[NOTE: A little while back Neal Umphred posted an essay on bullying which I highly recommend reading. (If you search “bully” on his site, he has some other interesting pieces on that and related subjects as well). The following is in part a sequel (in the sense that I probably wouldn’t have thought of visiting this memory without reading Neal’s post), in part a prequel (to a long memory piece I’ve been developing for a while and which is nearing completion) and in part a response to my continuing push-back against Boyhood, which is a well-acted, supposedly hyper-realistic movie about a good-liberal-fantasy construct who, unlike any kid I ever met in real life, is interested in exactly nothing, and which I wrote about here, though I would now add that director Richard Linklater may well have simply inserted a fantasy of what he wished he himself had been. Anyway….]
To be honest, I was never actually bullied.
The line got pretty thin at times.
I wore glasses and read books and had what you might call a generally quiet nature so of course I got called the usual names now and again: Four-eyes, Faggot, Sissy, Pansy, Pussy, etc.
None of it stuck, though. None of it got under my skin and, more importantly, none of it acquired the degree of repetition or intensity that made it any sort of problem I had to ever seriously think about or otherwise deal with.
There were reasons.
For one thing I was a big kid who was reasonably good at sports (more about that in a minute).
For another, though I was often mistaken for being not merely quiet, but shy (not caring to speak and not being able to speak being generally considered the same thing by people who like to talk and, especially, by those who are looking for targets to pick on), anybody who leaned in close generally found themselves dealing with a mind that moved faster than their own and, in any case, never moved slower.
These two qualities combined to create a certain hesitancy in potential bullies.
What really sealed the deal, though, was something I intuited and which I found out much later had served Tom Wolfe well when he was a straight-laced, ice-cream-suited, conservative reporter, dealing with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.* That is, I wasn’t a fake.
If some kid wanted to make fun of my glasses, I smiled. If he wanted to try them on, I let him. If he said something like, “How can you see through these things,” I said something like “I’m blind and you’re not,” and I tended to say it in such a way that you could just about see him asking himself if he wanted to find out the answer to the next question.
Usually, he did not. He wasn’t yet forced to admit he had made himself look pretty stupid. But who knew where it would go if he kept it up?
It was a strategy I lucked into. I wasn’t exactly trying to be a psych major. But I had the sense to figure out what worked and to stick with it.
For instance, If a kid called me one of those other names, I usually just laughed. This wasn’t a strategy either. I just laughed because I thought it was funny–the same way I just said what I thought when somebody asked me stupid questions about my glasses because that was how I thought and I knew it wasn’t a time for keeping my thoughts to myself.
And laughing–genuinely laughing–always drew a puzzled look.
Something along the lines of Who is this kid anyway?
And again, it helped that I was usually bigger and was known to be able to hit a baseball, etc.
But the main thing was, I didn’t fake it.
Which was good, because I also noticed that a lot of kids who did get picked on would try to fake something or other (maybe just their ability to win a fight), and never once did it fail to make their situation worse.
So the upshot was that a lot of kids called me a lot of names once or twice but they didn’t keep it up.
And they didn’t try to pick a fight with me.
Except for this one kid. In the eighth grade.
Because, you know, every rule has an exception.
* * * *
The way it started was the first six weeks of eighth grade Phys Ed we played volleyball.
Volleyball happened to be a sport I had never played before. I didn’t even know the rules and explaining them was not part of the class. So, for a week or two, I struggled.
That was Part One of the equation.
Part Two was that there was a kid on my volleyball team, named James, who had obviously played volleyball before and was pretty good at it.
Part Three was that one of the other two teams–who we, of course, played every other match against–consisted almost entirety of James’ buddies, otherwise known as the Cool Kids.
Part Four was that the cool kids, like cool kids everywhere, never missed a chance to mock anybody, but especially never missed a chance to mock one of their own.
Part Five was that James was a hothead who had an especially thin skin. (Part 5A was that his buddies knew it.)
Part Six was that James decided, in that first week or two, that I was the logical source of his infernal suffering because I was the reason we were losing to his buddies every single day.
Part Seven was that this already dubious narrative was not dislodged from James’ brain by my rapid and vast improvement or the fact that we kept losing because three or four other kids on our team did not, shall we say, improve, rapidly, vastly, or otherwise. In a way, by improving, I made myself a bigger target. Eventually, as his mind roamed far beyond logic (it happens a lot with natural bullies), I became somehow responsible even for James’ own mistakes.
So, for the rest of the school year, in Phys Ed or elsewhere, a certain part of the world narrative at our junior high was all down to me and him.
