(Trigger warning: violence. Hat tip to @dys_morphia for inspiring this.)
I got into a lot of fights when I was little. I have theories about why this was, but nothing really definitive. I know for sure why adults told me I got picked on, though. “They’re just jealous, because you’re so smart.” That wasn’t it.
I’m 6’6″, and as you might imagine I was a lot taller than most other kids in elementary school. I think that was part of it; I still have guys pick fights with me at bars because it’s a can’t-lose proposition for them. If I agree to fight and they win, they kicked my ass. If they lose, they have a ready excuse: I’m fucking huge. (The other option, the one they always get, is I avoid fighting them, in which case they tell their friends they intimidated tall pussy.)
I also grew up without a lot of social grace. I suffered from depression very early on, and I just wasn’t great at making friends. So I was a pretty easy target, in the social environment of recess. I think that contributed too. I never got the impression anyone picking fights with me gave a shit whether I was smart or not. They mostly seemed to care that they could pick on me.
So I got picked on, and my dad told me that if I was getting picked on, it was okay to defend myself. He took me in the back yard and taught me how to throw a punch, told me how important it was to punch through the other boy’s face, not at his face. Like I said before, I’m tall, and reach goes a long way in a fight. I started hitting back, and I felt less powerless. I also ended up in the principal’s office a lot, sitting in these oversized-for-a-nine-year-old leather chairs (they were brown, with brass roll-y wheels, and between them was a glass end table with a vase of fake flowers), waiting for Dr. Colbert and Mr. Wallace (the counselor) to call us in. Sometimes I was sitting next to a friend who’d started a fight for dumb reasons, and we’d apologized to each other already and had to sheepishly recreate the apology for adult witnesses. Most of the time, though, I was sitting side by side with a bully, a dedicated tormentor. I was still angry, I still wanted to fight, to hit back, to end it.
I stopped hitting back, stopped even talking back when bullied, when I was 12. I was in 7th grade, going to a junior high halfway across town due to some funky redistricting. I got on the bus one Friday afternoon and sat next to my friend. Sitting behind her was a bully I’d known (and been picked on by) since kindergarten. He told me not to sit there, and I ignored him. He started punching me in the shoulder, painfully, repeating his demand that I not sit there. I didn’t get it at the time, but in hindsight I realized he was upset with me for sitting there because he was in the process of trying his damnedest at the age of 13 to pressure my friend into fucking him. I just wanted to sit with my friend.
So after a few punches in the shoulder, I turned around and hit the kid back. He stood up and punched me in the jaw, hard. I fell into the aisle of the bus, and the bus driver he noticed. He yelled the bully’s name and told him to sit in the front seat. That was how you dealt with a fight on the bus, break them up and don’t worry about it.
He stared at me in the big wide rear-view mirror the entire ride back to our neighborhood. When we got to my stop (two before his), he stood up and got off the bus. My friend I’d sat next to walked with me to the front of the bus, her behind me. I walked off the bus and said something smart-ass to the other boy, “Hi” or something equivalent. He lashed out, grabbing my shoulder-length hair, and threw me up against the chain link fence surrounding the house on that corner. I tried to get free, but the kid was strong and he had a tight grip on my head. He punched me in the face with his free hand, over and over, until my legs sagged under me, and then he threw me to the sidewalk, kicked me between the shoulder blades, and began stomping on my face with his combat boots. I could hear my friend screaming his name and the word “stop” over and over. Then she ran away. This part didn’t go on very long, since the bus driver finally yelled at him to stop.
He took his foot off my face and stood there, watching the adult behind the driver’s wheel. The bus doors closed and the bus began rolling on, and the bully started stomping my face into the concrete again. I could see all the other kids on the bus cram up into the rear of the bus to watch the “fight” for as long as they could before the bus rolled out of sight. I don’t know how long he went on kicking my face into a pulp while I watched cars roll by without slowing, much less stopping. But one of them did stop, a neighborhood mom jumping out of the driver’s seat. The kid beating the shit out of me took off running, and the woman who’d stopped helped me stagger to my feet into her car. She drove me the half block to my house, and my mom took me to the hospital. I didn’t have a concussion, just a lot of bruising on one side of my face and a lot of cuts on the other, where my head had ground into the sidewalk. I gave a report to a police officer, who recognized the other kid by name.
I went to school Monday, beaten up as hell. My parents didn’t press charges, and the bully wasn’t expelled or even suspended. He was banned from riding the bus. It was supposed to last the rest of the school year, but the bus driver let the other kid back on after a month. That Monday when I went back to school, a gang of other kids beat the shit out of him in the bathroom. I heard about it later, but it didn’t give me any comfort. The time I actually needed help was when a dozen kids were crowding at the bus windows to watch me get my ass kicked.
I got picked on still, but I only fought back once, when I was cornered in a bathroom after school had let out. I had to punch the other kid in the jaw and then zip up my pants; he’d started punching me while I was standing at a urinal. Otherwise, when other boys (and eventually other men, as I grew older) tried to start a fight with me, I told them to either start throwing punches or get out of my way and let me be. It’s worked for avoiding fights, and thankfully I’m at the point where I only get the aforementioned belligerent drunks at bars anymore.
I’m still affected by a childhood of violence. I hate feeling powerless, more than anything in the world, and it can completely shut me down. I don’t trust anyone very easily, and I always fear the worst when I put someone in a position to abandon me to the wolves.
I don’t really have a moral to tie this up with. I wish the consequences for fighting had been so severe that I would never have fought back and the kids who had picked on me maliciously had been kicked out of school. I have a lot of thoughts about toxic masculinity and “zero tolerance” policies, but mostly I just wanted to share. Take fights between kids seriously. Break them up, protect kids.