|Maybe I needed a nun to teach me to stand up to bullies and fight like a Christian.|
Note—It was a spring day not unlike this one a long time ago. This reminiscence is adapted from a presentation at a Panel on Peace presented at what was then still the Congregational Unitarian Church of Woodstock on November 30, 2008. It may also be of interest in light of the current interest in bullying.
I pretty much defined the word dork. That was the preferred term, way back when, for guys who would now be called nerds or geeks. Back in the sixth grade at Eastridge Elementary School in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I was the pasty, pudgy kid with the cowlick and thick horn-rim glasses. A bookish kid with an irritating know-it-all attitude, I favored plaid shirts with—no kidding—pocket protectors and an assortment of leaking pens. And I stuffed that cowlick under a grey, broad-brimmed hat pinned up on one side with an Army insignia stolen from my Dad’s World War II uniform, an homage to my personal hero, Theodore Roosevelt. I told you I was a dork.
Then, as now, dorks have few friends. In fact in school I had exactly zero friends. I irritated just about everyone, including my teachers, mostly because I just would not shut up. Despite being kind of a large oaf, I naturally got picked on—a lot—on the playground. Teachers, who thought I was pretty much getting what I deserved anyway, made a point of being occupied elsewhere when I was getting my face washed with gravely snow, being tied up with the girls’ jump ropes, or having my pants pulled down.
I dealt with it by reading a lot, watching old movies on TV, and indulging in a rich, rich fantasy life. Mostly I read histories and biographies with a dose of hairy-chested fiction with historical themes, by which I mean I mostly read about war. I watched the old John Wayne war movies on TV re-enacting my father’s war, the war of all of the neighborhood fathers. And I, this lump of child who never could stand up the most pathetic playground bully, dreamed of being a hero, dreamed of glory.
One fine spring day it happened. Instead of just being teased and roughed up at recess, I was called out. In the time honored way school boys, I was formally challenged to a fight. The challenger was a grade up from me. I barely knew him. I am sure that he barely knew me. I have no memory of what perceived offense I committed against him. Indeed, there may have been none at all. He may have just needed to notch up a cheap and easy victory to establish himself in the school pecking order. I was a big kid, but he was bigger—a full head taller and maybe twenty pounds heavier.
The usual procedure was to meet out by the dumpsters behind the school for the fight. I told the kid I wouldn’t meet him. I didn’t have any reason to fight him. He taunted me and we were soon surrounded by a knot of others, all jeering. “Fine,” I said at last, “I’m not looking for a fight. But I cut across the football field every night on my way home. You can find me if you want.”
It was a fine, bright, sunny afternoon cold enough for heavy coats and breath that hung in visible clouds. Time moved like molasses as I crossed the wide school yard, the gravel parking lot, the cinder track. I carried my books in my dad’s old briefcase in one gloved hand, and my lunch box in the other. Ahead a dozen or so eager spectators gathered on the gridiron in anticipation of a fine beating. The kid stood apart, arms folded waiting my slow approach.
My heart boomed in my hollow chest, my stomach knotted, my breathing labored. I had never in my entire life known such abject terror. I walked directly up to my doom. “Ya gonna fight?” he asked.
“No,” I said and tried to move around him. His fist caught me by the side of the head before I ever saw it. My glasses and hat etched different arcs in the air as I stumbled and crumpled ripping a hole in the knee of my jeans. I was stunned, but oddly felt no pain. I could hear the cheering and yelling as if it came from far, far away. I groped for my glasses, hat, brief case and lunch box and rose unsteadily.
“Now,” the kid demanded. “No,” I said and tried to move forward. This time I saw the fist coming, square at my face. I could feel my lip split and the metallic taste of blood seep between my teeth and bathe my tongue. I stumbled backwards but kept my feet somehow. “Fight! Fight! Fight!” little mob chanted.
I clutched by bag and box tighter and pushed forward one more time. This time he hit me in the stomach, the weak spot of any fat kid. He hit me so hard that I turned a forward somersault in the air landing with a crashing thud on my back, all the wind knocked out of me. I lay stunned and gasping for a moment. The crowd grew quiet. The kid pushed at me with the toe of his boot, not kicking but just kind of nudging my body. I rose very slowly and gathered my things. I began walking again. Nobody stopped me. Nobody said a word.
By the time I walked the half mile or so home, I was strangely exhilarated, almost euphoric. I had not fought. They could not make me fight. But I had not given in. I kept getting back up. I imagined—foolishly as it turned out—that my bravery and determination had some how won the grudging respect of the kid and crowd. It turned out, they all just thought I was crazy and the legend of my dorkiness only grew. But for that one afternoon, I imagined something like glory.
My mother, of course, was horrified and was ready to march back to school to demand punishment of my tormentors until I literally threw myself in the door to prevent it. I didn’t try to tell her what happened. She would not have understood it. When my Dad came home from work, I did tell him, blurting it all out with excitement and even pride. He tried to understand and to be supportive, but I could tell that he would much rather that I just “stood up and fought back.” For him, there was greater honor in taking a licking in a fair fight than refraining from being goaded into one.
And I knew, when I thought about it laying in bed alone that night, that my hero Teddy Roosevelt, another fat, four-eyed, asthmatic outcast, would not have approved either. He would have—as he did—studied boxing for months and come back and given the miscreant the thrashing he so richly deserved. I knew I was supposed to be a failure. But still didn’t feel like one.
Where had this strange thing come from, this oddly prideful, totally unexpected pacifism?
Maybe I had just taken too literally to heart the Sunday School lessons about the Gentle Jesus in all of his brightly colored, lithographed glory in my weekly study tracts. Had I actually taken to heart the Master’s words—I tell you, don't resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also—spelled out in bright red letters in my very own King James Version of the Bible?
Of course as a good Christian boy, I knew that what ever good I might have done following the great preaching, I had washed away in my sinful pride. There were, after all, so many ways to be unworthy.
And could this one commandment overturn a lifetime of playing Davey Crocket, Hopalong Cassidy, Teddy Roosevelt himself, and gallant GI’s storming bloody beaches and imagining over and over the accolades and honors due a fighting hero? It seemed doubtful.
Time went by. I never stopped being the star of the violent movies that played in my head. But I never fought. And I never ceased to be a dork.
By the mid-Sixties, I was becoming aware of a new kind of hero, brought to me in grainy black and white by Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite—Martin Luther King and the marchers and protestors who stood up to dogs, batons, and fire hoses, singing hymns, turning cheeks and changing the world by just getting back up and walking again.
Later, when the time came, I chose peace over war. I resisted the Vietnam draft. I did my stint in prison. And I was as unfoundedly prideful over that as I had been on a cold and sunny football field more than a decade earlier.