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Why We Must Refuse to Submit to Bullying

Say, ‘F--- A Duck,’ and I’ll let you back up on the dock.

Say, ‘F--- A Duck!’

Although up to his shoulders in icy ocean water, Dave would not say the words.

Everyone liked Dave. He was a year older than me and just a good guy, thoughtful and kind. At sixteen, he was tall and athletic, street smart and cool. He was cursed in high-school with bad skin, but we all suffered the indignity of blemishes.

Dave was surely freezing to death and Tom wouldn’t let him back up on the dock. Tom was forcing him to stay in an ocean that given more minutes could kill him.

We stood and watched in a small anxious circle. Teenagers dressed in Adidas pants, t-shirts and hoodies. Our runners gripping the slippery damp dock. Looking back, I imagine us like dogs pacing fretfully when their owner is out of reach, but visible. Perhaps we let out those little cries of distress that dogs do.

I doubt it though.

The possibility of attracting Tom’s attention, his cruelty, and being thrown into the freezing ocean must have silenced even an instinctual desire to emit high-pitched sounds of pain. The thought that Tom’s focus might shift from Dave to one of us must have been too terrifying to contemplate. Tom was tall and classically handsome. He had suffered a football injury so the story went and so he walked with a bit of a stoop. He had thick, messy blond hair complimented by a square jaw and serious eyes. While he often smiled, he was judgmental and his teasing was far more likely to be humiliating and hurtful to sensitive teens. I was afraid of him and stayed as clear as much as possible. 

Dave had somehow come up against him and was now paying a terrible price. We were on a biking and camping trip in the Gulf Islands.

During the days we would pedal up the islands’ winding roads lined with cedar and arbutus. At night, we put up tents and cooked over fires at the side of the ocean on grassy fields. We were a mix of grade 10s and 11s having the time of our lives, part of the Quest Program in Vancouver, BC in the 1980s. Quest took us far away from the classrooms that had structured our learning for the past ten or eleven years. It felt like heaven.

As kids, we didn’t realize we were not only learning about wilderness travel. We were learning about dominance and submission. We were being taught a lesson in power. And I should have known better because there was a warning, a clear warning that Dave was in Tom’s gun sights. He was going to be the bully’s target.

The night before, we were having a sing-a-long. We walked down from our campsite to the dock where Tom’s big sailboat was moored. A group of fifteen or twenty kids, we gathered in the sailboat’s cozy hold for an evening of fun. Dean was playing guitar and we were all singing with red binders on our laps that held the songs. I loved the folk songs, environmental protest songs, and romantic songs. Everyone’s voice in unison created an intense camaraderie.

That night, berry pie was being served and handed out to all the kids. Dave reached out his hands to accept a slice of pie and Tom said, “I guess you have to feed those things” in reference to Dave’s blemishes. For me, the comment was searing; if I could open up my skull, I’m sure I could show the scar on my brain left by that comment. The cruel insult should have been all it took for us to speak up to tell Tom to shut-up and leave Dave alone. But no one did. We bowed our heads. We sang with smiles on our faces. We laughed at the teachers’ jokes. We ate the pie they served.

Looking back, I regret being that weak person, that bystander. 

Shaming Dave about having teenaged skin was not enough. Tom needed to exact a greater punishment. Dave hadn’t done anything wrong, but he still had to pay a price for being an athletic boy, strong and kind, cool and street smart. Tom must have seen him as a rival.

The next day, in the late afternoon, Tom held Dave, fully clothed, down in the ocean. It was February and the water must have been as cold as a blue flame. Down on one knee, reaching over to keep Dave submerged, Tom towered over him. I can still see Dave’s fingers gripping the edge of the dock, clinging to the wood. Only his head and shoulders were above the black water.

“Say ‘F--- A Duck,’ Say It!”

Even though he must have been burning with cold, Dave would not say the words.

I feel like the other students, at least one, maybe even me, said Tom had to stop and pull Dave up on the dock. But I also feel like no one had the guts to say anything. My memories are gone. Some moments are too painful to remember.

What I do remember is a feeling of squeezing, pressing fear and I also remember not wanting Dave to say the stupid words. I wanted him to resist.

And he did.

Tom was forced to haul Dave up on the dock or surely kill him. Tom, a teacher in his late thirties or early forties, who had authority over us, had to submit to Dave, a sixteen year old boy. A student.

I realize now that for Tom, being a teacher, it was a complicated situation. Now that I’m a teacher, I look at the whole moment differently from when I
was a fifteen year old girl.

It was a classic bully moment. Dave must have threatened Tom’s power in some way and so Dave needed to be exposed publicly. The boy had to submit to the man’s will in front of a group of witnesses. The teacher needed the student to demonstrate weakness in a humiliating way. But, if Dave died or even became ill, it must have crossed Tom’s mind that he’d have trouble explaining what happened. He also must have wondered if this might just be the tipping point for students to speak to their parents and tell what they witnessed, if Tom returned to school and lied about what happened to Dave. These are mere guesses as it’s hard to know what goes on in the head of a bully while he tortures and torments someone.

Here I am, more than thirty years later, wondering how it was possible that Dave found something within him that made him refuse to say the words. I mean, the string of words really are stupid.

“F--- A Duck.”

These words are not worth suffering extreme pain for or dying for, but Dave would not say them.

I think I understand now why Dave refused to say those stupid words. He must have known that the lie is that those words are silly or meaningless and it wouldn’t hurt to say them to please Tom, to flatter the teacher and make him look powerful.

What Dave must have known was that those words, “F--- A Duck” were, in fact, an incantation. They held the magic power to take Dave’s sense of self away, transform him from a strong, healthy, confident kid into an anxious, depressed, maybe even suicidal kid. I and the other bystanders thought we were protecting ourselves by maintaining silence, but actually we were putting ourselves in harm’s way. Serves us right.

If I could relive that moment, I’d cast myself in the hero’s role. I’d be the girl that confronts the bully even though it’s a teacher. I would shove Tom away. I would take whatever blows he delivered. I’d remain standing and pull Dave up out of the killing waters and onto the dock with the rest of us. I’d put my arm around Dave and someone would throw a towel over his shaking shoulders and we’d walk away. We’d leave Tom alone, defeated and rejected for being so hateful and cruel. His authority would collapse and he would never be able to hurt anyone again using his physical strength, his humiliating comments or his sexual manipulations. He used all three of these techniques for years at Prince of Wales school and countless kids suffered. I wasn’t the hero and Tom’s abuses continued year after year until he was taken to court by some of his victims many years later.

I protected myself from Tom’s hate in that one brief moment of time, but opened myself up to self-hate for decades. His incantation became a mantra of self-loathing.

That’s the bully’s magic trick: the more you keep quiet, the more you submit, the more you turn on yourself. You become the bully with your own self as the victim. And for some that leads to bullycide. They want to kill the bully in their own head.

There’s no safety in keeping quiet.

Although in the moment it doesn’t feel like it, safety actually comes from speaking up, pushing back, refusing to submit.

Bullying Expert

With a PhD in Comparative Literature, Fraser is a passionate educator, researcher and writer. Her most recent book, Teaching Bullies, is an exploration of what happens when the teacher or coach is the bully. Drawing on psychology, psychiatry, sports journalism and neuroscience, she argues that bullying done by adults—namely emotional abuse—does such significant harm it should join sexual and physical abuse in criminal code.  Her new book, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom, is available now!