Or it would have been, except for Part Eight of the equation.
Part Eight was I didn’t want to play.
I used the same tactics on James I used on everyone else.
Smile and ignore him.
Don’t fake it.
Somewhere along the way, he evidently got the idea that the unthinkable had happened.
That I was–however quietly, however improbably–mocking him.
I say that not because I ever really understood his thinking, but because it was pretty obvious he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box (whatever his insider status with the cool kids depended on, it wasn’t brains, and I should add that about half of them were sons of NASA engineers, i.e., rocket scientists, so it wasn’t one of those cases where brains weren’t respected), and I have to assume that, like a lot of not-so-bright people, he had an active imagination when it came to spotting slights and enemies.
Because I wasn’t mocking him.
I just didn’t think he was worth engaging.
Even in eighth grade, life is sometimes too short.
Anyway, his anger and resentment grew. I could tell he was on a slow boil and that he was waiting for an excuse to put me in his sights.
And, since we weren’t put on any more Phys Ed teams together and we didn’t have any other classes together and we didn’t exactly hang out in the same social circles, the excuse never came.
Until finally, in the spring, a month or so before school let out, it sprang from nowhere.
His big opportunity.
Just his bad luck that it was on the basketball court
* * * *
It set up this way.
We had a “free day” in P.E. Once in a while, the coaches would roll out some balls and everybody split up and played with and against whoever they could make a game with.
That particular day, the balls they rolled out were basketballs. Outdoor courts. Half-court. Make it, take it. Take the ball back past the foul line if a miss hit the rim. Lay it in if it didn’t. Play by twos. First team to twenty. Have to win by four.
Here’s the funny thing.
His team won: 20-16.
But he still got humiliated.
Sometimes, in an actual boyhood, that’s how things work out.
* * * *
Six of us went down to the far court, furthest from the coaches.
These things aren’t entirely worked out by accident.
My friend David and I were a natural pairing. James and his friend, Tommy, were a natural pairing. Tommy and David were friendly enough to make the two natural pairings another natural pairing. James and Tommy’s friend, Monty, tagged along. So did this other kid, Kevin, who was sort of part of their circle but, by virtue of being our Junior High’s resident drug dealer (by 1974, every junior high around there had one), he was mostly his own circle. His best friends were the shoplifters, but one of those happened to be James’ brother, Jerry (they were in the same grade so I assume they were nonidentical twins). That was probably why he gravitated to us as the sixth needed for a game of three-on-three.
The only problem then was that we had a natural pair against a natural four, so somebody had to switch sides.
You can guess who got the drug dealer.
There were negotiations to be sure. Pretty fierce actually.
It happened that Tommy and James were on the basketball team. But David and I took Monty aside and David assured him it would be a fair fight if he came over with us. “Trust me,” David said. “John’s really good.”
Monty had never seen me play but he seemed to take it into consideration for a bit. Then he finally looked back at James and Tommy and said, “Yeah, but there’s two of them.”
It’s amazing, sometimes, what matters in a schoolyard.
Monty opted for James and Tommy.
I should mention here that Monty had been in a serious dirt-bike accident a month or so earlier and could barely walk. He was literally dragging his right foot on the concrete because he was wearing a heavy brace and couldn’t lift it off the ground.
That’s how badly we didn’t want Kevin the drug dealer.
Not that we had never seen Kevin the drug dealer play basketball. But he had a couple of qualities common among eighth grade drug dealers. He was sort of crazy. And he didn’t exactly play well with others.
Once he threw up his first shot–from about twenty-five feet in a gusting wind, he only missed by about eight–we had our other suspicion confirmed. He sucked at basketball, he was determined not to go quietly, and we were essentially playing two against four after all.
But, before that, another interesting thing happened.
Tommy took the ball in hand and chucked it out to me for first possession and then turned to James and said, nice and casual, “Hey James, you check Ross.”
And I have to say this surprised me a little because Tommy was a much better basketball player than James was. I had assumed that he would check me for this reason and this reason alone. Meaning I had assumed the fact that I had spent the first half of the seventh grade smoking him on the indoor courts in little games of two-on-two (or the same year of Little League hitting line drives off his pitching), would not affect his decision.
I assumed wrongly. Whatever his reasons, he insisted that James check me.
James, all unawares, clearly relished what he thought was not going to be much of a challenge.
Finally, he had his chance to humiliate me. He was on the basketball team, by God. I had stepped into his wheelhouse at last.
