Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Bullies, Part I: The Bad Boys

The first bullies I ever knew were "the bad boys," and they were also the first gang I ever knew that had a name. Did they call themselves "the bad boys," or is that the name that we, their victims, gave them? I don't recall. We were all four or five at the time. The setting was nursery school. And several times a day, the teachers would gather us into "the octagon," an area on the floor marked with red tape, and we'd sit "Indian style" and discuss business. Sometimes we'd play games. For instance, we played this guessing game in which the child who was "it" would cover his eyes while another child, picked by the teacher, would introduce himself and try to disguise his voice. "It" was supposed to guess the identity of the speaker.

The first time we played this game, the teacher picked me to be "it". She was sitting in a chair. We kids were on the floor. I remember she called me over and told me to kneel in front of her and bury my face in her lap so I wouldn't be able to see the speaker. This was the 60s, and miniskirts were in. And I remember the feel of her pantyhose on my face -- I was surprised by their roughness -- and the slight give of her thighs under the weight of my head. This was my first erotic experience, or at least the first I remember. Did I somehow show my juvenile arousal? After my turn was over, the rest of the kids were told to simply stand with their back to the speaker and cover their eyes with their hands.

But it wasn't unusual for my experience to be different from that of the other children. I was an eccentric child, and as with all eccentrics, some differences were brought on by outside forces (I didn't ASK to bury my head in my teacher's lap) while others were purposeful, evoked from within. Some seemed in-between. For instance, why did I grow my hair long throughout my childhood? All the other boys had short hair, and I was horribly taunted. In third grade, Dawn Wilbur made up a song about me. I forget most of the lyrics, but one couplet rhymed, "his hair, it goes in a curl/which makes him look like a girl." Dawn was my best friend at the time, so I wonder why she made this up. In any case, the worst thing you could say about a boy back then was that he looked like a girl. I guess this was an ur-version of calling someone a faggot. We were more innocent back then.

In addition to my long hair, I wore orthopedic shoes. Do kids still wear orthopedic shoes? If they do, I bet nowadays they're stylish. But back then, they were shiny and black. Girls wore shiny black shoes. Boys wore sneakers. So in addition to "Why do you have such long hair?" I also got a lot of "Why do you wear those girl shoes?"

I guess there wasn't much I could have done about the shoes. But I could have gotten a hair cut. In fact, my mother offered to take me to the barber whenever I came home crying (another girly trait) over the names my schoolmates called me. But I always refused. I don't know why I refused. Some obstinacy deep inside me that I couldn't explain or fathom. Some sort of childish pride. It has stayed with me over the years, getting me into a lot of trouble -- but also saving my self-esteem.

Even when the grownups abused me, I refused to give in. Teachers would suggest, sometimes politely, sometimes not, that I should get a haircut. And I remember one time this old man came to our school to explain taxidermy. It must have been "Career Day," because he wasn't one of our regular teachers. Did someone really think many of us would one day be stuffing birds and squirrels? Probably the guy was one of the teacher's uncles or something. I imagine he was retired and someone had suggested that this might be a fun activity for him. Get him out of the house; let him share his knowledge with budding minds.

So there he was, seriously explaining how he stuffed the carcasses with sawdust and mounted them on little stands. I was fascinated with the glass eyes. He had a box full of hundreds of little glass eyes, all different colors and sizes for all the different kinds of animals. I couldn't imagine where he got these from. Was there actually a factory somewhere that manufactures fake eyes? I had to know, so when question and answer time came, I raised my hand high.

The old man looked at me, pausing for a second before speaking, and then said, "Yes? Boy? Girl? I don't know WHAT you are!" And the entire class burst into uproarious laughter. I don't remember what happened next. I must have blanked it out of my mind. But I hate that old man. To this day, thirty-some years later, I hate him, and I'd like to hunt him down in hell. "Why did you have to SAY that?" I would demand. "It was totally GRATUITOUS! What difference did it make what sex I was? Why couldn't you have just answered my QUESTION?"

By Junior High School, no one said I looked like a girl anymore. By then I had other, much worse problems. But the "girl" thing haunted me for years in elementary school. It started back in nursery school. Back in the days of the teacher's lap and "the bad boys." It started because I always sat on the girls' side of the octagon. Yes, the octagon had a girl's side and a boy's side. This segregation was created solely by the students. The teachers never suggested that we should divide ourselves up by gender; neither did they encourage us to mix. I don't remember them ever mentioning it one way or the other. But it was very important to us kids. On one side sat all the boys, "the bad boys" sitting together, surrounded on either side by regular (good?) boys. On the other side, sat the girls -- and me.

