In my last post (which you can read here) I pondered the motives of my five-year old friend who lashed out violently. The many comments, about childhood pain and pressures got me thinking, about the one time I did take up my fists and try to hurt someone.
New Kid on the Block
In between my 3rd and 4th grade school year, my family bought a new home and moved us about 2 miles away from my old house. At the time I thought nothing of the move. Little did I know how tough it would be, to be the new kid on the block.
Our new house was built in 1967 and was situated on an acre of woods and green grass. It was one of 15 lots whose backyards were mostly open and backed up to each others’ yard on the block. The block was teeming with kids and it seemed like nothing, to have 30 kids playing kick the can until ten at night on a summer evening.
I also discovered my two passions in life. Playing baseball (something we did almost every day of the summer) and collecting baseball cards. With any spare money we could find, about 5-10 of us would walk 2 miles to the local Wawa. After arriving, we would divvy up our spending between buying candy, playing Asteroids, and buying as many packs of Topps baseball cards as we could afford. Our greatest hope was to find cards from our hometown team, the Philadelphia Phillies. At that time, 20 cents could get you a pack of 15 cards and a stiff piece of gum. Those were the days my friend, (cue Mary Hopkins)…..
But summer ended, school began, and a new trial arose. My neighbor from across the street, was a year older and didn’t play with us during my first summer. Everyday at the bus stop, he would pick on me without mercy. He would tease me, trip me, shove me, make fun of me. And all my new friends went along with him.
Why did they do that?
How come I could go over to Dave’s house and play for hours, but the next morning he would join along or stay silent, as this ring leader taunted me? My feelings were deeply hurt and I began to doubt my own self-worth.
A few months into it, and I broke down and begged my dad to move back to our old house. I cried and pleaded for us to just move back…I just wanted the simple life that had been mine before moving across the street from a bully. My Dad was shocked and concerned, but he made it clear that moving back was not an option. I would have to learn to deal with my new arch nemesis.
I tried my best, by mostly pretending that his taunts did not hurt me. But on the inside, I was crushed. I was not (and in many ways am still not) a fighter. I simply had no natural skills at standing up for myself and I was taking a verbal beating, everyday.
Learning to Cope
I wish I could report that these incidents of bullying stopped. They continued for another couple of years and it took a toll on my self-image. Just when I would start to feel comfortable, this guy would take me out, cut me down to size, and make me doubt my self-worth, for weeks on end. It never crossed my mind to punch him, I just learned to cope.
For me, coping came in the form of wit. I learned that most bullies are dim and easily disoriented by a little wit and misdirection. Kind of like confuse a cat for bullies. He’d say something typical, like I was an idiot. I would thank him for the compliment and ask him if he wanted to know where I’d bought my sneakers. He usually would repeat himself and then I’d comment on how nice the weather had been lately. This would tire him out, because I had gone off script and I’d be off the hook for a little while.
The other way I would cope, was to pretend that it didn’t bother me. As this is not the most emotionally helpful coping mechanism, it has taken me well into adulthood to realize that it’s ok to say when someone has hurt you, or admit that I have emotions about what has happened in life. Or God forbid, actually get angry. No, at that stage, anger and emotion was exactly what this bully wanted, so I refused to give it to him.
Relief, at Last
It finally happened….he moved away. As in miles away. His parents had gotten a divorce and the family soon moved. All I understood, was that my hell was over. The daily taunting was mostly over and I could actually enjoy my mornings waiting for the bus.
In hind sight, maybe the hell of his own family situation is what motivated him to pick on the new kid. Maybe, he was just repeating phrases he heard his Dad hurl at his mom. Maybe he felt let down by a Dad who couldn’t be bothered to take him to a Phillies game when my Dad offered them first-rate tickets. I don’t know, but for my 11-year-old mind, all I knew was sweet relief.
The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back
Fast forward another year or so…I am walking home from school with my new best friend, James. He’s a year or two younger, but we share a passion for all things Baseball and my new passion, The Beatles. We are Beatle nerds, for lack of a better description.
Anyway, we are walking home-me lugging a very heavy trombone and James lugging a bag full of books, including a discography of the Beatles. At some point, one of my neighbors joins us, but he starts in on James because he is younger and a little overweight. I tell my neighbor to stop, but he doesn’t and then he starts to tease me. He teases me just like the bully who’d moved away had teased me. He called me the same names, because he’d seen me a thousand times before just suck it up and endure.
It’s fall, the sky is overcast, and we are actually standing in the middle of my old back yard from where I had moved, a few years before. Back when I didn’t even know what a bully was. But now, my neighbor starts pushing James to the ground, and I just snap….
There Will Be Blood
Just as I saw James hit the ground, it happened…I snapped. All the years of teasing, all the years of never standing up for myself had caught up, and I erupted in anger.
I threw my bag and instrument to the ground and came at my neighbor with a fury of fists and screaming. I told him I was going to kill him and I just kept punching and punching. All the anger, all the pain, I was determined to punish this neighbor with my fists.
He looked like a scared dog and he just kept backing up and ducking as I screamed and punched. Lucky for him, he was able to miss the full fury of most of my punches and he quickly retreated, as I yelled at him some more. I was swinging so hard at him that I pulled the muscles in both arms. I yelled so loud that my voice became hoarse. But I didn’t care, no one was ever going to treat me like that again….never. He eventually ran home and I settled down enough to finish walking home.
I’m sure the whole incident was less than 2 minutes, but in that 2 minutes, something changed. I had stood up for myself and my friend. But I also had become violent and out of control. I had let things go for so long, and now I could barely contain my rage.
I never again threw a fist at someone, and learning to stand up for myself, even verbally, was a skill that I had to learn over and over. Many times, I would let feelings build up to the point of eruption. Eruptions that sometimes hurt relationships. Learning to cut these off at the pass, meant learning the fine art of standing up for myself and believing in my own self worth.
As an aside, nobody in my neighborhood ever picked on me again. As for the neighbor I threatened with my fists, he sheepishly said hello the next morning and kept looking over his shoulder. I think he was actually scared I’d attack him.
Lucky for him, I’m more of a lover than a fighter.