I should mention here, as an aside, that I took no particular pleasure in smoking him, especially when the drug dealer was busy throwing up air balls which allowed the other team to convert uncontested lay-ups for about fourteen of their twenty points. That I would win my personal battle with James wasn’t really a question in my mind. He was on the basketball team, after all. All that meant was I had seen him play.
I’m not saying I took no satisfaction, but it was tempered by losing–no matter that the outcome had been decided by Monty siding with his buddies and sticking us with the drug dealer, who David and I ended up playing concrete football against, trying to wrest the ball from his hands before he could shoot again–and by one other factor.
I was raised in church. I don’t mean I merely went to church, or even that I practiced Christian ritual, though that was true enough. I mean that I embraced–and still embrace–not only the faith, but its core messages, among which none is more resonant than, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
So the only real satisfaction I allowed myself–that I believed I was permitted to allow myself, though even that may have been a stretch–was not that I had bested the boy who had been itching for a chance to ream, humiliate, gloat over me since way back in the fall, but that I had not allowed him to best me.
His team won the game. Nobody walked off thinking his being on the basketball team made him anywhere near as good a basketball player as I was.
Oh, he went right ahead and carried it to the locker room where, hilariously, he tried the “he’s a hot dog” angle on Monty, specifically referencing a couple of behind-the-back passes that set David up for lay-ups (in those days, before age and diabetes set in, my four eyes had 270 degrees of peripheral vision). Monty, son of one of those practical-minded rocket scientists who regarded hot-dogging as the worst sin known to man, just shrugged and said, “It looked to me like everything he did worked.”
I just smiled.
And, right then, not before, I truly thought it was over.
God knew he was never going to like me, and, faith or no, I was never going to like him (I was trying to be a Christian, I never aimed for sainthood). But I figured he would let it go. That there wouldn’t be any more half-sneers when we met in the hallway. No more furtive snickers when there were at least two of him and no more than one of me. I mean, what was the point?
The only thing that could take it any further now was a fight.
I didn’t think he was any way that stupid.
* * * *
I still don’t quite know whether he was or not.
Only that it did seem to cross his mind.
I can only guess, in retrospect, that I had upended his brain’s natural order. That he couldn’t quite get past the idea that he was supposed to be able to bully me. I still wore glasses. I still read books. I was still his idea of a four-eyed-sissy-faggot-queer-hot-dog.
Or something. God knows what he would have thought if he had grokked that I was a Christer (which, to tell the truth, made me more of a target than all the rest combined, working class females being especially hard on anybody who thinks he’s better than everybody else, which was a working assumption with a lot of them that I was usually able to dispel if given the chance, though I frequently wasn’t.)
Just how he intended to work all this out in his own mind I don’t know.
I only know what happened next, meaning what happened last.
What happened next and last was a classic junior high lunch-room confrontation, like you never quite see in the movies–maybe because the versions you see of him are always exaggerated to villainy (instead of being portrayed as one very real side of “boyhood”) and you don’t see any version of me (though, as I hope I’ll make clear in my next piece on this subject, I was far from being a loner).
Too bad about that, because it would make a great scene for somebody:
It’s a couple of weeks after the basketball game. Haven’t seen much of James. One day I’m late to lunch (I don’t remember why) and the lunchroom is nearly empty. The mini-aisles are blocked by chairs pulled back as kids left and didn’t push them back under the table. Negotiation to your table to be managed by main-aisle circuits only.
I get my lunch. I pay for it. I leave the serving counter and start looking for a table. I move along the wall next to the counter and turn the corner to the main part of the lunch room, prepared to move down the aisle next to the wall that runs at a right angle to the counter’s wall.
And when I turn the corner, scanning the room, I see a couple of my friends sitting at the far end, on the far side, and begin to head towards them, straight down the right angle wall.
I’ve been vaguely aware that there’s a kid standing in front of me, blocking the aisle, and that he’s talking to someone seated at the end of the nearest table.
It’s only after I take two full steps down the aisle that I become aware that the kid is James. And that he’s standing there talking to his smoking hot girlfriend Celeste (who doesn’t know me from Adam).
I look down the aisles between the tables.
Chairs pulled out everywhere.
Not an option.
I consider how it will look if I back up, walk practically to the other end of the lunch room, cross over the center aisle, then walk all the way back down to where my friends are sitting.
Not an option.
It’s not a matter of inconvenience.
It’s that if I do that, he’ll think I’m a coward. Not something I would normally mind, actually. But there’s too much undecided between us. I know this because I can see, in an instant, that he has no intention of moving out of my way, and that Celeste, not knowing me from Adam, has no idea what is going on and will not be in any position to influence him towards reason, even if she could (doubtful) and would (probable but likely futile).
