All my life I've known that I'm not the smartest, or the strongest, or even the fastest. And there are times when I've known that I am not smart enough, or strong enough, or fast enough to do what needs to be done.
But I've always made up for what I lack with guts. Fortitude. The willingness to get knocked down twice as many times as the other guy if that's what it takes to simply wear him down.
If it takes a year, takes no sleep, no family, no fun; takes feeding my body to itself, purpose clutched with a constant horrified white-knuckle tension; takes turning myself into a machine, I can do it. I can absolutely outlast any motherfucker on this Earth. I can go without air if I have to.
And this worked for a long time. It worked in a school system where I was (as were others in my situation) aggressively marginalized after the end of magnet programs in a district more concerned with high school football - and catering to a particular breed of Republican - than they were with funding special education programs. So the freaks, cripples, maladjusted geniuses, and retarded kids were more or less left to their own devices in regular school. Even the blind skills teacher was reduced to a "campus aide" because it was gambled that she would accept the pay cut and stay out of compassion.
Sometimes, taking a few laps around the campus with a bathroom pass tucked away, I would see her working with Jose or David, the blind kids. Jose was "legally blind", a phrase that terrified me until I learned what it really meant. He could see, sort of, with glasses that would have let a normal person look backwards in time, but ended up asking to be put in the blind skills class because he knew at 10 years old he would probably lose even that soon enough.
I would stop and watch sometimes if they were doing an obstacle course. The teacher would scatter things through the hallway, chairs and paperclips and coat racks and discarded hardcover books, and send the blind kids through it with a Hoover cane, helping them learn to navigate unknown environments, and identify things or find a seat without knowing exactly where it is.
She never said anything when I would stop to watch. But once, she asked me one time if I wanted to try it out. Hesitant, but curious, I did; and the laughing and jeering of blind kids when I walked into a desk have stayed with me ever since. I never went back, but I wish I had.
One of the primary, if not the number one, benefits of being a "good kid" was being able to lie and get away with it. It was startling to me even then how closely conflated good grades and good behavior were held to be by teachers and administrators. I also learned very early that bullies always seemed to know how to beat the system, and it came to me during the middle of a truly disgusting set of weeks spent as the primary target of an inveterate bully that he was simply too good at working the system simply because he had more experience with it than I did.
Now, this is not the kind of bully we have to deal with in the age of Zero Tolerance policies, the kind that have a history of saying mean things on Facebook. This is the classic steal your shit, piss on your textbooks, wait for you on the walk home and rip your underwear out of your pants and shove it in your mouth type of bully.
I was new in school, and one of the very few kids who hadn't grown up together, from pre-school on up. I was fresh meat in one sense, and simply outside the regular pecking order in general; two things sure to attract the attention of bullies.
Life trying to avoid Robert, or ignore Robert, was several weeks of steadily intensifying Hell. Like I said, he was the classic bully, a pubescent sociopath (this later confirmed by a court psychiatrist after he finally went to jail, years later) with see-no-evil parents and a key position on the local peewee football team.
After things started getting physical, I tried talking to my teacher about it. He suggested I was just having trouble adjusting, and that maybe I could try to play more with other kids outside of school to get to know them better. He also said that if I wanted to talk to Mrs. Moore, the guidance counselor, that he could write me a slip to go see her any time I felt like I needed it.
I showed him the dog shit smeared inside my backpack, and he suggested that I be more careful with my things, and try to wash it out before I came to school the next day.
It went from dog shit to sabotaging my bike to chest bumps to more, ever escalating. It was when things got physical that I finally told my mom about it. She asked if I thought it would help if she went to the school. I told her I didn't think so, and I told her I was probably going to get in trouble at school because I was going to fight him.
She asked how big he was, and when I told her, she told me I was probably going to lose. I thought about it for three weeks, and did it anyway.
One day he enlisted a minion to sneak up behind me, crouch down, and act as a fulcrum while he shoved be backwards. The obvious happened, and when I got up, I set my bag down and rushed him.
It wasn't anything particularly effective, but it shocked him wide-eyed. I took a big step, planted both hands square in his chest and knocked him on his ass, almost certainly because it wasn't expected. He was so shocked, in fact, that he didn't even think to get up right away.
I had come up with a hundred great lines to drop on him in this moment, rehearsing it carefully in my head, but when it came time, all I could do was struggle to spit out a "Fuck you," and hope my voice wasn't as wobbly as it sounded to my own ears.
That day after school, I left my bike in the rack and climbed over the back fence instead. Robert lived three blocks behind the school, but had to walk all the way around the campus to get there, because there wasn't a back gate.
I sat behind a retaining wall a block and a half from his house, and when he walked by, punched him in the back of the head as hard as I could. It wasn't very hard, or at least, not hard enough. Because when he turned around and figured out who it was, he stuck me in the face with a pretty solid jab.
I knew I was bleeding, and I could feel the split from the inside with the tip of my tongue. I also figured figured that if I ran, it would be a waste of a busted lip. So, I did the only thing I could think to do, which was grab him by the neck.
I won't pretend to remember the rest of the details, but I do know that it all ended up with me kneeling on his chest with both hands on his throat, his arms trapped under my legs, breathing hard and telling myself that if I banged his head on the sidewalk like I wanted to, it would probably kill him.
He was bawling, rolling his shoulders weakly like a wrestler trying to sell a pin, and trying to wrench his neck out of my hands by turning his head.
I wanted to bang his head against the concrete, pure animal urge to break his skull, adrenaline surging, months of bottled up impotent fury coming out in my sweat. But his crying meant I'd won, and for better or worse - the blood on my shirtfront said "leaning to worse" - I'd done what I'd set out to do.
I settled for spitting a mouthful of blood into his face, and croaking out the first thing I'd said since the opening blows - another "fuck you".
Walking home with my shirt balled up against my mouth, I wondered if I'd done the right thing. It was a long walk home, and I only realized after I got there that I'd forgotten my bike. For some reason, I was more worried about the bike than anything else, and it was the first thing I blurted out when I walked in the door, covered in blood - "I forgot my bike! I forgot my bike and beat up Robert!"
I expected my mom to be mad. Instead, she checked my teeth for any that were likely to come out, put me in the shower, iced my face, and asked what I wanted for dinner.
She gave me a hug when I started crying, and told me I wasn't in trouble at home at least, but that I might have to deal with consequences. She told me she didn't know what would happen next. Maybe school trouble, maybe police, but that no matter what, I wasn't in trouble at home.
Dad didn't say much when he got home, but in those days he wasn't in the habit of saying much unless it was at the top of his lungs.
Robert didn't come to school for a week, and when he did, there were still green-yellow ghosts of a chokehold on his neck. There was never a whisper from the school, let alone the police. I suspect that either he was too ashamed to admit it had been me, or his parents figured he'd finally fucked up big time. Maybe both.
I didn't have any more problems with bullies after that. Not for long, anyway, because I never let it get that bad again. New year, new school, new kid. New bullies.
The occasional fat lip or shiner was worth it to me, a few days of swelling and tenderness, maybe a trip to the principal's office, in exchange for not living in fear.