Me vs. The Bully
As a tortured nerd in high school, the author sought his tough-guy father's counsel. His dad's surprising advice changed his life forever.
Some fatherly advice: Kick his ass
When I was 15, I was terrorized by a 12th-grade headbanger. A big, mean S.O.B. who ran with the skinheads, snorted coke before school, and walked the halls with a menacing scowl on his face and a 4-inch switchblade tucked in his vest. I was a nerd. Or, perhaps more precisely, I was an achiever: honor-service-club president, straight-A student, essay-contest winner, track-team captain. I guess all that suburban propriety offended him (hell, it offended me at times), and somewhere along the line he decided that he hated me. He'd sabotage my locker, yell at me between classes, intimidate my friends. He once even slammed my lily-white cheerleader girlfriend's head into a desk. Everyone at the school was afraid of him. I was afraid of him. I had no idea what to do about it.
So, I told my dad. Now, Dad and I were nothing alike. It's fair to say that throughout my childhood, we had a strained relationship. He could be a great guy and all, but because of his ninth-grade education and bad temper, I wanted nothing more than not to be him. He'd been an outlaw in his youth, running drugs to Mexico, writing fraudulent checks, and spending 3 years in prison. These things haunted me. I mean, they were good stories to tell my buddies, whose suburban fathers were typical rat racers. But I felt marked, the child of a felon, destined for a life of mediocrity.
I would literally picture his face as I memorized chemistry formulas at 3 a.m. or rounded the final turn of some track workout, arms flailing, face drawn back in a deathly grimace, driving myself into the ground, running away from what seemed like the destiny he'd created for me.
My dad would've thought this was funny, had I come clean with him at the time. Not because he considered my work pointless, but because he always described prison in the '60s as just another bump on a long road. It was nothing like the modern conception, with murders in the wood shop and gang rapes in the shower. It seemed almost charming, like something out of Cool Hand Luke. A place filled with roughneck, blue-collar guys with missing teeth, who play poker, get in fistfights, and have trouble with the conjugation of basic verbs.
Everyone in prison thought my dad was crazy. Whenever someone came too close, he'd go berserk, yelling with that incredibly powerful voice of his, intimidating whoever approached him, convincing them that he was a cannon ready to go off. And maybe he was. In any case, it worked. They left him alone. And he got through it. "I did my time, and they did theirs," my dad would say.
Which is why he seemed like the right guy to talk to about the headbanger. I sat him down one morning and told him about the threats, the intimidations, the months spent with my stomach in knots. He listened intently and thought for a moment, furrowing his weathered brow as I did during geometry class. Then he looked up and said, simply, "Well, you're going to have to kick his ass."
This was a quandary. Kick his ass? The thought had never occurred to me. I would have been less surprised if he'd told me to quit school and join the circus. I was not a kicker of asses. The SAT, service clubs, track meets -- these things I could do. But kick ass? Absurd. I'd never even been in a real fight. But my dad was dead serious: "Just 'cause he's bigger don't mean sh--."
Half an hour later, I stood in the driveway in front of our house with my dad, receiving instruction, like a heavyweight boxer, on how to throw a punch ("Stay on your toes, keep your elbows in, and when you hit, hit hard"), how to scream really loud to intimidate the opponent, how to duck so I wouldn't get punched. He held a pillow while I hit it, and told me things like "There's no such thing as fighting dirty. Once you're in a fight, win." And "You can confuse him by spitting in his face first, then punching him while he wipes it off." And "Walk up to him with a stack of books and toss them in the air, and when he reaches out to catch them, break his nose with your fist." Like the good student I was, I brought a pad of paper and a pen, scribbling notes in the margin: "Kick knee, then punch neck, yell real loud. Break nose." I was advised to carry a roll of nickels to add more power to my punch. I was told to wear loose-fitting clothes and not eat too much for breakfast. He explained these things the way an astronomer might explain to his son the reasons for a solar eclipse -- calmly and with a commitment to getting the details right.
The next morning, I went to school, terrified as usual.
I was shaking as I walked down the hall, fingering the heavy roll of nickels in my right pocket.
The headbanger found me during the morning break, as he always did -- standing by my locker, trying to open it despite the heavy dents he'd made in it previously. He walked up to me and pushed me into the wall. "Hey, punk, am I going to kick your ass today?"
The question lingered in my mind for a moment. I'd spent the morning wondering the exact same thing. Then, slowly at first, I felt the thin, precarious strand of sanity that had stretched and stretched for months -- begging for moderation, for pacifism, for the easier route of, well, punking out -- finally reach some kind of limit, and snap.
