I was in 5th grade. After that thing my brother did, which resulted in his being forcefully removed from our house and becoming a ward of the state, life changed for us. At the time, I went to a good school; we lived in a great neighborhood for riding bicycles; I had my own room. Life was not bad, for me.
But after my brother left home, it went downhill fast. I was too young to understand the adult complexities that come with your child doing something horrible, but from the cautionary, muffled conversations I heard between my step-mom and my dad, and others in the family, I know there was a lot of embarrassment and general unease in our community, both within our neighborhood and our church.
I guess I can understand my parents’ decision to sell our house and move to another town. It wasn’t too far away, but far enough that we would no longer see any of our old neighbors or friends, and far enough away that I had to change schools right when I was starting the 6th grade.
In short, we moved to the country (more on it in this blog about our house and my friend, Joe). While I wasn’t exactly a city boy, I might as well have been from Saturn with glowing eyes and antennae coming out of my head. The established boys in my new neighborhood took an immediate and distinct dislike to me from the get-go. In fact, it wasn’t just the boys in my neighborhood, but a number of boys in my grade.
Today, society has a low tolerance for bullies. But back then, “bullying” was just boys being boys and if you didn’t want to be bullied, then you’d better learn how to avoid them or learn how to fight. At the time, I weighed in at a mere 60 pounds in 6th grade, so the best option for me seemed to be avoidance.
Every day I walked behind the portable classrooms to avoid the two boys who always used the well-traveled walkway behind the cafeteria and who, if they saw me, liked to physically push me around and tell me about all the horrible things they would do to me if they ever caught me off-campus. There was the boy in P.E. who also hated me for some unknown reason. This particular bully kept at it for nigh on a year until one day I snapped, threw him down, grabbed his legs and began dragging him all over the football field. To this day I don’t understand why I did that versus just straddling him and pummeling his face. I think it was over fear of actually hitting him, which I get into later.
To avoid all confrontation, I helped out just about anyone who asked, with their homework or with a “loaned” pencil or some paper that I never got back. In general, I did everything I could to stay under the radar and avoid a pummeling. But you know, boys will be boys. Bullies can smell fear and nothing makes them feel bigger than to see a kid they’ve picked on, running scared.
By far the worst of the lot was a kid in my neighborhood named “Craig.” Craig was a little taller than me, but he outweighed me by about 20 pounds. He and I were about like Ralphie and the bigger Farcus brother from “A Christmas Story.” Now, I didn’t have any classes with Craig. I assume that’s because he wasn’t terribly smart, which is probably why he overcompensated by being so hateful.
In the mornings I rode my bike over to another boy’s house (James) in the neighborhood to catch the bus. The bus wouldn’t come down our street, so we all had to meet it out on the main road. I don’t know why, but for some reason, James liked me well enough that, not only did he not pick on me, but he let me warm up inside his house in the morning after my bike ride, and he let me keep my bike at his house during school. James and I weren’t buddy-buddy enough that he took up for me over Craig and his cronies, but he was a big enough kid that nobody messed with him or his brother, a very large boy-man named “Boogie” who never wore a long-sleeved shirt or coat even in the winter. Boogie hardly ever gave me a second glance, but I got a sense from him that, while he was large and feared, he wasn’t mean. And I like to think that if anything had ever gone down around Boogie, he would have stepped in and at least stopped it. So James and Boogie were the Canada of the neighborhood–at least politically–so when I was with the two of them everyone basically left me alone.
After dropping my bike off at James’ house of a morning, I’d wait for him to finish getting ready, and then we would head out to the bus stop where I did my best to avoid looking at Craig, or his cronies. Because, like anyone in jail can tell you, eye contact is a form of aggression and I wanted to avoid that at all costs.
Still, I knew they watched me and whispered about me, and shot daggers from their eyes at me while I looked at anything BUT them. And the name-calling, man I heard it all. Mostly, it was words you can’t say these days without getting nailed with a hate crime, but back then it was just standard bully-fare.
Afternoon bus rides home were more of the same except I only had to avoid Craig and his bunch as they boarded the bus and moved to the back. Once we got off the bus my Canada protection-neutrality vanished once I got my bike, or on the unfortunate rainy days when I had to walk because my bike couldn’t make it through the 6-inches of muddy slush created by a freshly grated dirt road and an inch of rain.
After about a year of taunting, even Craig’s lackies became emboldened and started following me for about 1/10 of a mile off the bus, yelling obscenities and pushing me in the back. One particular boy, who became the worst of the non-Craig boys, was smaller than me but what he lacked in stature he made up in colorful language and bravado. And he was merciless.
Now, I had always been taught not to start fights. It was particularly stressed in my house because of my brother, who, before he was taken away, started–and won–more fights than I’ve ever been in. It was my genuine belief that if I got into a fight, whether I won or got my butt whipped, I’d face a certain butt-whipping from my father when I got home. And my father favored belts.
So, I put up with Craig and his ilk for far longer than I would have preferred. But little did I know that one summer day in 1985, I was about to do something that would at least grant me a reprieve for a time.
