“Never start a fight; but if someone hits you, hit them back.”
This was the sage advice of my dad. My father – teacher, coach, former athlete and protector of his scrawnier friends, understood something about bullying and the way kids are: people are always going to try to walk all over you, and they’ll only go as far as you let them. The one message dad got through to me loud and clear was that few things are more important than standing up for yourself. As an adult, I can attest that my life can be divided in two categories: the times I stood up for myself, and the times I should have stood up for myself. When I stood my ground, it didn’t always work out as planned, but when I didn’t, the problems always seemed to grow exponentially.
Dad was a big fan of boxing. When I was a little girl, he would teach me how to box. He’d hold up his hands and tell me to make two short punches with my left hand and one big punch with my right. He’d make a sound to emulate what he wanted me to do: “bip.bip.POW!” I would respond enthusiastically. Bip.bip.POW! Bip.bip.POW! I’d get really into the POW, and dad would play along and act like I was beating him up. I had the form down and everything. I looked like a little Sugar Ray Leonard, pouncing around with my fists up.
When I was in 5th grade, I was in P.E., and we were running heats where two kids would pair off and run 50 yards. I was a pretty good runner, and always enjoyed doing the heats. One girl in particular, My Elementary School Nemesis*, was one hell of a runner – easily the fastest runner in the school, never mind the grade. On this particular day, the PE teacher decided to challenge her for fun, and they ran the heat together. As they set up, the rest of us picked partners to run against. I picked my friend Irene – we were pretty close in ability with running, so I figured it would be a good race. As Nemesis and the gym teacher took off, Irene and I waited in line to race.
Greg Jasperson* walked up to me and stuck his chin up. “Let me race Irene.”
I heard my dad’s voice in my head. I looked Greg in the eyes. “No.”
Greg looked at me, surprised. The skinny beanpole just told him no – unthinkable! Look, I was lanky, shy and awkward – an easy target to many. Kids like me just don’t say “no” to the tough kids. That’s not the way the world works.
“What did you say?” He stuck his face in mine. I felt my heart race. Oh no. I don’t want to fight. But I’m not going to let him tell me what to do. I kept eye contact with him. “I said no. I’m racing her. Wait your turn.”
In retrospect this seems like some Old Western where two people fight for someone’s honor, which is kind of hilarious. Especially since Irene could have easily kicked either of our asses if she wanted to. Me on the other hand? I was low-hanging gangly fruit and we both knew it. “You’re gonna let me race her.” He got even closer to me. The kids formed a wagon circle around us. I had no idea what they were saying or how they were reacting – my blood was pounding in my ears, and I could hear nothing other than Greg’s words. I could see nothing other than his eyes. I was petrified, because I knew neither of us would back down. I really didn’t want to fight. Where the hell is the teacher? “Wait your turn,” I repeated in a meek voice.
“Do you want to fight?”
By now I was completely shaking. I didn’t want anyone to see me shake, and I was angry with myself. I kept on thinking about my boxing lessons with my dad. Just imagine that I’m practicing with dad. Bip.bip.POW! Except instead of dad’s hands, I’m using this kid’s face. That’s all. You can do it. “Yeah.” Wait…what? Did I just say, “yeah” as in “yeah I want to fight?” What the hell is wrong with me? Then again, dad never taught me Fight Club etiquette beyond not talking about Fight Club. There are Rules of Engagement for these things, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I clenched my fists, and held them up to my face – Sugar Ray, bitches.
Greg swung at me and missed. Whew! I swung at him and missed. Gee maybe this fighting thing isn’t so ba-POW! He got me clear on the nose. It didn’t really hurt, but made my face feel fuzzy. I took a step back, and swayed a little, like one of those clown punching bags you can’t knock over. I got my bearings, swung again and landed a punch on his jaw. There was no strength behind it. Damn you, noodle arms! Finally, the gym teacher got to us and broke us up. He started yelling at us and pulled us aside. He sounded angry and panicked. “What happened? Can anyone tell me what happened?”
I scanned my classmates. They looked around in every direction except for the teacher. They all remained silent, even though they knew what happened. Yeah, I know, no one likes a rat, but damn it, I was pissed that no one would say anything. My emotions got the best of me, and my face got hot. I knew I was going to start crying. Damn! No! I had a bad habit of crying whenever my emotions hit an extreme, and it was embarrassing. I used to lie and say it was allergies, but no one ever believed that and they certainly wouldn’t believe it now. I really didn’t want to cry at that moment – I couldn’t show my weakness; I knew how these things went. I felt the tears stream down my face. The teacher pulled us away from the kids and asked us again what happened. I looked at Greg. Well, shit, I don’t want to be a rat either… we were both elusive. “I’m going to tell Mrs. Veruca* what happened, and Greg, you need to go to the Office right now.”
