.

First, I thought he was gonna go trenchcoat mafia on the punks.

Then, I thought he was gonna achieve sweet redemption by saving a cute girl or something.

In the end, he forced his classmates to wonder: to think.

Useful for his classmates, ultimately--and sort of a combination of 1 & 2 for him.


A tale sure to be handed down as fact, generation to generation. I give it a gold star!
Anonymous said…
I've been reading about anti-bullying campaigns lately and was struck that you were talking about this 3 years ago. Your piece sounds very contemporary.

I ran across an website recently that is hammering out blogs for kids on joining an Anti-Bullying campaign in their individuals schools . It seems pretty rational - thought you might be interested in reading it.

Here are a couple of links:
therapydoc said…
Right, Anon. See The Fruition of this kind of work to educate folks, not have to treat 'em. Good luck in your work.
RugbyJones said…
As you so often do, this post hit the nail on the head. Bullying is not a right of passage and kids...all kids need to understand the damage that bullying does to the bullied kid, the bystanders and even to themselves. We are on a mission to stop bullies and will happily spread your url to anyone who visits our site. Please check it out when you have a minute.

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