November 2012

Bully for You

Author: David Tobias | Photographer: Photography by Anne

It was a simple scene at the pool. Four middle school guys, all slim and athletic, shirts off, bouncing in and out of the water, all comfortable with each other, trading verbal and physical jabs—a poke here and a push there. Then the Big Guy arrived and things got complicated.

He wore his dreary gray T-shirt in and out of the water, and his swimming skills were clearly lacking. He seemed to prefer standing on the deck playing the brute. As each nimble guy popped out of the pool “Brutus” would twist arms, apply headlocks and noogies, wrangle flailing legs and sharp elbows, then push them back across a stretch of concrete to the water. It was supposed to be good fun, but it carried with it a dose of danger, and it had an edge. The place was suddenly thick with youthful posturing and insecurity, and you could sense parents—surreptitiously peeking over dark sunglasses—feeling uncomfortable.

Someone was going to have to say it: “Hey, hey, someone’s gonna get hurt.”
Maybe it wasn’t bullying, per se. Maybe it was too overt to be lumped in with the current national scourge. But something didn’t feel right. According to Michael Sanz, former teacher, coach and high school administrator, who now specializes in bullies and bullying, if interaction between kids doesn’t look, feel or sound right, it probably is exactly what you think it is.

Sanz would know. As the target of bullying into his teens and early 20s, he suffered the slings and arrows of sharp verbal barbs and physical abuse and has the emotional scars to prove it.

He grew up in Lowell, Mass., lost his father at a very young age and had a brother one year younger who got all the premium genes in the family. That left Sanz with a protruding proboscis, ripe for ridicule, along with insecurities about his size and athleticism and a serious inferiority complex. The brother went on to captain 12 middle school and high school sports teams, date the lead cheerleader and to be named prom king. He was Mr. Everything, while Sanz (aka “Nose”) was Mr. Nobody.

Bullying goes by a lot of names. It may start with teasing, which sounds so benign, but that’s a piece of it and likely where it begins. Getting picked on also sounds harmless from the outside. But when you’re inside a small body for your age, trying to disappear into a bus seat to avoid a bully, it’s really all the same.

Sanz is at a stage of life where he’s looking back, acknowledging the pain and recognizing how fortunate he was to meet his wife Kathleen, whom he credits for pulling him out of the morass. Instead of pulling the plug or stretching out on a couch talking to a therapist, he is taking action to become part of a growing pushback on bullies and bullying nationwide.

His piece of it on Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and in the Lowcountry takes the form of very personal, emotional and insightful talks to school groups; he also has videos and a website, and he’s at work on a book that describes all the ugliness of what it’s like to be literally and figuratively pushed around. He speaks on local and regional TV about his experiences, but mostly in school assemblies to as many as 900 kids at a time. His message is especially relevant as this school year moves into its third full month, when identities are being fully formed—some good, some not so good. His vision is “to have every school free of fear, full of smiles, fired with energy and framed by a focus on quality education.” More broadly, he’s dedicated to “building coalitions aimed at eradicating bullying in all of our communities.”

The passion for this battle has been built not only on the anguish of his early years, but also on later success, giving back as a teacher, coach, department chair, assistant principal and principal at public and private middle and high schools. He’s also been involved locally in fundraising efforts, teaming with names of note, like Gregg Russell, to raise money for worthy charities. This last is part of what convinced him he could make this enterprise work, not just as a passion, but as a career.

It would be a tremendous turnaround for the kid wearing the thick black glasses—yes, the ones held together with the tape in the middle—the kid whose books were set on fire, who was tossed over the bench seats on the bus for no apparent reason who finally gave up and lost himself inside his baseball card collection to escape. To this day he can recite the starting lineup of the 1969 Baltimore Orioles, including available relief pitchers. Wouldn’t it be cool if he became a spokesperson and expert on the very thing that formed a difficult quarter century of his life?

Sanz knows the formula for this kind of entrepreneurial sojourn. It’s the same plan that launched careers for Tom Peters, Stephen Covey and a whole host of other writer/speakers. Step one usually is to write the book, so Sanz has it a little backward, going out on the speaker trail already without book, CD or DVD. But this is being propelled by his passion, so he can probably be excused his “fire-ready-aim.”

He’s got the program down pat, though, starting with reaching out far and wide to guidance counselors, school health departments, administrators and the alphabet soup of parent-teacher organizations, to make sure that his message will complement existing programs in the schools. He does his homework on demographics, community philosophies and connected historical incidents, being careful when bullying has been recent or well known. Depending on the prevailing pain, he can gently reference them, or diplomatically not.

Sanz’s program begins with him off stage and “invisible”—a head nod to one of the more subtle forms of bullying. As painful as verbal or physical abuse can be, it can often be more painful to be excluded, Sanz explains. The simplest, most recognizable form of that, of course, is the child who is perennially picked last for games or sports.

The next step in his presentation is to define bullying from both sides (the bully and the bullied), which is when he shares detailed stories of his bullied youth. Finally, he discusses strategies for deterring and stopping bullying, directly addressing those who think that “snitching” will just perpetuate or cause the problem to get worse.

The program’s title is “Bullied: Hurt, Healing and Hope.” Perhaps the most memorable leave-behind is a phrase that Sanz uses everywhere he goes: “Don’t let a bully’s moment of laughter cause a lifetime of pain for a victim.”

Sanz, as victim, describes himself as one of those typical “goofy looking” bullied kids, some of whom crawl into a shell, immerse themselves in music or the arts, become voracious readers or turn into computer geeks, planning a geek revenge later in life. More than a few, he said, unfortunately, don’t find a refuge, are devastated by the abuse and choose to check out early.

So far, Sanz says that reactions from audiences have been overwhelmingly positive. Among a large crowd of kids (500 or so), as many as 30 of the bullied might stay behind to ask questions. Perhaps surprisingly, 8-10 who consider themselves bullies also remain to chat with Sanz about why they do what they do and seek his advice on how to stop.

Parents and administrators are also responding positively to the message. Sanz cites one health care provider in a regional school who got back in touch with him several weeks after his talk to tell him that she and her husband began seeing signs of their child having been bullied that they never would have recognized if not for having sat in on the session.

It’s that kind of response that inspires him. “I hope I can motivate kids and adults to take the right path, not the easy ones,” Sanz said. “I can share my stories about being bullied, help kids come up with strategies to deal and avoid, support teachers and administrators to establish protocol, and direct parents toward recognizing the signs of bullying.”

Sanz enters the fray at a time that’s much more complicated than when he grew up. Cyber bullying has been in the news recently, with several particularly prominent instances that have ended badly and led to court cases. Anti-bullying legislation is on the books in 49 of the 50 states, Sanz said, but abuse is difficult to monitor and laws are tough to enforce when it goes on 24-hours a day.

“Kids today have it worse than I did,” Sanz said. “I could go home and get away from it; but kids today are taunted 24 hours a day on the Internet and on their cell phones. It’s endless. That’s why I’m trying so hard to give them hope and give them a way to be strong.”

For more information, visit mikesanzeducate.com.

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