I’m a big guy. Always have been, always will be. Even though I was a year younger than most of the kids in my classes, I was bigger than most of them. I can remember from an early age, first grade or thereabouts, my mother telling me that because I was such a big fella, it came with certain responsibilities. One of them included making sure I didn’t use my size to take advantage of other kids. So even when they picked on me, when they called me fat or a nerd or a fat nerd or whatever six-year-olds said to make other six-year-olds cry in the early 90s, I wouldn’t fight back. I was told they would get their comeuppance, and I needed to keep my nose clean or I’d wind up some sort of delinquent.
The last time I really got into a fight was in second grade, 1992. I still remember it: Nate was getting a little too full of himself during a blacktop football game, and when he turned his cockiness on me, I snapped. From an early age, I saw things pretty simply: there are rules, and you’re supposed to follow them. There are things you should and shouldn’t do, and if you do something you shouldn’t, you get punished. You shouldn’t brag, you shouldn’t boast, and most of all… you shouldn’t bully.
Nate was a big kid: one of the few in the class bigger than I was. I got in a few shots, and so did he, but we were second graders; we didn’t know what we were doing. We scuffled for what felt like all of two seconds before one of the outside supervisors separated us, and I got my first referral from Principal Craig. After that, of course, I realized I had done something wrong, and my mother’s voice kept ringing back into my ears: fight with your words, you’re stronger than you think, be careful, you don’t want to hurt anyone.I adopted an approach of near complete appeasement: I refused to fight back in any way, instead convincing myself that if I took the high road, eventually it would all work out well for me. So in 5th grade, when Robert socked me in the jaw during a football game, I walked away. In 7th grade, when other kids were roughing up my friends, I let them try to take me down instead (they couldn’t). In 12th grade, when someone showed me a picture of my younger sister at 13 and told me, grinning, that he’d like to have sex with her… I did nothing.
I still regret that last one. I’m sorry, Boog.
There was supposed to be a reward, remember. If I kept my nose clean, went to school, worked hard, made friends instead of enemies, it was all waiting for me. Now, I look around at 31 years old and see a world where corrupt, negligent, ignorant men who make a career out of making enemies and weaseling out of debt are given some of the highest seats of power in this country. In short, the bullies have won, and I can only wonder if it’s because too many kids like me were told to take the high road.
But in looking back to that drizzly day on the blacktop again, I realized something: big Nate never really came after me again. Sure, he’d join in to mock me when it was safe in a group of five or six or seven, but after that day in 1992 until the day I moved away in 1999, I don’t remember him ever antagonizing me directly ever again. Maybe, sometimes, when things just get too bad, all that’s needed is to stand up to the bully, and maybe get in a few awkward punches, and that will be enough to make him cave. Most bullies, after all, are weak on the inside and fear someone challenging their power.
Maybe that’s what we need right now. I’m not saying to punch, or do worse, to the bullies that are currently making life unbearable for so many in the world. But as I found out with big Nate, all it took was someone finally challenging them. Even though no blood was drawn, no bruises were raised, standing up to them sent a message.
So I’m sick of trying to take the high road, but I’m not going to wallow in the mud either. It may be tougher to go through the grass, but if you come through the grass with determination in your eyes, that bully in the mud will start running. I’m not going to let myself get punched, and I won’t do the punching, but I’ll have enough sense to duck. The bullies who killed our small towns with their tax cuts, who crippled our schools with their demands for more and more of our money, who are poisoning our air and water because they need to make just one more red cent… it’s time for someone, a whole lotta someones, to say we’re not going to take it anymore. We’re not going to give the bullies a bloody nose, and we’re not going to hurt them like they hurt us… we’ll do one better. We’ll let them know just how badly we could hurt them, and the fear of that is enough to fill the pants of any bully from sea to shining sea.