Douglas Stoodley was fuming.
Foam was coming from the corners of his mouth. That wasn’t just because he was angry though. It was because of his speech impediment. He sounded very much like an arabic-australian Donald Duck.
“Say it don’t spray it!” I taunted.
That was the last straw. His stained, yellow teeth grimaced through tight lips. “Bike racks after school dickhead!” he spat, storming away in a foamy wash of invective.
Ask any man alive to tell you of his first fight. It’s up there with virginity loss and getting your bumgina waxed in memory burn, and he’s sure to regale you to murderous boredom.
Not me though. I’ve never been in a fight.
Back in the schoolyard I thought of myself as a pacifist. Of course that was never true. I merely never used violence to ascend the hierarchy. Like everyone else, I tried to get one up on everyone in the playground, but I used my words. Shitty, primary-school, asshole teasing. I teased the fat kid. I annoyed the braces off the braces kid. I insulted the country boy cos he only had a shower once a week. Plus, he had a speech impediment. An easy target was poor Douglas Stoodley.
I was never willing to fight. I was, for all intents and purposes a coward. I ran away. I got pushed around, shoved, slapped, punched and kicked. In the balls too. But I never struck back. I was too scared.
Every ten year old who pushed me around seemed bigger, stronger, smarter. They seemed indefatigable. Willing to do whatever it took to beat me, stopping at nothing. I rarely felt real pain. Instead there was the perceived pain, intense, unending, leading to death. And second only to death was humiliation. Losing a fight seemed to be so humiliating as to be a death in itself.
A psychologist would say that my father was the violent and undefeatable monster that I projected onto every bully I faced. But that does’t change the fact that I was a pussy. And the fact that I have never had a fight haunts me still.
See, without being in a fight itself, every mundane act of non-physical violence was perceived as going to one place. Verbal, emotional, eye contact… it all led to physical violence, with humiliation and death at the end. I could not bring myself to risk that loss, even with my ongoing descent down the pecking order. There was no future past a fight, not one with me in it.
I had no idea of my own strength, my own power. I did not know the damage I could do with a strike to the nose or a front kick in the plexus. I always thought that a fight would be akin to those in a dream, muddy, slow, quicksand blows that the enemy would not only endure, but would gain strength from.
It took me years to learn to endure men, to discover that insults are often signs of affection. Stand-offs rarely ended in violence, and instead were used as gauge for your bluff tolerance. I could learn to enjoy hard hitting barbs and verbal violence without fear. And I started learning the art of physical violence myself through martial arts and combatives.
My schoolyard self never realised the respect that came from standing up for yourself. I never realised that everyone in the surrounding group took close note of the way in which a boy held himself in the pressure tank. It didn’t matter whether I won or lost. It was only that I held myself against another.
I never discovered the friendships that arrive out of fighting. Two boys who enter the arena with the fear of extermination in their blood are brothers on the other side. I only discovered that years afterward, when my first few confrontations ended to my surprise with man-hugs, beers and ongoing acquaintanceships.
Preventing boys from fighting is an atrocious side-effect of our risk-mitigating society. It is one thing for a bully to pick on someone weaker. It is another for two boys to decide their hierarchy on their own terms. To prevent this is to lessen the experience of being a boy, and later, that of being a man. I only wish I had been given better advice than “Hit first and hit hard.” I mean good advice and all, but not when it’s the ONLY advice.
When I advise my boys I will say:
- Don’t start fights, but if one gets started on you, fuck the kid up.
- Pain hurts, but only for a little while. Being the bottom of the pack hurts less, but for a lot, lot longer.
- Your peers will respect you when you stand up for yourself.
- Try to talk your way out of a fight. But when that doesn’t work, go hard.
- No matter how big they are, stand up. Bluff works wonders.
- While you are small, you will be hurt, but not much. Learn to fight now, while it doesn’t hurt so much, and when you are a man, you will not have to fight.
I wish I’d fought as a boy. To face an equal at that age didn’t mean permanent injury, disfigurement, lawsuits and possible death. Now, I doubt if I will ever be in a fight. But if it comes my way… I’m ready.
After taunting Douglas I went to class. The beautiful brunette next to me, Rebecca Morgan, asked if I was going to fight. I said hell no. Then she said the words I’ve remembered ever since.
“Are you a coward?”
I’d like to think… no. Not any more.