Thanks to James Fell for a wonderful guest post. It’s nice to have an XY perspective.
Often it’s the weird kids who get bullied, and I was weirder than most.
I said and did inappropriate things and was terrible at sports. I couldn’t even fit in with the smart kids because I wasn’t. I was a pariah who dressed funny.
I was also a coward.
All through school it was rare for me to have friends. I once tried to boost my popularity amongst my fellow fourth graders by biting a worm in half and eating it. This did not have the desired effect, and that half worm wriggled in my stomach for hours.
My status reached a low point in eighth grade. I was publicly ridiculed, shoved, kicked and spit upon. I did not fight back. I possessed a mental block when it came to self-defense. It was a combination of not wanting to get in trouble and fear of being punched in the face. For me, there was a third “F” in the flight or fight response, and that was “freeze.” When attacked, I just took it, hoping it would be minimal and praying for it to stop.
I was not a pacifist. I hated my tormentors. I fantasized about being a martial arts master who beat the crap out of them. Then the pretty girls would tell me I’m awesome.
It was ninth grade when I fought back.
During the eighth grade I’d finally made a good friend named Oliver. We lived on the same block but went to different schools, so he had no idea about my leprous social status. Conversely, Oliver was popular. He was big, strong, got good grades and was tough because he had three older brothers.
I think Oliver was willing to be my friend because I had a motorized go-cart.
Towards the end of eighth grade I asked my parents if I could move to Oliver’s school. My mother and stepfather were workaholics and didn’t know what was going on, but seemed to sense I needed this; they agreed.
My slate did not stay clean for long.
Oliver’s popularity did not trickle down. He often hung out with an aggressive group of boys and it wasn’t long before they realized I didn’t fit. I wasn’t athletic and didn’t give off an aura of “don’t mess with me.” I still exuded the target vibe.
Within six weeks everything had gone to hell.
In this group of boys my primary tormenter was Puke Face (not his real name). He was slightly shorter than me, but made up for it in meanness. He started elbowing me in the hallways and would sneak up and make rapid, threatening gestures causing me to flinch. Then he would laugh and extol to everyone in earshot about what a pussy I was.
I imagined him being run over by a bus.
One day, in gym class, he shoved me and I shoved back. I don’t know why I broke with my cowardly character, but instantly came to regret it because he challenged me to a fight on the spot. I walked away, face flushed, stomach in knots.
Word got out that I was chicken, and things went from bad to worse.
Puke Face continued to taunt me and challenge me to fights daily. Others jumped on the bandwagon. My pariah status gained steam. Oliver began to distance himself and I don’t blame him. Well, at the time I thought he was a disloyal bastard, but in hindsight I understand the juvenile desire to stay away from the lowest in the pecking order to preserve one’s own status.
After two weeks of this, Oliver staged an intervention. As we walked from the bus stop towards his house he said, “You have to fight him.”
“I … I just can’t.” This was the first time I’d ever been truly honest with my only friend. “I’m terrified of fighting. He’s going to kill me.”
“He’s not going to kill you,” Oliver said. “At worst you’ll get a bloody nose or black eye. Even if you lose it will make things better.” Then he didn’t give me any choice in the matter. He grabbed me by the sleeve. “Come on.”
Oliver took me into his backyard, grabbed two pairs of boxing gloves out of his parents’ garage and threw one set at me. “I’m teaching you to fight.”
And that’s what we did for the next three hours until I got called home for dinner. The next morning my right wrist ached from all the boxing practice, so I wrapped it in a tensor bandage. When Oliver met me at the bus stop he said, “Challenge him first thing. Don’t chicken out.”
The first class was art, and before the teacher arrived I walked up to Puke Face. “After school. The field.” It was all I trusted myself to say. I walked away then, my heart rate in the low 200s and great lakes forming in my armpits.
I didn’t hear a single word any teacher said that day, and my lunch went uneaten. I’d never been so afraid.
Three o’clock arrived and I realized that issuing the challenge early had been a mistake, as word got around and a crowd of thirty or so of my fellow students gathered in the field behind the school, ready to see blood. We had adults in the audience as well; the roof of the school was being redone and a dozen workmen sensed something was up and stopped their labors to bear witness to teenage combat.
Puke Face was chatting with another boy and seemed not the least bit frightened. Oliver gave me last-minute advice. “Keep the sun at your back. Remember the fake I showed you.” Then he gave me a gentle prod forward into the open space between my foe and I.
My opponent looked at the bandage on my wrist. “You’re not going to use that as some lame excuse when I kick your ass, are you?”
As much as I hated him, I didn’t feel it at the time. I was too busy thinking. All the tactics Oliver taught me ran through my mind, leaving no room for anger. I kept my hands up in a left-handed boxer pose and my chin tucked down. Puke Face and I circled, and then he threw a punch, I dodged my face back and it missed.
