That’s me. Back row in the middle. Me and the boys. The gang.
Real tough guys, we was, although you might think differently after you hear this story. One more trip in the way-back machine. This time, it’s my freshman year in college. Let’s set the scene.
I had just turned 18 and I’m off to school to set the course for the rest of my life. At least that’s the theory. To illustrate how far off base that concept can be, the major I chose was Agronomy, the study soil and crop science, with the idea that I was going to be a farmer. About halfway through my freshman year it dawned on me that I didn’t come from a farming family, had no prospects of ever owning a farm, and I was afraid of cows.
I didn’t quite have my act together at that point.
Fortunately, the administrators of higher education understand that 18 year-olds can’t be left completely on their own. It would be better to let them get acclimated to this new semi-adult world by living in a dorm under the supervision of 20 year-old Resident Advisor.
The dorm. Fifty guys on one floor, sharing one common area with one television, and two giant shower and toilet rooms. That took some getting used to. We were supposed to be students, but it was more like one, long endless party. It’s not as fun as it sounds, especially if you not a big partier. I wasn’t. I loosened up a little in my later years in school, but as a freshman, I was pretty much intimidated by everything. Which probably explains my Lord of the Flies moment. Except that it was much more than a moment.
I kept to myself as much as I could, but I had a tormentor. He wasn’t the biggest guy on the floor. He wasn’t the meanest. He wasn’t the funniest. He was just a guy with a permanent smirk. I never would have even noticed him if he hadn’t started calling me names.
Now some guys I know would have taken a stand right there. Smacked him down and put an end to the insults. But besides a few harmless tussles with friends when I was growing up, I’ve never really been a fighting guy. So sticks and stones. I did my best to ignore him.
Which, of course, meant that he never let up. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. I acted like it didn’t bother me, but it bothered me a lot.
Then one weekend, a friend came up to see me. This friend, being as immature as I was, brought with him a rubber monster mask. Why? Who knows. We went out with our other friends, one of us wearing the mask, just to see if anybody noticed. As college hijinks goes, it was pretty lame.
Later that evening we were back at the dorm. I was wearing the mask and roaming the halls, just for kicks. He sees me, and even with the mask on, he knows its me.
“Hey, that’s a big improvement on your looks,” he said. Then the names.
At this point, I need to explain a guy thing. When guys get together, they will sometimes play fight. Kind of shadow box, throwing fake punches that are not intended to land. It’s all just posturing and it’s always done in fun.
So I’m wearing the mask and he’s calling me names.
I start to shadow box. Slow motion punches in the air. He does the same. Nothing’s going to come of this.
But he keeps calling me names. Mean names. Hurtful names. Really bad names.
And that’s it.
I flick a jab and hit him in the face. Then another one. He’s stunned. I hit him again before he hits back. He lands a punch to the side of my head. Then he clinches so I can’t hit him again. We wrestle around a little, and then both of us decide we don’t want it to go any further. We separate, breathing hard. His lip is bleeding.
He is still stunned. He’s angry. Partly because I hit him, but I think more because I refused to play his game by his rules. He was a bully and I’d had enough.
It’s an embarrassing story, though. I shouldn’t have let it get to the point that I lost my cool and started throwing punches. I should have found a better way to defuse the situation earlier.
I still encounter bullies. We all do. The person who is so insecure that they think they build themselves up by tearing other people down. Or are too scared to let someone else do something their own way. We just need to figure out how to deal with them in a civilized way.
After my freshman year, things settled down. I found a bit more confidence and some really good friends. The tough guys in the photo? Yeah, we’re all posers, as if you couldn’t tell.
I think about my tormentor from time to time. Wonder if he ever felt bad for being a bully. Wonder if he ever changed. People change. I’ve changed. I hope he has, too.
copyright 2017, joseph e bird