3 Unforgettable Experiences Taught Me How to Overcome Bullying

Malinda Fusco

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When I was in fourth grade, I had really hairy arms.

A boy that sat next to me would always whisper that I looked like a monkey. “Your arms are so hairy!” Then he’d snicker. I sank down in my seat, embarrassed. I tried to will myself to be invisible, so that he couldn’t see the hairs on my arms or the redness on my cheeks. That continued for weeks.

Eventually, I did what any sensible fourth grader would do — I cried to my mom about it. Instead of simply comforting me, she told me that I needed to stand up to him. She told me to tell him: “At least I have hair. When you grow up, you’ll probably be bald.” Strange parenting advice, in retrospect, but I took it to heart.

For days, I practiced my newfound weapon. I repeated that line hundreds of times. When he would laugh at me and whisper that I was so hairy, I would say that line in my head. A week went by before I gathered the courage. Just like every day, he said, “You’re like a monkey, Malinda. Your arms are soooo hairy! Look at them. Look. You’re a monkey.” Something in me snapped. I quickly stood up, intoxicated with a rush of adrenaline. In front of the entire class and teacher, I shouted at him, “At least I have hair! When you grow up, you’ll probably be bald!”

There was nothing but silence for a few seconds — the poor teacher. Then, he stood, shouting back at me, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” I guess I touched a nerve.

After that, a strange thing happened. He started being nice to me. He wanted to carry my books for me. He wanted to walk me to class from recess. He respected me. He stopped bullying me.

Ever since then, I’ve stood up to bullies. I’ve spoken my mind. I don’t take shit from anyone. However, that confidence hasn’t always worked out in my favor.

In high school...

In high school, there was a girl who sat near me at lunch. The table was large enough that half of it was filled with my group of friends, the other half with her group. We were dramatically different. My group was quiet, nearly all of us wore glasses, and we usually had books (textbooks or fiction) on the table. Her group was loud, wore flashy gold hoop earrings, and played a variety of music. Her group would often make off-handed comments to my group. They wanted to scare us off and have the table to themselves, since it was in ‘senior row’ and was, therefore, a hot commodity. My friends would sink down in their seats whenever there was any conflict, trying not to be seen. They wanted to give up the table and just squeeze in somewhere else in the overly-crowded cafeteria. Maybe that would have been easier. Less conflict. But that’s not my style.

My style, instead, was to get so sick of it all that I eventually looked that girl in the eyes when she’d start up, raise my brows, laugh, and shoot back a sharp comment of my own.

At that age, I mastered the art of pissing people off by snickering when they were being rude. It didn’t go over as well as my bullying experience in fourth grade. Instead, the girl made it quite clear that she wanted to kick my ass. She definitely could have too. She wasn’t much bigger than me, but she was all muscle whereas I had (well, have) absolutely no muscle at all. I’m the person who can’t open the pickle jar without assistance.

If it wasn’t for one of our very few mutual friends, I’d probably have a differently shaped nose today.

In the corporate world...

Fast forward to years later at my current job. Before this job, I’ve only worked for small companies. Mom and pop places. Small franchises. Once I earned my health insurance license, I was hired into a corporate environment. Apparently, that comes with workplace harassment, which is something I could never imagine too well before. After all, we’re all adults. We know how to behave. This isn’t high school or elementary school. Right? Wrong.

There was this guy, we’ll call him Robert. Robert was one of those guys that oozes confidence in everything they do. You know the type. They flirt with all the girls. They’re friends with the guys. Most people like them until they get too comfortable and start losing their filter as Robert did. Robert’s flirtations became harassment. His friendships with the other guys become one-way conversations about how great he was and how awesome he’s doing at x, y, and z. Basically, confidence turned into arrogance.

One day, someone used the break room microwave to heat up seafood. It reeked. Everyone complained about the smell and had no idea who had the audacity to use the break room microwave for fish. Robert took the opportunity to comment on this. “Wooow! Something smells ripe.” He then said to a younger woman who sat near him, “Sandy, is that smell coming from you? Close your legs!”

Close your legs.

Close your legs.

Let that sink in…What the fuck, right?

He laughed, all smiles. Sandy looked embarrassed. Sandy sank down in her seat, trying to ignore him. No one said anything and Sandy reminded me of that fourth-grade version of myself. She reminded me of the embarrassment that had washed over me because I could see it washing over her. Then, he said to the woman sitting next to Sandy, “Or is that you, Tina?”

Tina had the same reaction as Sandy.

He did this to a few other women, humiliating them by using vulgar ‘humor’. No one else laughed. But no one else said anything either.

So, I said something. I didn’t curse. I didn’t yell. I didn’t tell him to fuck off, even if I was thinking it. But what I did do was say, “Robert, no one else thinks sexual harassment is funny, so I don’t know what you’re laughing about.” Which was the equivalent of telling him to fuck off, wasn’t it? I let him know that I could see exactly what he was doing and it was not okay.

Some people would argue there are better ways to handle the situation, but I cannot and will not sit quietly while someone is being a bully. And you know what Robert did when I said that? Nothing. He shut up and he sat down.

In case you were wondering, Robert was fired within the next few days. HR met with me as well, and I got a slap on the wrist. Apparently, it’s inappropriate to say anything to someone displaying sexual harassment. HR informed me that if I find anything offensive in the future, I should alert them so they can handle it accordingly.

So, I’ll alert them in the future. But will I sit down, shut up, and play nice? No. Screw that.

It may not always work out well, but when we sink down in our seats, we give the bullies the power. I thought that after high school bullying would be nonexistent. Sadly, it’s not. It still exists in the workplace today. But we don’t have to give bullies their power.

I will never let bullies win. Neither should you. Be ‘inappropriate’. Don’t sink down. Stand up.

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