The transition from elementary school to Jr. High was not something I feared. I had plenty of close friends and we were all making the transition together. So when I entered seventh grade, I went about that first day much like any other; feeling comfortable enough to run my mouth. The day was going smooth as I found my third hour class and mingled about with the crowd before the bell rang. In that few minutes, my day was altered. In fact, to a seventh grade kid without a violent past, my whole life was changed.
As we meandered into the class, there was one fella who stood out from the crowd. He was a little taller than the rest of us and he seemed to eye each one of us as we came in. With bright, blonde hair and dressed in blue jeans with a blue jean jacket, he matched the swagger in his step. He looked confident. He looked tough. He looked like trouble. I should have listened to my own opinion, but when he proved me right, I had to reply.
“Look at all these little 6th grade punks thinking they’re all cool ‘cuz they’re in Jr. High now.”
Before my thoughts could reach the keepers of my mouth, the trolls let loose the only reply he heard from any of us.
“You’re not much to look at yourself.”
It wasn’t as if I spoke the loudest. Truth was I was the only one who spoke to him at all. That one comment set up some of the worst days up to that point in my life. Staring me down, he honed in on me as if he were looking for that opening. He made his way to me and described a meeting he wanted to schedule with me for the purpose of my demise. As I searched for an answer in the uncomfortable silence, a loud ringing in the hallway signaled us to sit. I had played musical chairs before, but I never found a seat and sat down as fast as I did that morning. Talk about being saved by the bell!
Of course, he wasn’t finished. Each day before that class, he would be waiting for me. He taunted me and constantly reminded me of his desire to meet me after school. And in those following days, I learned some things about him. He was as much trouble as he looked. He had failed twice, so he was supposed to be in ninth grade at the time. That explained the size difference. He was no stranger to confrontation, as I was told of his many victories in fisticuffs. This was not some bully with a big mouth and little to back it up. In fact, there was nothing more he wanted than to stand toe to toe with me and do his best to take my head off. The more I heard, the more fearful I became.
The problem was I didn’t know how to get out of this situation and still have some dignity. I couldn’t tattle. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t negotiate with him. And I certainly could not actually fight him! I stood tall for a few days hoping he would back down. I would tell him that I was not afraid to fight him, but I would run as fast as I could to get on the bus after school to avoid him. I tried to scare him, telling him that a lot of kids wanted to beat him up. He only asked for names to fill his planner. Nothing I could do was going to get him off my back.
About the 4th or 5th day of school, there was a crowd of kids waiting for me in the hallway before that third hour. My bully was pointing me out, telling the crowd that I was “the one” who he was going to fight. The crowd laughed, and some were even kind enough to let me know of my mental state.
“You’re crazy if you think you’re going to fight him!”
This is the way I lived out my first week of junior high. Each day, I feared going to school more and more. Each night, I lost more and more sleep. I can even remember looking at a kid in school who had some physical features that got him teased a lot, and I wished I was him. I wished I was anyone else but me. Of all the kids in school, why was it I who got into this mess with the school bully? It eventually broke me down.
My parents were divorced and I lived with my mother. She had six children, but I was the only boy. The second youngest of the six, there were plenty of elders, but no male leader in the house. I didn’t attempt to get advice about this from my mother. Don’t get me wrong, I pray that every child could have a mom half as good mine. There were just some things a boy needed to talk to his dad about.
My dad lacked many of the qualities you would find in a father of the year candidate. He also fell short in the contest for husband of the year. But that didn’t mean he didn’t have something to offer. He was unafraid of anything. He would never stand for what I was going through. I knew he would have the answer for me. I picked up the phone.
When he answered, I immediately broke down. I was sobbing my way through the reason for my call.
“Dad, …there’s…. aguyatschool… whowantsto beatmeup… andhewon’tleavemealone… andI’mscared….”
My dad settled me down with some forgotten words, but then his advice stays with me to this day. I was waiting for him to let me know that he would pick me up himself and take me to school. That he would find this bully and take care of him for me. I waited for him to step into this with a “nobody-treats-my-son-this-way” kind of fury! Yeah! Dad to the rescue! But dad did nothing like that. His advice won’t ever be printed in any parenting magazines. I also wouldn’t recommend this in your own situation, as it was controversial, unpopular, borderline abusive, and probably illegal by today’s standards. But it was what I needed to hear.