Being sent to the Office in elementary school was no different than being sent to the Ministry of Love, and it evoked the same reaction. After all, your Elementary School Principal is the Big Brother of your childhood.
I continued to cry. Oh, God, how embarrassing… I started thinking about what would happen next. I had been sent to the Principal’s office only once before, but it was standard protocol – she’ll talk to Greg, she’ll talk to me, she’ll talk to us together, then she’ll talk to our parents and we’ll both be in deep shit at home. The combined image of Dr. Savage (yes, that was her real name) and my mom made me start to heave-cry. The class started walking up to where we were to return to class. No! Give me a minute! Damn it!
It didn’t even matter. I could hear the chatter – I was the hot topic amongst my classmates. “Did you see how Greg beat up Anne-Marie?” “Anne-Marie got beat up!” “Greg beat her up and she cried!”
Jesus Christ, people, he only landed one punch, and my nose didn’t even bleed. See what crying does? Crying + Lanky Awkward kid = Beat up. It was totally not fair, and I cried even harder out of embarrassment and for not landing a better punch. The teacher snapped at me, telling me to calm down. That didn’t help things.
I headed back to class, listening to everyone talk about me as if I wasn’t there. In reality, my mind was elsewhere. I was waiting for my turn to be called into the principal’s office.
Oddly, it never came.
I suppose the gym teacher knew us for the last 6 years and recognized that one of us got into trouble often, and the other seldom got into trouble. Regardless, I was confused. I realized two things – it wasn’t fair to Greg that I didn’t get called into the office, and all that crying really made me look like a victim. I didn’t like how either felt.
When I walked home from school that day, I remained on edge. I assumed that the principal or someone would call my parents. My dad was a teacher and knew everyone, it seemed. Surely he would find out. It was far better for me to tell him right away. When he got home, I lowered my head. “Dad, I got into a fight today.”
He looked at me somewhat amused. “What happened?”
I told him the entire story concluding solemnly, “…I think the principal is going to call you.”
Well, mom is really more of the disciplinarian. When she got home, dad relayed the story to her. He closed up the story by referring to me as Little Tiger again. She looked at me. “Good for you. Do you want Chinese for dinner?”
Wait…what??? Everything I thought I knew about parental discipline was thrown out the window. Chinese? Little Tiger? I’m getting rewarded for punching someone?
We went to Hunan Garden and I devoured a Pupu Platter all by myself – while I didn’t understand what was going on, I wasn’t about to let it affect my appetite. Besides, Little Tiger’s gotta eat and put some meat on those noodles! My mom puffed on her cigarette and laid it all out for me. “You know what your father says – never start a fight; but if someone ever starts a fight with you, you have to defend yourself.”
“Besides…” she mashed out the cigarette, “this probably isn’t the last time someone picks a fight with you; you’re probably going to get into a lot of fights when you get older. ”
I paused mid-chew, a piece of fried shrimp hung out of my mouth. Huh?
I pictured a bigger version of me clawing, punching and pulling people’s hair in high school (at this point, my only reference for lady-fighting was soap operas). Eek. Well, at least I knew what to expect next time, I suppose…
I grabbed a spare rib off the pupu platter and gnawed away as I reflected on my day. I wondered what would have happened if I just let Greg race Irene. I wouldn’t have cried, I wouldn’t have been yelled at by the teacher, and I definitely wouldn’t have been teased by my classmates – well, not for that incident at least. At 5’5 and 70 pounds, they had quite an arsenal on me. And yet, as I sat and pondered at the Hunan Garden, I knew I would never have changed my decision. I couldn’t have. I realized at that moment if I hadn’t stood up for myself, I would have lost far more than a fistfight. My only regret was not clocking Greg a good one on the face. Now I proved everyone’s suspicions that I was a class-A weakling.
The pupus were devoured and the waiter gave us our fortune cookies with the check. I watched my dad, eagerly anticipating his go-to Chinese restaurant joke. He had the same schtick every time, and honestly? It never got old: he opened his fortune cookie and squinted down at the fortune. “Huh. It’s written in Chinese…” pause. “Oh! It’s upside down!” He flipped the fortune over and read it to us. Dad’s go-to fortune cookie joke was reassuring, letting me know these people were really my parents and I was not in some alternate reality where pod-parents were okay with Fight Club. I defended myself, and it was good that I did so – I just needed to be ready for next time.
When we arrived at home I went to my room and looked at myself in the mirror. Tomorrow seemed scary. Would the kids at school still insist I got beat up? Would Greg want to fight me again, now that we were sworn, fightin’ enemies?
I clenched my fists and held them up to my face. Bip.bip.POW! Bip.bip.POW!
Sugar Ray, bitches.