By Sabina Mollot
A lifelong resident of Stuyvesant Town who suffered at the hands of bullies throughout his childhood is hoping he can turn his own miserable experiences into a way to help kids who are getting victimized by today’s new crop of emoji-wielding tormentors.
Charles O’Connor, who said he dealt with bullying in his elementary and junior high school years, is now 56 years old and is shopping around a book he wrote on the subject. The book, however, isn’t just a memoir detailing the various playground beatings he got (although that is certainly in there). Written specifically for both younger and older kids, it aims to prepare kids for what happens if they do get bullied — how to deal and, ideally, avoid it altogether.
“It’s telling kids who are being troubled by bullies, ‘I’ve been there,’” said O’Connor of the book, Charles, Is Your Head on Your Shoulders?. “It gives them my perspective as a man in his 50s and I hope it can give them some assertiveness tips.” The title was inspired by a question he would hear all too often from a teacher, who was actually one of his bullies.
Typically, when children complain of being hassled by a peer, the canned response from adults is to just ignore it. That rather basic advice occasionally does have merit, though, according to O’Connor.
“Sometimes that’s worked for me,” he said. But, he noted, “You can have 10 different responses from 10 different bullies.” So his other tactics have also included trying to talk a bully out of fighting him. “One time I reasoned with a kid and said there’s no reason for us to fight and he backed off.”
But other times O’Connor would be less lucky and get pelted with streams of name calling or worse. To some degree, he does understand why he was targeted. As a child, O’Connor’s family members suspected he might have mild autism or Asperger’s, considering how long it would take him to be able to judge a person’s character.
“I’ve always been a little bit slow about people,” he admitted. “I didn’t take in experiences and try to learn from it.”
O’Connor was also close to a year younger than most of the other kids in his grade and he was also a bit of a loner. Kids who are by themselves a lot, he later learned, are more susceptible to bullying.
O’Connor said things got tougher for him when his parents took him out of Epiphany School and placed him in P.S. 40. At that time, he recalled, the school was mostly Jewish.
“Sometimes I sensed a little reverse prejudice,” he said, adding that a couple of times, he was addressed, “Hey Catholic boy.”
A bigger problem however was when a couple of Jewish kids clobbered him outside the school one day. Earlier in the day, students were playing a game where some of them were surrounded by other kids in a circle. At one point, O’Connor bumped into another boy, knocking him over. “He took quite a tumble,” O’Connor remembered. Either very hurt or very embarrassed, the kid proceeded to get even later when O’Connor was on his way to the library after school.
“He tackled me like a professional football player, getting me into a chokehold and his buddy gave me some kicks you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “All over an accident.”
As for dealing with kids who hurl abuse, be it physical or verbal, O’Connor said a problem is that often parents don’t prepare kids for the possibility of their kids encountering bullies.
“I think often parents have trouble facing up to the problem. I know mine did,” he said. “They could teach kids to anticipate bullying. The way they say ‘Look both ways before crossing the street,’ it would also be good to say, ‘Another kid might start with you,’ and prepare them the way you’d prepare them for a job interview.”
One means of preparation is to learn a few, simple self-defense moves. He details these in the book. That said, O’Connor, who has taken a few self-defense classes, said the most important lesson he learned was not a particular move, but to be very aware of his surroundings.
“That helps enormously,” he said. “Give kids a course on body language.”
What doesn’t work, he said, is telling a child who’s feeling bullied “to go out there and stand up to them.” That, he said, “definitely does not work.” What could work out better is if a parent accompanies a child to the other child’s house and asks to speak with him and the other child’s parent.
“Say, ‘Our children seem to be having a problem. No accusations. Just say, ‘There’s a problem. Can we work it out?’”
Another thing parents can do is ask their children to see things from the bully’s perspective, and ask, “What do you think they see with they look at you?” If the answer is that they think they’re being picked on for being ugly or fat, one option is the tried and true “Have you looked in the mirror lately?” response. “But,” said O’Connor, “then you’re stepping down to their level.”
As for older kids, who might be too embarrassed to go to their parents or another adult like a teacher for help, O’Connor advises them to get over it. Then there’s also basic avoidance. O’Connor said he learned to just stay away from other boys who gave him grief when he was in high school and had a job delivering for a now-closed dry-cleaning shop in Stuyvesant Town. It helped, he noted, to just think about how he couldn’t get into a fight because he was carrying around people’s expensive clothes.
O’Connor said he got the idea to write the book several years ago when bullying of gay youths sparked some major headlines, in particular after one incident led to a suicide of a college student. While he believes that bullying as a societal problem has been taken more seriously as a result, it’s also been made worse in recent years because of technology.
“Now you have brats coming into your bedroom on your computer calling you a loser. I could at least leave them outside or at school,” said O’Connor.
One thing that helps, said O’Connor, is to try to understand the motivation behind bullying.
“With people you get a food chain and someone always ends up on the top. Everyone wants to be on top so they’re looking for someone to place on the bottom,” he said.
Additionally, he’s learned, sometimes it’s all just for show. “I might get bullied by a kid at school and then several hours later I might meet him in the supermarket in Stuyvesant Town,” said O’Connor. “And there wouldn’t be any bullying because there weren’t 10 other kids around he wanted to impress.”
The book is currently a little under 100 pages, but this could change as O’Connor is currently seeking feedback on his manuscript from children in the neighborhood who’ve been bullied — or who just like to read. Any parents whose children fit either description can reach out to O’Connor via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
O’Connor works as a transcriber for Leahey & Johnson, a Wall Street law firm where clients include the Catholic Archdiocese and NYCHA.