Why did I sit with the girls? It wasn't due to any gender confusion on my part. I've always known I was a boy. Just as years later, in college, when I had so many gay friends -- when my best friend was gay -- and everyone assumed I was gay too, I knew I was straight. Once, this girl asked me to write an article for the college student newspaper. I replied that I was flattered by the suggestion, but I wouldn't know what to write about. She suggested that I write about "being a gay student." I said that this would be an odd article for me to write, since I'm not gay. She flushed and apologized. Then she suggested that I write the article anyway. I almost took her up on the offer. It would have been unique. "Being A Gay Student -- The Straight Perspective."

We didn't know about such things in nursery school. But there I sat on the girls' side. This was partly due to the obstinate streak I mentioned. But mostly, it was because I wanted to sit next to Kate Justin, my best friend at the time. I liked her so much that I was willing to put up with all manner of taunts just so I could sit by her. Which has pretty much been my pattern in relationships. Even now, I take the subway to meet my wife after work every day. Even though this means going out of my way. It would be much easier to simply go home and meet her there, but then we wouldn't be able to ride the subway together. Back when I met her in college, before we were dating but when I was already smitten by her, I used to meet her after most of her classes. I knew I was a laughing stock -- "that guy who's always mooning around" -- but it was where I wanted to be, so it was where I was.

One day in nursery school, after an octagon session in which I'd been teased even more harshly than usual, I hid in the bathroom. And being in the bathroom made me have to pee for real, so I lifted the toilet seat and stood there, watching my urine create an arc. All of the sudden the door opened and "the bad boys" crowded into the bathroom with me, shutting the door behind them. One of them pushed me, and I remember being terrified that I would fall into the toilet bowl. I was always scared of this happening, even when no one was pushing me, and now it was really going to happen! Then they stopped pushing, and the sort of leader of "the bad boys," this pug-faced kid named Adam, said "watch this." Then he kneeled down behind me, grabbed my ass and tried to pry my ass-cheeks apart. God knows what he planned to do next, but he stopped because I screamed in pain and a teacher burst in. She shouted at them to get out and then picked me up in her arms and comforted me. This is the only time I ever remember a grownup being really helpful about the bully problem. My father tried to help a few years later when I was in elementary school and John Hollingsworth and Blake Simmons terrorized me every day. He tried, but it was too late. My childhood world had become too political by this time, and as with adult politics, there were no easy solutions.

But I'd like to pause now and remember that teacher carrying me in her arms. I think it was the same teacher who gave me an erotic thrill in the octagon. She was the answer to my every Oedipal prayer. She was lover; she was mother. And I wept as she carried me, as she held me. I wept there before the entire class, and I didn't care. I wasn't embarrassed to cry and be held by a teacher. I was five.

When I was eight, we moved to a new house just a few blocks from my school, so I could walk there by myself, lunchbox in hand, which made me feel like a grownup. But when I reached the halfway point, I would revert back to my true childish nature and balance on a high and narrow stretch of concrete that ran for a whole block, like a tiny wall. To one side lay the gutter, to the other the grass of several front yards – there was no sidewalk -- and it was easy to pretend that one was perched above an abyss; the slightest misstep meaning a plummet to instant death. I would pretend to be a tightrope walker or a pirate walking the plank. This ledge was a small, simple joy. It was a bridge from the comforting world of home, oatmeal or scrambled eggs in my mother's kitchen, to the more rigid world of school, arithmetic, desks, and cafeterias. Most important, it was mine. It was my bridge. It was my secret.

Until the day John Hollingsworth crept up behind me and pushed me off my wall. I had no idea he was there. One moment I was deep in reverie, my arms out at my sides like airplane wings, my eyes glassy, and the next moment I was toppled over on someone's lawn -- at least he didn't push me into the street! -- the corner of my lunchbox painfully jabbing into my leg. Then I saw John Hollingsworth run past me, laughing, and I realized he had pushed me. If the reader wishes, he may think of this action -- my plummet after John's push -- as a symbol of the fall from a childhood heaven into the hell of adult life, or it might be a shift from the soft glow of imagination to the harsh glare of reality.