It was early November in Canada. We were having a mild autumn – snow hadn’t yet arrived, but due to the northern latitude the sun was already sinking toward the horizon. I kept circling until the sun was at my back, and struck with a slow and telegraphed roundhouse punch with my right hand. Puke Face accepted the decoy and blocked it. I drove up hard into his nose with my more powerful left, and it drew blood. I wanted to shout with joy.
The fight lasted about five minutes. There was no grappling, kicking, or rolling on the ground. It was a standup punching contest. I don’t know if Puke Face landed a single blow – I was undamaged – but I got in several hard hits. His white Billy Squire T-shirt was covered in blood. (Billy Squire? He sucks.)
“Hey, you in the white shirt,” one of the roof-workers called. “I think you should give up.”
Bless that man.
I used this as an opportunity to extricate myself from the fight by stepping back. “It’s over,” I said. “I won.” My innate cowardliness had returned. Puke Face may have been bleeding but appeared capable of continuing. In fact, he looked pissed off. I worried he was about to go berserker and turn the tables.
But he seemed willing to admit defeat, possibly because there was still a lot of blood coming from his nose. Then, in an act of chivalry I hadn’t known I possessed, I removed the tensor from my wrist and handed it to him as a peace offering to staunch the flow. He snatched it from me in an ungrateful manner and I left the field of battle with Oliver at my side, feeling victorious.
Unlike the movies, this didn’t suddenly skyrocket my popularity. The next morning I was at my locker and Peter, the smartest kid in the school who’d experienced his own share of bullying, said, “I heard you beat up [Puke Face]. Good job.” That was the only acknowledgement I got.
Then I went to class and saw my enemy stalking towards my desk, angrier than ever. His right eye was swollen and scraped, and all I could think of was, I don’t remember hitting him there.
“Rematch,” he said through clenched teeth. “After school.”
“Screw off. I proved my point.” A façade. I was just as terrified of a rematch. He seemed bent on murder. I was relieved when he didn’t push it.
I didn’t become popular; I just removed the target I’d worn most of my life. I got to spend the rest of the school year in relative peace, which was so much better than what I was used to.
For tenth grade I left Oliver and Puke Face and went back to my original-track for high school, and saw those jerks from my previous junior high. But either they picked up that something had changed, or the year away meant they’d lost interest in me.
For a brief time I became a hypocritical jackass. I made some new friends, and in an effort to impress them I bullied a smaller boy a couple of times. Adrian, I am sorry.
Thirty years later I’ve come to realize how much that fight was a catalyst. I don’t condone violence, but the experience taught me something about facing fear. To this day, I feel a level of fear about many things, like it’s encoded in my genes. Perhaps I have a mild anxiety disorder.
The fight was the first step in prompting me to achieve, and by that I mean I obsessed over not being a loser. I became a risk-taker and status-seeker. I’d spent so long at the bottom of the totem pole I wanted to put a buffer zone between it and I. Fear of being bullied pushed me to pursue education, career success, fitness and even celebrity. I slowly learned to face fear and take risks in order to achieve, because the terror of once again being that low-status boy with a target on his back was unthinkable.
I know. I was overcompensating.
Last year, at my 25th high school reunion, I saw some of the boys – now men – who had bullied me in seventh and eighth grade. Thanks to Facebook, many of my fellow grads knew about my successful career. I’d discovered exercise in a big way and become a well-known expert. It was the epitome of a cheesy movie cliché. The bullies had mostly gotten fat. They looked old and tired, whereas I was youthful and fit. One of the men, who I’d particularly hated, came up to speak with me, asking, “What are you up to these days?“
“I’m a fitness writer,” I said. I no longer hated him, but this doesn’t mean I liked him.
“Well, as you can see,” he patted his massive belly, “I am not.” I chuckled then excused myself.
My wife was at a friend’s birthday and some of the aforementioned pretty girls – now women – wanted to talk to me because they were fans of my writing. It was surreal, and shamefully, I reveled. Stupid.
Even more stupid is the fact that I reveled in the victory of beating another person bloody. In hindsight, I realize now that even though I faced him, I still took a coward’s way out. Mahatma Ghandi said, “Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.” And it was momentary, because I never lost the fear, and this lead to much focus on silly totem poles and pecking orders.
Thirty years ago there was an opportunity to be courageous. While there may be a time and place for violence, this wasn’t it. I could have taken a stand against such juvenile idiocy. I could have called out my tormentors for their immature need to establish their superiority via aggression. It would have meant beatings, but those can be more easily suffered when one’s cause is right. Fighting back against a tormentor didn’t mean my cause was right, it just meant I was willing to play his game.
Now I realize what a foolish game it is.
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James S. Fell, CSCS, is the co-founder of www.SixPackAbs.com. James is a nationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. His book, Lose It Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind is coming from Random House in fall, 2013.