And because this silliness has been lingering between us for so long, I know in an instant that if he gets the mistaken impression I’m a coward, this no-longer-quite-so-silly thing will go on…and on….and on.
That was another thing I had learned.
Don’t let a natural bully smell weakness. Not even the weakness of hesitation.
So I walk on, without breaking stride.
I come within a couple of steps of where he’s standing.
I say “You mind?”
He gives me the exact same sneer he’s been giving me for six months. Backed by a little snigger, not quite all the way under his breath.
He doesn’t say a word.
I get within a step.
He tenses. He’s not even looking at me. Except for the sneer and the snigger he’s acting like I’m not even there.
He’s not talking to his girlfriend, who is looking sort of puzzled.
He doesn’t move either, though, which means he has left a foot or so of space between his butt and the wall.
I lift my lunch tray over my head.
I turn sideways.
I swivel-hip, quick-step past him and go on my way.
I don’t look back.
I don’t have to. I have 270 degrees of peripheral vision.
That means I can turn my four-eyed head a couple of inches and have a clear view of what’s going on behind me–like Bob Cousy on a basketball court.
Which also means I can see that he has turned to follow me.
One step. Two steps.
I don’t turn around.
His right foot goes back.
I don’t turn around. I keep walking.
His right foot swings forward.
I don’t turn around. I keep walking.
Neither faster nor slower.
I let him take his chance to kick me in the rear end.
I know if he connects I’ll have to turn and fight him. Right here, right now. The only decision is what I’ll need to do with my lunch tray first.
I’m thinking I’ll throw it at him. High. Towards his face. Distract him while I wade in and take the only advice my father ever gave me about fighting, which is try to end it with one punch. The temple, the nose, the solar plexus. Whatever avails itself first. Forget everything else.
I’m not going to worry about my glasses. Or a looming suspension for fighting. Or explaining it to my parents.
Every once in a while, for just a minute or two, those things can’t matter so much.
So I’m walking on, neither faster nor slower, balancing the lunch tray.
Good hard puke-green nineteen-seventies’ junior high Space Coast plastic.
Neither slower nor faster. My head turned just an inch or two.
Just enough to know his foot is taking the full swing, ending well above his waist.
Just enough to know he doesn’t miss by more than an inch or two.
But he does miss.
And I haven’t turned my head.
That makes all the difference.
By the time he makes up his mind about whether to give it another try, I’m long gone.
By not turning back, I missed the aftermath, like, for instance, how his girlfriend reacted, which might have had a lot to do with how the next time went–how much it might have meant to him–if there had been a next time.
At this distance, I’m sorry, in a way.
To this day, I don’t know whether he missed on purpose. Whether some piece of him decided at the last minute that he didn’t really want it to come to a head after all.
I’m sure I would have found out, if fate hadn’t intervened. If school hadn’t let out a week or so later, before anymore sudden, unexpected confrontations could occur. If my father hadn’t decided to become a full-time minister that following summer and moved us to another part of the state in the fall so he could attend a bible college.
I’m sure if we had stayed, I would have found out something when we got to high school, away from even the modicum of supervision–the kind that had miniature drug dealers running around the boys’ locker room, openly assuring you that the first batch was free and if you didn’t like it you wouldn’t owe a thing!–that existed even in junior high back then.
What that something would have been–Honest miss? Slight miscalculation? Attempt to impress his girlfriend (and was she or wasn’t she)? Loss of impulse control, followed by the rapid reassertion of ruling self-interest that so often marks the bully, but also the bully wannabe?–I’ll never know.
So it was, in the fall of ‘73 and the spring of ‘74. So it remains. A little incident frozen in the time and space of an actual boyhood.
It’s the little things that make us.
And one other little thing I’ll never know is whether James, too, moved away.
I never checked. Life’s too short.
But I like to think he did.
I like to think he moved to Los Angeles and went to high school with Vicki Peterson.
I like to think that, eventually, she wrote a song about him….Not for me, so much, or even for her, as for all the poor misguided Celestes running around loose in the world, so many of whom never learn better until it leaves a scar….
But surely that’s too much to ask. Even if he was made for it.
(* I saw an interview with Wolfe many years later in which he mentioned that those who weren’t really invested in the Pranksters’ lifestyle, but tried to “fit in” by faking it, were mercilessly mocked and ridiculed, while he was basically left alone. The upshot was that they may not have liked him but they respected him because he wasn’t trying to put them on. I’ll have to take Wolfe’s word for it because I wasn’t there, but it jibes with my own experience. Every “in” group hates a fake worst of all.)