I love Captain America. Not for his looks or his heroic deeds, although he does look great (thank you so much, Chris Evans) and accomplishes some of the greatest superhero feats of cinematic history. But I love him for his attitude. Really, he’s a bit of a punk, picking fights all the time, usually fights he can’t win. But he fights for a reason, and he never compromises on that. His reason is simple, and the simple reason I love him: he doesn’t like bullies.
But I really can’t attribute my avid distaste for bullying to Captain America, as much as I love him. Actually, the person who was my first example of standing up for the mistreated is someone I love much more than a comic book hero. Namely, my dad.
I don’t remember my dad ever talking to me about bullying and how it should be dealt with. He may have at one point because that’s something my dad would probably do, but even if he did, that’s not what taught me how to deal with bullies. Instead, I learned about bullying through the small things my dad did over many years.
My dad always has time, no matter how busy he is. Even while working three or four different jobs, my dad was never missing as an influence in my life. When he had to leave on business trips, he called. If he was without phone service, he wrote letters or postcards. When he was home, he made sure to spend time, not just with all of his family, but with each of us specifically. He would ask us how we were and he would listen. He valued us.
And he didn’t just do this with us, his family; he did this with others as well. He ate meals with his students. He prayed with and for his coworkers. He picked up extra work to help someone out, made meals for those who needed a hand. Sometimes this meant less sleep for him, less in the budget for things we wanted to do, extra work, less studying—and lower grades—on his graduate degree work. But he always made time because he valued people. Even the people who were needy or ungrateful, even when we were being unreasonable or inconvenient.
So, I learned that if there’s a person that others avoid, you can be the person to give them attention and friendship. If someone is struggling, you can be the one to lend them a hand. If someone has fallen, you can be the one to lift them up. I learned to value people.
But what about those who do the opposite?
My father is not an angry person. I’ve seen him angry many times, but that’s mostly more at himself or the problem than another person. And I have never, ever seen him violent. Except once.
My family has always had several dogs. Once we had a pair of siblings, named Reese and Hershey. Hershey was the sweetest dog we ever had. And Reese, when he grew big enough, took advantage of that and started to bully her. He tried to keep her from eating and would snap at her every time she went for a mouthful of food from her own bowl. I would usually help my dad feed the dogs, so I often saw him give Reese a reprimanding smack for this, or just push him away from Hershey’s bowl.
But one day Reese bit her when she tried to eat and my dad had enough. He picked up Reese (who was by no means a small dog) by the scruff of the neck and the haunches and pushed him up against a window of the house. “Don’t you EVER bite her again!”
At the time I thought the measure may have been a bit extreme, but Reese never bit Hershey again. Later my dad told me a story about his own experience with bullies in grade school. He told me about a kid who would never leave him alone until the day my dad decked him with his metal lunchbox. The bully never belittled him again, and the demerits my dad got, he says, were worth it.
The story and that incident are now inseparable in my mind for two reasons: one, I could never imagine my dad hitting a kid with a lunchbox until I picture him slamming Reese against the window. Two, I learned the other side of the problem of bullying. This new aspect of my dad’s character, so different from his usual gentle, caring demeanor, put the puzzle pieces together for me, making a point that no story or lecture of his ever quite accomplished.
Bullying is about undervaluing people. The opposite of bullying is not the absence of discomfort, but the presence of respect. The opposite of bullying is what my dad does every day, caring for people, treating them with respect—acknowledging them as people. And this valuing of people leads to an intolerance for bullying, because bullying is the opposite of respect.
So, you don’t have to be like Captain America to fight bullying. Instead, you can be like my dad. Because rarely do those of us who aren’t Captain America have the chance to fight bullies—or knock out Hitler over 200 times. But we can all treat people with value and respect, every day of our lives.