You always remember your first. Mine was a brawny six-year-old named Stuart.
The scourge of all the first-graders at Herbert Symonds Elementary, he’d had it in for me since the day our teacher, Mrs. Sehon, praised my reading ability in front of the entire class. Several weeks into the school year, I’d rarely made it through a day without being grabbed and slammed up against the lunchroom wall or wrestled into a headlock and forced to confess that yes, I was indeed a stinky poo-face. In our most recent encounter, he’d forced me to my knees and dragged my face along the chain-link fence that bordered the schoolyard while several of my classmates cheered him on.
To avoid being beaten and humiliated I’d developed a strategy that involved staying out of Stuart’s way as much as possible in the hope that he’d find someone else to pick on, and on those occasions when our paths did happen to cross, running as fast as possible in the other direction.
My mother, still the best male role model I’ve ever had, was fed up of me coming home with my school clothes ripped to shit. She knew that complaining to the principal would only make me look like a sissy, so she asked her boyfriend Jimmy to give me a few pointers.
I went over all the stuff he’d told me as I walked to school the following Monday. Forget all that John Wayne bullshit. Those wild, looping haymakers might look good in the movies, but they were useless in a real fight. You had to punch straight from your shoulder and get your weight behind it, goddamnit.
Stuart spotted me the minute I stepped onto the schoolyard. I could see the sneer curling at his lip as he headed toward me. My legs were trembling but I was determined to stand my ground. I swallowed hard and dug the toe of my sneaker into the asphalt.
The kids around us stepped out of the way as Stuart approached. They were grateful not to be targeted but more than willing to stick around for the show. I turned my body sideways, shifted my weight to my back foot, and curled my hand into a tight little fist. When bullyboy reached for the collar of my jacket, I stepped up and smashed my knuckles into his face.
I’d never punched anyone before. I didn’t know what to expect, but I suspected that despite Jimmy’s little pep talk, my fist was going to bounce off Stuart’s face like when bad guys tried to fight Superman, at which point he would proceed to actually kill me.
Everything that followed seemed to happen in slow motion. Stuart’s eyes opened wide as my punch landed. A look of fear and confusion spread across his face—it was like that on a bull when the matador drives the estoque between its shoulder blades. He raised a hand to his face and whimpered as blood began to spout from his nose. I waded through the pack of kids who’d gathered around us, their mouths hanging open in stunned little Os, headed up the school steps, and never looked back.
The moral of the story? Give a man a fish and someone will beat him up and take it. Teach your kids to fight, and they’ll never have to eat anybody’s shit.
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