“Listen to me son. Tomorrow, when you go to school, do not go to any of your classes. You get off that bus and start hunting him down. When you see his friends, ask them where he is. If they don’t know, you tell them that when they see him, they are to let him know you are looking for him. And when you do find him, you do not fight after school. You let him know that you are ready now. You want to do this as soon as possible. You’re looking forward to it. Whatever he does or says, you counter with only one option; let’s do this. NOW.”
That was not the advice I was looking for. For a moment, I reconsidered what my mother might have to say. But that night, I went to bed more fearful than ever, but with a strange hint of anticipation. I knew that I was going to get pummeled, but I knew that it would be over. Finally...
Then next morning, I awoke to things usual; sisters running back and forth and fighting over the bathroom, the sound of hair dryers, and a buzzing alarm clock with the time printed on those black tabs that flipped like a rolodex. Remember those?
However, this morning had one added element. I had the pleasure of it not crossing my mind in the first nanoseconds of the day as I came into consciousness. It was not to last. Before my eyes opened, my mind played the tape of the impending appointment like an endless loop of doom. My heart jumped and... I needed to go to the bathroom. I made my way out of my room and wondered what I had gotten myself into. I wished that other kid was a scared as me. I dreamed for a moment that he met me in the hallway and said, "Hey, this whole thing is nuts. We've gotta come to terms on this and avoid an ugly mess."
The truth was, I knew he was living a musical at his house. As he adorned his signature jean jacket and poured his box of rocks for breakfast, he was dancing and singing, "I'm gonna kill Nick today! I'm gonna kill Nick today! It's raining outside and the sky is gray but - what joy! I get to kill Nick today!"
I got on the bus that morning more slowly than ever. Still, the ride to school went fast. Did we skip a thousand stops or so? No? Ok, we're here then. I got off the bus and looked around. I lived for the first few minutes at school so far.
I'd like to say I took my dad's advice. That I went in to school and stomped through the halls in search of my nemeses. That, as I came across his friends, I put out the message to them to warn him I was coming. That, when I made these promises, I gained respect as the boys followed me in support, and the girls fell at my feet just to witness such bravery!
The truth is, I went to class. I avoided any conflict at my will. But, the time did come. As we mulled around in class before the third hour bell rang, he was there. As if he knew I was as fed up as him, he approached me swiftly. Standing in separate rows as eye to eye as we could with a desk in between us, he threw down the challenge.
"So Gerace, when are we gonna fight? How 'bout today after school."
I was done. No more. I mustered up all the courage I could, then remembered my dad's advice, and answered, "HOW ABOUT RIGHT NOW?!"
Only, it didn't come out exactly like that. I meant it to come out with a resounding thunder of confidence that would set in his soul a terror like he'd never known. But, when I spoke, my voice cracked. And I was nervous. And it kinda came out like a five-year-old with a bad connection on a modern day cell phone. "How - 'out - ri - ow.?"
He understood perfectly. And I didn't call his bluff. He was more than happy to oblige. He answered, "All right!"
The next thing I knew, he laid both of his palms into my chest in an effort to launch me over the desks behind me. The thing was, I barely moved. I pushed him back and he moved much further. He came back at me with a fist swinging towards my face, but I moved. It was almost too easy. He totally missed. With his arm outstretched giving me a clear shot at his face, I countered. And I connected. And I blasted that kid in the nose so hard I thought my dad could hear it. This sent him into a violent rage and he swung repeatedly at me; left, right, left, right, left, right.... and missed every time. Each swing was accompanied by his frustrated grunts as I simply moved to avoid the reconstruction. But as I threw back, it was like a Batman episode. KABLAM! KAPOW! BLAMMO! OOF!
A teacher broke us up and separated us. I looked myself over. I was still alive. Alive and surprisingly well. I felt.... pretty good. I looked over at my opponent and saw he wasn't feeling as spry. He sat with his face in his hands, rubbing his nose and moaning.
I pummeled that kid. I never had to see him again either. His reputation was such that it was his last chance. He was expelled permanently.
Years later, there would be another altercation. In fact, that will make a better story. However, this one had to be told first. What I learned in this one actually helped me some fifteen years later. Life is like that. You never know how today’s challenges are going to be training grounds for the future.