Jeff was a big kid; a barrel-chested, brutish, 6-foot- tall bearded bully with longish hair and a soiled trucker’s cap. Everyone at school knew him, and most avoided him. It wasn’t that he was really that tough, but he looked tough; he had an intimidating swagger about him.
I was a brilliant but unchallenged kid. I was fidgety, bored easily, a thinker with no known outlets for the thoughts. I was not tough at all, but I had a wicked mouth. It made perfect sense to me back then to, when insulted, insult back. “Fuck me? No, Fuck YOU!” was the key phrase in my oral repertoire. To the surprise of no one, I often found trouble in school. One Friday night at a kegger, Jeff zeroed in me. A historical footnote: this is a million years ago; kids settled their differences like real men – with fists. I don’t think anyone even considered the option of a weapon back in the day.
Jeff positioned me in the center of a ring of kids, and said he was going to beat me into a gelatinous goo. He spoke in a calm, controlled voice, low in timbre but matter-of-factly. There was an option available I could choose to avoid getting knocked into next Tuesday: bow down to him on my knees, and lick his boots, or get my ass kicked but good. I looked around at the circle of drunken, laughing, jeering kids, contemplated my options, and commenced to kneel down and lick those boots. I remember how they smelled; strong, sweaty leather, and because Jeff was a farm boy, they probably had pig shit or some other horrible substance on them. The crowd screamed its approval. After doing as I was instructed, Jeff then proceeded to do what he said he wouldn’t do – he laid me out anyway. More cheers. My friends didn’t intervene; I think they believed, in a way, I deserved it a little.
A few months later, during after-school football practice, one of the seniors walked up to me ( I was a player on the JV squad) and said, “We’re going to kill you when practice is done…”
I looked him directly in the eyes and replied, “Fuck you.”
The punishment delivered post-practice was impressive. It happened in the padded room where the wrestlers practiced. One by one, the seniors lined up and brought the pain; one, then another, and another. The coaches knew it was going to happen; they didn’t intervene. None of my friends stepped in. I think they believed, in a way, I deserved it a little. A teacher found me later, bloodied, literally hanging from my jock on a locker in an empty locker room, alone.
I could have blended in quietly, and laid low, and done my thing, and likely would not have found much trouble. Yet I practically begged those kids to pummel me mercilessly. I’ve always had trouble figuring out why I did that; why did I invite the pain? Why was I that kid? Who can blame my (awesome) friends, generally popular and untouched by the thugs? They were smart enough to shut up. I should have followed their lead.
I changed my tune after a few of those poundings. I taught myself how to protect my back. I fought back. I ran a lot less smack. Lo and behold, the beatings eventually ceased.
To this day, if I get cornered or punked, I have to call upon the restraint system. When it’s all eyes on me and I’m the butt of the joke, my reaction is silence, and walking away to be alone for a minute. I don’t have the luxury of fully enjoying the innocent and harmless practical joke, and that bothers me. I’m a fighter now, and I don’t back down. You will get challenged if you challenge me.
At my 10 year high school reunion, I saw Jeff, Mr. Bootlick, at a bar. He walked up to me, looked me up and down and proclaimed, “You got bigger…” I took a breath, used my brain, and decided against acting on my first impulse – to put him in the hospital for 6 months. It would have been easy.
I bought him a beer.