As an author and teacher, for over 30 years, I’m disappointed in where I see young people such as yourself taking the written word. Writing for “likes” online is not the same as writing because you actually have something to say.
I don’t need a response,
In fourth grade I was a chubby redheaded kid with 204 freckles and Bugs Bunny teeth. I was under-confident, an unexceptional student, and my main talent was that I could play a repertoire of Elvis hits on my armpit. By all accounts, I was a dweeb. But…
On the playground I was a tetherball god.
I don’t mean to sound cocky, but few could beat me. And believe me they tried. I played all the hall-of-famers. I sparred with Brad “Fingers” McPherson and cleaned his clock. I beat Ashley “Mankiller” Walker in triple overtime. I even played Mister Edmunds, our PE teacher. The EMTs said he’d eventually walk again.
My secret to tetherball was consistency. I was not a powerful player, and I wasn’t even all that good. But I never gave up. And even when I lost horribly, I would always shake my opponents’ hands, sportsmanlike, and say, “Hey, this was fun.”
And the heck of it is, I actually meant those words. Because I freaking loved tetherball.
Anyway, there was a boy in my grade named Jason Snipes. He was roughly the size of a municipal water tower with the amiable personality of a stepped-on snake.
He was your classic bully. He would steal your lunch money, coldcock any boy who wore short pants, and I’m pretty sure he started shaving at age 4.
He pulled some real stunts in his day. One time, for example, during a baseball game, Jason intentionally slid feet first into the second baseman’s leg and shattered the kid’s shin in three places.
Another time he was caught throwing claw hammers at sophomore football players. That’s right, hammers. But none of the sophomore boys dared go after him because Jason outweighed them by at least a hundred pounds.
I had my first run in with Jason in art class—of all places.
Our class was like most elementary school art classes wherein you had to wear one of your dad’s old button-downs as a smock to protect your clothes from splatters. Imagine 22 adorable fourth-graders running around wearing their dads’ oversized wardrobe. That was art class.
Jason, however, did not bring any of his father’s shirts to school. Truthfully, I’m not even sure Jason had a daddy.
So during one art period, I was minding my business, painting a landscape, when Jason shoved me. “Look what you did to my shirt, you little puke!” he shouted.
Jason’s clean T-shirt was streaked in blue tempera paint.
“I didn’t do that,” I said.
“No,” I insisted. “I haven’t used any blue paint, my painting is viridian and ochre.”
Jason always did have an ear for clever dialogue.
The next thing I knew, he had pushed me so hard that I fell into Sandra Danielson’s life-sized sculpture of Donny Osmond.
As I lay there, staring at the ceiling, Jason stood over me and delivered the classic, clichéd bully line from every B-movie you’ve ever seen.
“I’ll see YOU after school, dork.”
Cue Hitchcock music.
For the rest of the day, I was sick to my stomach. Jason Snipes was going to turn me into creamed chipped beef. I had visions of myself being ushered into the school cafeteria in a gurney, eating pureed sloppy Joes through a sippy straw.
So I did what any sane redhead would do. I faked the flu.
They sent me to the school nurse, who got out a thermometer and said, “Okay, hon. Let’s take your temperature.”
I opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue.
She snapped on a plastic glove and said, “No, sweetie. Your other end.”
I’m skipping over a lot of stuff here, but when the nurse discovered I wasn’t truly sick, the old woman came up with an idea for dealing with this bully. It was one of the most brilliant ideas of my fourth-grade career.
“Challenge him to a game of tetherball,” the nurse suggested.
Okay. So maybe it wasn’t such a brilliant idea. In fact, this idea would probably get me decapitated. But perhaps it was just dumb enough to work.
And so it was, after school Jason Snipes found me waiting by the tetherball pole. I was surrounded by a large crowd of students, school faculty, photojournalists, news choppers, and the 60 Minutes camera crew.
I challenged Jason publicly, and I implied that if he refused to play with me he was full of a substance plentiful in barnyards and chicken coops. To my surprise, he accepted.
Sadly, Jason beat me in tetherball pretty badly. I never even scored. Then he slugged me in the face as a parting gift.
And as much as I wanted this feel-good story to have a triumphant ending, that’s not how life works sometimes. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes life stinks. Sometimes total strangers criticize your work and actually take time to email you about it.
Even so, I’m not ashamed of how I behaved that afternoon. Because not only did I stand up against a bully, I did it confidently, and in a non-aggressive way. And I became a little bit stronger because of it.
Before Jason walked off, I stood beside that tetherball with a brand new black eye and a torn shirt, and I told him exactly what I’ll tell you, ma’am.
“Hey, this was fun.”