It started off typically. I got off the bus and for some reason that I can’t remember, I was walking home that day, which always extended the length of the taunting because it was easy for them to keep up with me. I remember vividly cutting through someone’s yard, which opened up into a wooded field where no houses had been built. This particular day, Craig was staying back and letting his minions handle the taunting.
This smaller boy I mentioned was walking just behind me and off my right shoulder. He had been calling me names for a good two or three minutes and there were several other boys walking behind him, egging him on as he worked me like a prize-fighter. As he got right up behind me to yell in my ear again, “fight or flight” took over and I spun around with a backhand, hoping to connect with his head. I missed. He may have been little, but the kid was quick and he dropped to the ground as I came around.
Though I didn’t connect with my would-be Joey LaRusso roundabout spin-move, it impressed upon him that maybe today wasn’t the day to pick on someone willing to fight and who happened to be bigger than you. I kept on walking and though they continued the name-calling and yelling, it lacked the usual vehemence it usually had and they stopped following me. A moral victory.
For a while, things quieted down. Sometimes with boys all they need to see is a willingness to stand up for yourself. Once they realize you’re not quite the victim they thought, self-preservation forces self-introspection, which inevitably leads to a decision to find an easier target.
About a year later, after a relatively quiet period of non-violence, Craig decided to start up on me again. I don’t know why, or what the catalyst was, but it was if nothing had ever happened and almost literally overnight, we were back to being sworn enemies.
By this time, the bus route had changed and instead of our having to get off at the front of the neighborhood and me riding or walking back to my house, the bus stopped about two-tenths of a mile from my house. One day on the ride home, I could hear Craig and his friends threatening me quietly from the back of the bus. I could hear them say they were getting off at my stop. I figured they were bluffing until they didn’t get off at their stop, at which point I knew I had troubles.
My adrenaline pumping and my heart racing, I stepped off the bus and immediately started walking home. Never turning around to check who else might be with me, I could hear the bus pull away and for just a minute, I thought I was safe. Then rocks began whizzing by my head, thumping into the red dirt as the boys pelted me with quarter-sized pebbles.
I don’t know what made me turn around that day. Maybe I’d finally just gotten tired of living in fear–of them and my father–or maybe it was the fact that I had gotten a little bigger and felt that I actually had a chance of winning a fight. As I got nearer, a few more rocks flew at me but even those stopped as I approached their group. I stopped just a few feet from Craig as he stood there glowering. Silently, I dropped my backpack on the ground; my heart beating out of my chest. I knew today was the day. It was him or me. No matter how it turned out, and no matter what my dad did to me when he found out, I knew that if I didn’t face Craig today, I’d have to live in fear the rest of my days there.
I looked at Craig and said, “Come on. Hit me.”
Any real fighter will tell you that you don’t wait for the other person to hit you first. Your best bet is to hit them first with everything you’ve got and hope it’s enough. But, I believed that if I could get Craig to swing at me first, then maybe I could get some leniency with my father, especially if I ended up losing the fight. But Craig just stood there glaring, not saying a word. So, I taunted him more, “Come on, hit me! You’ve been picking on me for years. Let’s do this!”
Craig just stood there. He didn’t say a word. He just stood there. “WTH?” I thought.
Finally, I pursed my lips, turned around, picked up my bag, and headed home, fully expecting someone to come crashing down on my back and for the pummeling to begin.
It never came.
After that, Craig and his friends left me alone. There were still sneers and dirty looks, but the days of picking were mostly over. I suppose they realized there was some fight in me and in the last couple of years, I’d managed to close the size gap between Craig and me and I probably wasn’t quite as easy a victim as they’d once thought. Maybe once I was actually standing in front of him at eye-level, he realized he might not come out of the fight as well as he thought. And losing to this city kid was something his reputation would never recover from.
Not long after, we were having a family get-together at my house and it came out that I had been dealing with, not only Craig, but other bullies at school. My dad was furious. Not at me, but at the situation. The school knew I was being bullied and offered no help and never reported it to my parents. When my father asked me why I didn’t stand up for myself, I told him I was afraid of what would happen at home. When he heard that, he immediately started showing me a few “moves” that could help me at least hold my own.
There was still an admonition to never “start a fight,” but my father wanted to make sure I didn’t have to continue living in fear. He told me that if someone else starts it, he wouldn’t be mad at me for standing up for myself, no matter what happened. It was a small turning point in my relationship with him, but an important one.
To this day, nothing chaps me more than a bully. It doesn’t have to be a physical bully like Craig, either. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are physical, while others verbally bully people, usually through coercion and fear, or by withholding something they know you need. I’ve run into a few of them in my professional career.
But no matter the method, they’re all the same to me–bullies. And maybe part of why I beat myself up in the gym, and ran until the joints in my feet fused, is because I regret the years I lived in fear. I never want that for my own kids and so I’ve continued my father’s “don’t start it, but finish it” philosophy with them. They know I don’t want them to start a fight, but they also know I don’t want them walking away from one, or encouraging others to continue bullying by ignoring it and hoping it goes away.
Boys will be boys, or at least some of them will be. No amount of gender-neutrality can take away the biological desire to eliminate the competition. We can teach our children right or wrong, however; and when diplomacy fails, I expect them to protect themselves and their families. I consider it part of my responsibility as a father and I think my father did too.