Last April, I was driving with a buddy when I said something that ticked him off. I didn’t anticipate his response, which was to remain perfectly quiet, nod his head .. then swing the back of his hand right across my mouth.
I let out a scream of “ouch!” loud enough for folks in northern Maine to hear, and I was pretty startled that he’d responded so aggressively. Most guys, I suppose, would have pulled the car over and insisted they fight it out then and there. But I didn’t; I continued driving, and kept my mouth shut. I was thinking back to when this same friend told me, “Mike, I’m bigger than you, and stronger than you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
That’s not the only recent incident I’ve had like this. I have another friend who smacks my hand if I try to bite my nails. And I have a third friend, a bit older than me and considerably bigger than me, who was driving me home one day when I played a practical joke on him. He slammed on the brakes, stared at me indignantly, and then said if I ever did it again he’d take me behind the car and give me a “whoopin’.”
Sometimes I wonder if I have “punching bag” written on my forehead.
The odd thing is, I’m at the age when you no longer expect to put up with this stuff – it’s all supposed to be light years behind you. And thinking about these three incidents made me flash back to my high school days. I spent three years – long, long years, it felt at the time – being the ultimate shy, withdrawn, nervous high school Geek who didn’t dress cool, or act cool, or hang out with any of the cool people. And I also went straight through high school never, ever getting bullied.
I’m not saying I don’t know what it’s like to be bullied. In middle school, I was the virtual poster child for bullying victims. Thin enough to make a Third World villager look like a Weight Watchers candidate, and about the least athletic student on record, I can remember having “Prime Target” written on my back on a daily basis.
There was a long, steep hill leading from my house to the middle school I attended, and so many afternoons the bullies would give me a head start and then chase me, with the warning of a full fledged beating if they caught up. Maybe that’s how I stayed so thin as a kid, running up that hill in abject terror.
I can also remember one sorry day when our teacher left the classroom, and a classmate who disliked me got up, came over to my desk, and began punching me. I responded in the classic Geek manner, swinging my chin directly into his fist with a kind of “Take that!” virtuoso. As you might imagine, it failed miserably to discourage him.
The teacher got back in time to break up this “fight,” as he called it – although if I was swinging my fists at all, it was defensively, not aggressively – and hauled us both down to the principal’s office, where I was given three days of detention. I’m not sure what depressed me more, that I could get punished for getting beat up, or that my parents were distinctly unsympathetic to my outrage.
That was a different era. Back then, if you got picked on at school, you were expected to learn how to fight and punch the other guy in the nose. I’d known that was a lost cause about the same time I first picked up a basketball and football and thought, “Oh, forget it, this isn’t for me.” My poor father was so embarrassed to have a son who couldn’t fight back.
In high school, though, I got left alone. In retrospect, that was no surprise. My mother died during my first year in high school, and after that, nobody ever picked on me again — a strangely uncharacteristic sympathy factor among bullies, perhaps, or maybe just plain old pity. Whatever it was, I faded from the jocks’ regular hit list.
Something odd happened, though. I went from being a target among those who liked roughing up the weaker students … to being someone who was totally anonymous. I was quiet, withdrawn, and had trouble making conversation. I faded away almost entirely through most of my high school years. I almost became like the school wallpaper – always there but hardly ever noticed. It was a lonely existence, in some ways more agonizing than being harassed. It’s like Pink sings: “If you’re too cool for school, and they treat you like a fool … we can always party on our own.” Well, I did a lot of solo parties in those days.. I had a nasty divorce from my distant friend self respect around this time, and I lost interest in school work entirely and relied on the pity of my teachers to get me by with sympathetic, but still passing, D grades. My father and I didn’t get along much throughout these years.
I don’t have a lot in common with that high school student these days; my social network is pretty wide, I’m more extroverted than ever before, and anybody who knows me would hardly mistake me for being “quiet.” But one thing hasn’t changed — I’m no fighter, even today. Just ask my buddy who smacked me across the mouth. He knows this all too well.
Until that spring day when he whacked my lip, I thought my days of getting roughed up were long past me.
I don’t feel like a victim, though. There’s plenty of truth in the wisdom that if you get bullied, you need to stand up for yourself and not shrink back and take it. I wish I had adopted that attitude in middle school. Maybe I would have developed the self-confidence I painfully lacked back then.
So these days, I approach things entirely differently. I’ve gone online to find a bodyguard, and set aside some money to hire one to accompany me to various events and activities. Now, the next time my buddy doesn’t appreciate something I say and raises the back of his hand to smack me, the bodyguard will be sitting in the back seat, ready to reach over and break his wrist.
Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.