Throughout junior high and the first two years of high school, because of where my birthday fell, I was one of the smallest kids in my class. I was also emotionally immature, not being able to control my big mouth. It might not seem like much, but when you’re early in the double digits of years, being a year younger than most of your classmates can be a big deal.
My brother, on the other hand, four years ahead of me, was in the opposite situation, being amongst the oldest in his class. So different were we that he was considered one of the toughest guys in town, while I was known as a little smart-mouthed wimp. When I was in 8th grade, my brother was in his senior year in high school, and I’d hear through the buzz about some new fight he’d recently gotten into, and how he once laid a guy out in the middle of an intersection in Burlington. I, on the other hand, had no such proclivity for fighting, and was, in fact, due to my mouth, the frequent target of bullies and bullying. Fight or flight? That was always an easy and consistent answer for me in those days.
But perhaps my biggest fear back then was that word of my wimpy-ness would find its way to my brother, just as word of his exploits found their way to me. This was part of my motivation when one day, in 8th grade, I decided it was time for me to show off my hidden toughness. It was time for me to kick some ass.
The target of my aggression would be Jimmy K., who happened to be not only the son of the school principal, but also one of the two or three guys in my class that was as small as I was (I was at least smart enough not to pick a fight with the 97% of the boys that were bigger than me.) Jim had done something to piss me off that afternoon, and I remember telling him, you just wait until after school, you just wait.
Then we were released, and walking across the grassy yards of the middle school lot. Other kids were swirling around us as I followed after Jim, taunting him, jabbing him in the shoulders. He just continued on, silent, with his head down, not looking at me and absorbing my verbal abuse without reaction, carrying his books.
His books. Jim’s not responding was emboldening me to push harder to get a reaction from him. I reached out and knocked the books out of his hands, folders and papers falling to the ground and scattering in the breeze. How do you like that, I snarled. And then, within an instant, though I can see it all now, forty some years later, as if in slow motion, he turned around, his right hand balled into a fist, and landed a perfect punch to my face, to my left eye. I remember my eye welling up with water, from the impact, not because I was crying, well, mostly not because I was crying. Whatever, the fight was over, and by the time I walked home I had a bona-fided shiner, my eye socket swollen and purple from Jimmy K.’s perfectly thrown right cross.
When I gott home, I told my mom that she should see what the other guy looks like, though I know I wasn’t very convincing. In the days that followed I wore the bruise on my eye socket like Hester Prynne, instead of a scarlet “A,” a purple “W” for wimp.
A couple of years later, in the summer between ninth and tenth grade, I suffered through my last encounter with a bully. It was a kid in my class who I shall call G who for some unremembered reason took an intense disliking to me. Looking back on it now, I can’t for the life of me figure out what it was about this kid that I feared. He was was ridiculous looking, short with long hair and a big soft stomach that protruded well past his belt. I guess it was the fact that he smoked and hung out with some older kids who also had long hair and smoked that intimidated me so much.
One summer day, after stopping in the hobby store on Main Street and purchasing some poster boards (on which I was going to design golf courses, having decided recently that would be what I’d someday become famous for. I was ahead of my time in that the words “nerd” or “geek” weren’t part of the culture yet.) when I spotted G in the alley across the street, smoking with four of his friends, all of whom were older than him. He saw me and yelled “Gourdoux!”
I ran, and as I took off, I saw his friends start running across the street. I ducked into an alleyway between a couple of the stores and emerged in the bright sunshine of the empty parking lot behind Main Street only to find that I was quickly flanked on all sides by G and his friends.
“Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want to see you around here?” G snarled. I almost answered that no, I don’t seem to recall ever hearing you say that. Two of the older guys held me, pinning my arms back. I was unable to move, but I felt myself recoiling right before he delivered a sucker punch to my gut. I bent over when I realized that his punch didn’t even hurt. He’d hardly hit me. My big mouth started to say the words, is that it, is that all you’ve got, but for once, my brain was faster than my mouth, and I realized that G’s heart just wasn’t into beating me. Perhaps one of those friends that held me was an older brother who G had to impress. Perhaps he chose me to be his victim because I was an eaasy target. Whatever his reason, when he hit me, it was clear to ne that bullying didn’t come naturally to him, and that he was no more a tough guy than I was when Jimmy K. landed “the punch.” He mumbled soething about me not being worth the hassle and told the guys who held me to le me go.
They disbursed as I reached down and picked up the poster boards and headed for home. I was thinking, that didn’ even hurt, why had I been so afraid of G for all that time, when am I going to stop being such a wimp? I also remembered wondering why G didn’t punch me harder, and the more I thought about, the better I understood, and I saw more than just a chubby kid who smoked. I saw a kid who, when he had a chance to really hurt me, chose not to, and I understood the toughness that took.
In the following year I’d go on my big growing spurt, going from 5’6” to 6’1” by the time I’d start eleventh grade. I’d never run from a fight again. Even better, I’d never start a fight again, either.
Now I can say, with all of the confidence I lacked in those days, that I am one tough S.O.B.