When I was in junior high school, we looked up to, and generally feared, the upperclassmen who were in tenth grade or higher — all between 15 and 17 years old. Some of them were shaving already, some driving, and if you believed their stories, all were having rampant sex with every hot girl in town.
And to demonstrate their dominance over the pimply horde that comprised the seventh grade, the nastier ones among them would administer “wedgies” to any unsuspecting kid they caught near the railroad tracks on the way home. It worked like this: you got behind the victim, reached inside the back of his pants, and grabbed the waistband of his underwear. This was the late sixties, long before the “homeboy” look, when you’d actually have to reach inside someone’s pants to find underwear.
It was also before kids started wearing boxer shorts or designer underwear in exotic patterns and colors — most, if not all, the boys in junior high were wearing tightie whities. So you’d reach in, grab the elastic waistband, and yank up as high and hard as you could, causing the victim’s underwear to lodge firmly in his butt crack. Thus the name “wedgie.”
A fairly innocent (if crude) prank, you might think. But then came the “atomic wedgie,” a particularly nasty variant invented by the more sadistic upperclassmen. In the atomic wedgie, the perpetrator would yank on the waistband so persistently, and with so much force, that the elastic ripped away from the fabric of the briefs. Once critical mass was achieved and the waistband ripped off, the pressure of the wedgie subsided.
However, the victim was left not only humiliated and in pain (the wedgie put extreme pressure on the entire groin area), but he was now wearing an elastic band above his waist and saggy, ruined briefs below. And he had to puzzle-out as he walked home how he was going to explain to mom what had happened to his new BVDs without admitting that he’d been bullied, and had taken it like a wuss.
Happily, I was never on either the giving or the receiving end of a wedgie — atomic or otherwise. But I’m ashamed to admit that I witnessed a fairly brutal wedgie being adminstered to one of my classmates. The bullies — three burly wise guys — were repeatedly pulling on the waistband so hard the kid would briefly leave his feet, crying and screaming for them to stop.
But they were trying to “go atomic,” and his underwear wouldn’t rip. They must have yanked him up and down nine times, each time hoisting him off the ground and eliciting pitiful wails and cries for mercy. He’d dropped his schoolbooks, and his shoes were scuffed and dirty from being dragged across the rocks by the railroad tracks.
He looked to me once for help, but I just stood there. I rationalized my inaction — he was an acquaintance, not a friend. With three big guys against us, I couldn’t possibly make a difference. It was going to stop soon in any event. But the truth is, I was terrified of getting beaten up, or of becoming a wedgie victim myself. So I did nothing.
The older kids grew tired of the game and ran off, laughing, as quickly as they had come upon us. I helped him pick up his books, and find his glasses, and told him I was sorry I didn’t help him. He said he was all right, and that he understood — he just asked that I not tell anyone about it. We walked the rest of the way home in glum silence.
Bullies today terrorize, belittle and threaten their classmates online, or they post embarrassing pictures for the world to see. In the online context, the victim can feel utterly alone — there’s not even a sympathetic (if cowardly) friend standing by to console you, and help you clean up afterwards. There’s no way to ask anyone not to tell. The story’s out there beyond control in the blink of an eye, and it persists forever.
Bullying by schoolkids has always been brutal and disgusting. Now, however, in today’s electronically enhanced form, it’s downright dangerous.