At the time, I was puzzled. "The bad boys" were buried in my past, and the idea of "bully" was foreign to me. I stood up, brushed the grass of my pants, shrugged and went home. I probably wouldn't have given it another thought if John Hollingsworth hadn't spent the rest of the year terrorizing me. First John by himself; then he was joined by his larger, older, scarier friend, Blake Simmons. John and Blake used to wait for me every day after school. They rarely touched me -- they rarely actually "beat me up" -- but they threatened me with beatings, and I believed them capable of delivering on their threats. They taunted me; they teased me. Every once in a while, they would get physical. Once Blake punched me in the stomach. John picked me up and stuffed me in a garbage can. When I encountered them at the public pool, they dunked me and held my head under water just long enough to make me panic.

But the taunting was worse that the occasional push and shove. "We're going to beat the shit out of you," they would promise. And if case it's unclear why no grownup ever rescued me, I should explain that they always added "And if you tell your dad, if you tell ANYONE, we'll REALLY beat the shit out of you." I didn't know the difference between having the shit beaten out of me and REALLY having the shit beaten out of me, but both sounded bad, and the latter sounded worse. I wanted to keep the shit inside me. So I never told a soul.

I knew that every school day was bound to end in this torment. John and Blake never grew tired of it. Eventually it seemed like my fate. And as many fools have done in the past, I tried to cheat fate. I learned all my school's exits, and I tried to vary the one I took each day. I also learned several routes home, and I would take a different one, at random, each day, hoping to elude my tormentors. Sometimes I succeeded, arriving home with a final glance backward and a nervous slam of the screen door, but there were only so many exits and so many routes. Just as bacteria evolve adaptations to antibiotics, so John and Blake -- the viruses that had attached themselves to my life -- adapted to my tricks and the torment continued.

Then it got worse. They started violating our property. On Halloween, they kicked in the face of my Jack-o-lantern. They smashed a small window at the side of our house. They defaced my father's car with puerile, misspelled graffiti. I knew John and Blake committed these crimes, because they told me so themselves. They told me as boasts, not confessions. "And if you tell on us, we'll beat the shit out of you!"

But I did tell on them at last. I don't remember what final deed prompted this, but they did something that crossed a threshold, that toppled something over in my brain. Perhaps it wasn't a specific act. Perhaps it was merely that the accumulated suffering had reached a point where I could no longer control it, where I had to speak out, tell someone, damn the consequences. So I told my dad, and in a fury he called Mr. and Mrs. Hollinsworth and Mr. and Mrs. Simmons and demanded that their sons appear at our front door in twenty minutes or less. I think the Hollingsworths and the Simmons were used to these phone calls. In any case, they didn't object, and a few minutes later John and Blake were standing sheepishly in our living room, being lectured by my father.

Or at least that's how I imaged it. I didn't actually see it, because I was so scared of getting the shit beaten out me that I hid in the downstairs bathroom, where any dislodged shit would feel at home. Back in nursery school, the bathroom had left me vulnerable to "the bad boy's" attack. Now it saved me from these older bad boys. It was a home bathroom, not a school bathroom, and I was able to lock the door from within. To this day, when I visit my parents (who still live in that same house), that little cramped bathroom is a place of comfort for me.

Perched on the toilet, I was able to hear my father grilling the boys. "Marcus says you hit him, Blake," my father would say. And Blake would deny it. So my father would leave them in the living room and walk towards me. Then, standing outside the bathroom door, he would tell me to repeat my accusation. "He DID hit me," I would say. Then he would walk back to the bullies and confront them with, "He also says you stuffed him into garbage cans," and when they denied this charge, he would have to leave them again to check the facts with me. This back-and-forth got tiring eventually, so he just started yelling to me from the living room, and I started yelling back. Only I wasn't only yelling, I was sobbing. "Did they REALLY kick in our pumpkin, Marcus?" my dad would ask. "Y-y-y-yes!" I would stutter, "They DID! They D-d-d-DID! They TOLD me so themSELVES!" And then John and Blake got into the act, yelling back at me, "NO WE DIDN'T. YOU'RE LYING!"

What worried me the most was not being able to stop crying. All the time they had been tormenting me, I hadn't shed a single tear. Now I couldn't stop. I bawled and howled and choked for twenty minutes, while my father's interview with the boys continued. And I knew it would be all over the school tomorrow. I was at the age when boys were no longer supposed to be crybabies, and I was proving myself the biggest, blubberiest crybaby of them all.

John and Blake stopped bothering me after school. Of course, they did tell all the other kids how I had cried and refused to come out of the bathroom, and I was laughed at and called a crybaby for the next few years. So I learned to control my crying. And I didn't cry for years. And by the time I got to college, I found that I was unable to cry, not even when my grandmother died.

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