Matt Gannon’s childhood choice suggests a new way to teach kids how to handle harassment and other hardships.
As children, we grow up in different ways with different experiences. Some of us are the cool kids who others idolize and seek to emulate. As a child, I always imagined it would have been great to be a Cool Kid, or even the type of kid that wasn’t necessarily popular, but just fit in and everybody liked — that seemed great too.
Then there was me. I was an example of the classic fat kid with barely any friends, bullied ruthlessly, and desperate for the acceptance of others. I was given a shot once. The Coolest of the Cool was having his twelfth birthday party. Anybody who mattered would be there, and I was invited. It was a camp-out in the woods behind his house; bonfires, tents, and a hide-and-go-seek-type game called “Manhunt in the Dark,” and I was actually invited. Naturally, I assumed it was a trap (it was), but I didn’t care. The desire to be accepted is a force to be reckoned with.
There were seven people there, not including myself. They invited another person like me — a nice boy who had a retainer that impeded his speech, which was apparently a crime he needed to be punished for. He showed up, but if he ever questioned why he was invited, I never knew.
I brought a bag of clothes and some supplies, like a Redbull energy drink and probably some food. They searched me when I got there and confiscated anything that could be used as a weapon. That was my first sign to leave.
We messed around with a Ouija board for a while, sufficiently scaring ourselves while the light turned to dark. It was then time to play Manhunt. We scattered into the woods under the cover of darkness with just enough light to see. It didn’t take them long to find me and get me to the ground. They had slingshots and marbles, and I was told that if I didn’t cooperate, they’d shoot me. I realized they had already got the other guy, the one with the retainer. I complied until one of them tried to strip me naked. I resisted and they abandoned that part of the plan.
I was hoisted to my feet and led to an area with rope strung between trees. They had created an arena in which the other boy and I were meant to fight naked with our feet bound. They said that we could keep our clothes, but we had to fight or else they’d shoot us with slingshots.
I remember landing a punch to the boy’s torso, one which I regret to this day. I don’t recall if he fought back. It ended quickly; we just simply refused to fight after that. They didn’t shoot, but they abandoned us in the dark with our feet still tied up to find our way back to camp. One of them, a boy who was not part of it, but guilty by association, came back alone to untie us. The boy with the retainer was cut loose, but I refused the help. He said I’d never make it back to camp tied up, but I had something to prove.
In the distance between the trees, I saw the light of a fire. I hopped my way through the woods, and even over a barbed wire fence, all the way back to camp. It was uphill, but I made it. They thought I was pathetic.
They mostly left me alone after that, but they did warn me that if I fell asleep, they would pour a concoction they called “Memoir Surprise” on my face and make me drink it. It was a mixture of spit, urine, semen, vinegar, and whatever else they could put in it. I sat on a log the whole night, even in the rain, refusing to sleep. I went home the next day, and aside from the first few days back at school, it was never spoken of again.
I rarely talk about these events. I have two kids of my own now and I would be out for blood if I discovered this happened to either of my boys, but this type of thing really does happen, even to kids as young as we were. Those involved were just as desperate for acceptance as I was. That need to belong is a powerful thing that can mess with a person’s mind and make them do horrible things. Imagine what sort of suffering those boys endured to make them feel the need to do what they did.
Sure, what happened to me was pretty messed up, but I was a hardy kid who grew into an even hardier man. It could have been worse. To my knowledge, that birthday party only strengthened me. But other children may not be so lucky. Parents need to be aware that things do happen, and we cannot hope to truly prevent bullies from doing as they do. It’s a flaw in the human condition that we cannot fix.
Bullying prevention is a noble cause, one that should never be abandoned, but it is not the only thing we can do as parents. Help your kids to be strong of heart and mind so they can weather whatever hardship comes their way, because it will. Let them learn and grow and hurt on their own, so that every tear, scrape and burn tempers their spirit. It hurts to watch our children suffer, but just as muscles do, they can only grow stronger after they’ve been experienced a tear. It’s not the tear that increases strength, but the healing process that comes after.
Children need to develop their own armor. It will fail if it’s given to them; they wouldn’t know what it’s made of, how it came to be, or how to use it. But if they forge their own in the embers of experience and heartache, they will know and trust in the strength it holds.