I turned toward him, mustered every frenzied, screeching nerve in my body, looked him straight in the eye -- and punched him as hard as I could, dead in the face. I threw the punch with my weight balanced, my elbows tucked, and yelled, "Come on," real, real loud. Just as Dad had said to do.
And then a strange thing happened. I let loose with the most surreal stream of unending profanities that I had ever uttered in my life. I bounced uncontrollably. I screamed maniacally. My entire body, my entire field of vision, every thought, every muscle, every ounce of fear I'd ever felt for the preceding months became pure, bottomless, unadulterated rage.
"Let's go, let's go! I'll kick your ass. Come on!" The headbanger was wearing steel-tipped motorcycle boots and a ring with a nail driven through it. I bobbed and weaved and slammed my skinny fist in his face, 10, maybe 15 times, until blood streamed from his eye, from his nose, from his mouth. It was bizarre. I felt detached, almost calm at the center of it. As if I were watching myself on television.
I remember seeing the faces of my classmates, who stood with jaws dropped, wondering how I could possibly be the same kid who'd been discussing T.S. Eliot in honors English only yesterday. They looked terrified. Surely, I'd lost my mind.
The anger was familiar. I'd heard that voice many times before -- that confident, loud, intimidating voice that told you to stay very far away. I'd heard it directed at cars in traffic, at my neighbor when he tried to poison our dog, at anyone or anything that threatened our family. I'd even heard it directed at me a few times. It was my dad's voice. And here I was, having hated that voice for so many years, having resented the life that necessitated it, in the midst of the most terrifying situation of my life, and I was not afraid. The voice had immediately become my ally, just as it had been his.
And then, just like that, the fight was over, the bully left bleeding in the corner. I went home that afternoon and told my dad about the fight. How I'd screamed and wailed and jumped and beat the crap out of the headbanger. My dad took it all in with this enormous smile covering his leathery face. He was hanging on my every word, clarifying details, asking me, What then? What next? and Then what?
Never was my father prouder of me. Not because he wanted me to be a fighter, but because, unlike with report cards and essay contests, this was a success he'd contributed to. It was a sign -- perhaps the first of my entire life -- that there was a little bit of the old man in me after all.
Take care of the basics, the rest will follow
I spent the next few months as something of a local hero. High fives and back pats and comments in the hallways like "Damn, Einstein, you messed that dude up." Everyone had hated the headbanger.
And there was a certain poetic justice to his demise. At the end of the fight, he'd told a bunch of his cronies that he was planning to sic some big "skinhead" on me. Word of this got out, and a number of people took great exception to his, uh, social affiliations. He received death threats at his house and never came back to school again. Last I heard, he was working at Target.
The glory of my victory soon faded, but I noticed a subtle change in my standing -- surreptitious nods in the hall, a certain stoic deference from even the toughest kids in the school -- which seemed to ignore academic standing and future prospects and instead communicated, rather plainly, that I was a person who spoke their language. I was cool.
In the 15 years since that day, I've never once had to throw a punch again. I've backed down on a number of occasions, and have been ready to step outside on a few others. But cooler heads have always prevailed. I guess it's almost always the case that a difficult situation requires restraint, a soft word, diplomacy. But occasionally, it requires a left hook to the jaw. On that day, I learned that, if pressed, I could deliver that left hook. It's an important thing for a man to know.
I suppose that's something my dad always understood. It's funny: I've learned a lot from books in my life, things I resented my dad for not knowing. But as I've gotten older, I've realized that the most important things in life can't be memorized from a book. It wasn't that my dad didn't care about my grades; he was more concerned that I be a good person, with a square head on my shoulders. He was interested in basics.
Since that day with the bully, my relationship with my father has continued to mature and grow. Today, we're best friends. He's sick now, with a host of heart and liver problems that are partly the result of shooting heroin in his 20s. The doctors have said many times that he's going to die. But he just keeps fighting. Working out. Eating well. Trying to manage stress. Again, basics.
These days, Dad likes to say, "I could've been a contenda." What he doesn't realize is this: He was a contender. Is a contender. All that b.s. from his youth never mattered.
All that mattered was the attention, the advice, the jokes, the fact that he selflessly gave everything he had to help me solve whatever problem came up in my life.
Because it really is good advice, you know. Whether it's a bully, a tough career decision, a divorce, cancer: "Stay on your toes. Keep your elbows in. Don't be afraid. You may be smaller, but just gather your courage, and when you hit, hit hard."