I was in kindergarten when I got into my first fight. For a week straight another boy had tormented me about my shoes. Looking back, he had a pretty good point. When my sneakers finally gave out I was forced to wear an abomination known as saddle shoes- black and white leather monstrosities that were frequently featured as part of cheerleading costumes.
I have no idea where the shoes came from. My mother is far from a vicious person so I’m sure she had no desire to humiliate me, but we were poor and I can only assume that she had no other options.
Perhaps some cheerleader got booted from the squad and threw them out her car window in protest and disgust. Maybe my mother found them in the yard and said a quick prayer of thanks that she had a perfectly good pair of shoes for her eldest to wear to school. If the shoes were an answer to prayer, God really cares nothing about fashion (which would help explain why evangelists always have such bad suits).
However, the boy who sat across from me on that bus in rural West Virginia obviously cared deeply about fashion. I picture him today as a pretentious shoe salesman at some high-end men’s clothing store, turning up his nose in derision when anyone asks if they carry saddle shoes.
But at that time I pictured him quite differently- bloody and crying beneath the fury of my justice. Every day as his jibes intensified-
‘Timmy’s wearing girly shoes. Are you wearing panties too?’
I planned and plotted. I fumed and formulated. I sulked and schemed. And one day I acted. I told another boy that I was going to fight the little fashionista and within minutes it was the talk of the school. I learned, at that moment, one of the foundational truths of the universe- a spectacle offering the possibility of violence or humiliation draws people quicker than rotting carrion attracts vultures.
To my horror and growing dread the carrion seekers flocked in a roiling mass at the far end of the playground by the time I was dismissed for recess. Sammy Spiffy Shoes stood at the center of the loose throng, looking serious and terrifying.
We stood several paces apart staring at each other, not really sure what to do next. Silence descended over the crowd. My mouth felt sticky and dry and my heart was racing. Suddenly someone yelled ‘fight.’ My opponent and I rushed at each other. And just like that it was over.
My next memory is sitting on the ground listening to the crowd recount my humiliation as they were shooed away. My head was tucked between my knees as I sat watching drops of my blood fall in a steady stream from my split nose and drip audibly into a growing emerald pool. And this is one of those things that my parents failed to prepare me for. You see I wasn’t allowed to watch TV and my opponent had obviously been weaned on Bruce Lee movies. If I had been better educated I might have known that it is inadvisable to charge an opponent who is in the midst of performing the dreaded flying crane kick.
It is easy for me to smile about it now, but at the time it was utterly humiliating. I was so soundly beaten that I became the footnote of an instant playground legend. History is written by the conquerors and good old Sammy’s stock rose dramatically that day, his feet firmly set on a path to shoe sales glory. My stock, on the other hand, plummeted in true Black Friday fashion. From some of the girls I received sympathy, which compounded my embarrassment. From other boys I got derision and the reputation as an easy mark. This fight had been my first, but it was hardly my last.
In the years that followed, at the nearly dozen different schools I would attend, this episode was replayed a number of times. The cast of conquerors changed, but Tim the vanquished received numerous encores. I played France with glasses to many a crowd of vultures. There is a palpable essence that emanates from fear; a scent of docile terror that attracts bullies, who intent on masking their own feelings of inadequacy, follow it like sharks on the blood trail of a wounded fish. Much of my childhood was spent, like Nemo, ineffectually flapping my bum fin in a vain attempt to outrun the smell.
I spent my elementary and middle school years as the perpetual new kid, the outsider, making it difficult to conceal myself and my insecurities. I was also poor. It certainly didn’t help that my clothes were never quite right or that my teeth were too large for my face. Sometimes when I see pictures of myself from those years I’m tempted to bully me. That insecure smirk seems to invite it.
But what really provoked it was my implicit surrender. I took it. I didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t fight back. I tried to pretend it was part of a joke that I was in on. That initial fight convinced me, for many years to come, that I was unable to defend myself.
I never fully recovered from the humiliation of the incident that left me with a nearly manic aversion to confrontation. It also left me with a compulsion to hide my fear and weakness- from family, friends, or anyone else who might have helped me.
When someone beat me up or performed some act of ritual humiliation I laughed it off. If someone asked where the bruises came from or why my shirt was ripped, I lied. I made myself into a victim but protected that fact with fierce determination. No one could be allowed to see just how weak and cowardly I was.
But I always knew. I could pretend, but the truth was always there, taunting me. I tried reinventing myself over and over, through different types of music, fashion and friends. I buried myself in fantasy, imagining a world where others looked at me in admiration, not derision. I would sit for hours thinking up elaborate storylines that featured me as hero, rather than punch line.
Now if I’m going to be completely honest this is all a bit whiny. One might jump to the conclusion that I haven’t even revealed anything damaging and I’m already making excuses. That is not completely unfair. Whenever a person begins to assess bad choices and behavior, the temptation is to add ‘yes but,’ and thus begin down the road to rationalization. I don’t wish to journey there. I do think it is important to provide context for behavior. Without motivation tragedy becomes farce.
And part of what would lead me down the paths that I have chosen began on a schoolyard playground in rural West Virginia. But I must point out that I chose to fight Sammy Spiffy Shoes. It wasn’t his fault he was better at it than I (or that he had impeccable taste). And I dare not blame the string of bullies who followed. In the years that bind the humiliated kid to the divorced father trying to make sense of his regret, I would do much worse.