I am still haunted when I remember dragging David across the field at Dalhousie Elementary School. Maybe if I knew that he was doing okay, then I could finally let it go. But I don’t. The last time I remember seeing him was during grade 12 (or was that grade 11?) when we walked home together from Sir Winston Churchill High School. I tried to apologize then, but I didn’t know how… so I’m sure that “conversation” was more a series of short questions and grunts than a true attempt at dialogue.
Most of us know what it is like to be bullied. And if we’re honest, we probably know what it’s like to bully as well. I like to think that I was a nice kid, but when I consider the many times I taunted kids I cringe at the realization that I could be a real jerk sometimes.
I was rarely picked on during elementary school, though on a few occasions I was soundly pummelled (verbally and/or physically). My big brother, Paul, helped to mitigate the threat of bullying because, while not a big guy, he has always commanded a great deal of respect — and for good reason. He has that rare combination of intensity and patience that makes you stop and think, to look inside before you lash out. It’s no surprise that he became a firefighter, and I am quite certain that he’s a damn good one.
But back to my story… as puberty began to shape the social structure of our school, I somehow found myself at the top of the heap in grade 6. I was part of “the gang,” as our group of ten or so guys and a similar number of girls so arrogantly called ourselves. We took turns hosting house parties, supervised to various degrees depending on the parenting style of the host’s family, dancing to Queen, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Kim Carnes and Boney M, fuelled by an excess of soda pop and potato chips. We were the cool kids, and we made sure everyone else knew it. Especially the aforementioned David, who had unfortunately found himself at the other end of the popularity spectrum.
Initially, I tried to befriend David when he arrived in my grade 6 class as the new kid in school. If I had a few more years of maturity under my belt, I wouldn’t have taken his accusation that I was trying to copy his work — when in fact, he had asked to borrow my eraser during our first test of the year — so personally. I would have known that his lie must have come from a place of fear, from some darkness that I could not understand. But being a self-centred 11-year-old, I counted David’s accusation as a personal strike, and I never gave him a second chance.
Fast forward to the end of grade 7. My popularity — which had not been quite the same since I had “graduated,” along with my classmates from Dalhousie Elementary, into the more daunting world of H.D. Cartwright Junior High School — dropped like a stone into the depths of a murky sea. I still don’t know what happened, why I went from “stud” to “dud” in what felt like a matter of days (though, in hindsight, I know there were signs of my fading popularity from the moment I walked into that new school, into a whole new pecking order). In any case, any remaining hope of popularity came crumbling down on the day that David and I had “The Fight.”
David didn’t want to fight anymore than I did, but what were we to do? From the time he knocked on the door of the small room where I was practicing on the school band’s drum kit, where he rapidly spewed out a clearly scripted request for a fight (which I had to defer to the next day because I was expected at a family function that afternoon), to the moment we squared off a couple of blocks away from school to duke it out in front of a huge crowd of rabid kids, I am sure that David and I were the two most anxious people on the planet. On the evening between David’s request and The Fight, I was a ghost at what might otherwise have been a pleasant dinner with my large extended family. I was terrified, both for the potential of physical pain and the fear of what might happen if David beat me. I also carried a deep remorse for how I had bullied him over the previous two years, and I knew that deep down I didn’t want to beat him either. I hoped that he would cancel the fight, but he did not. So I showed up, and so did he, and we prepared to go at it.
Ignoring my so-called friends’ advice to let him take the first swing, I wasted no time lunging out at David when the crowd of kids indicated the fight was on. I hit him once in the face, probably not hard enough to hurt very much, but hard enough to say that if I was to go down, then I would go down swinging. And that was it. David’s fear must have been even greater than mine — which made sense given that I had not quite given up my tenuous grip on popularity, whereas he had already endured at least two years of bullying. So he ran toward the school and I chased him (with no intention of catching him… but I had to put on a show). It seemed like the whole school followed me, cheering me on, as David ran into the school. The remainder of that day is a blur, though I recall certain moments as if they happened yesterday.
I recall a small group of popular girls telling me that if the guys who had put David and I up to the fight did anything to me, the girls would disown them. Then I recall the fifteen minute walk home that felt like about fifteen hours, as I was taunted the whole way by a small group of guys who, until that day, I had considered to be friends. I am still thankful to Andreas, one of the few friends who stuck with me throughout my fall from grace, for walking home with me (even though his house was in the other direction) and acting as my protector. As each of the half-dozen or so boys asked me to fight them, Andreas became increasingly defensive until he finally said, “If any of you want a fight, I’ll take you on.” His size and relative popularity, coupled with a rare showing of intensity that betrayed his usually calm demeanour, ensured that I would make it home safely.
The remainder of grade 7, all of grade 8, and a portion of grade 9 were less than pleasant. I was thankful for both my atomic family — my parents and three siblings always providing me with plenty of love and support — and my extended family (I still count many of my cousins among my best friends). But school was a miserable place, and I was easily one of the least popular kids in my grade. I can still recall the leering voices calling “Stryder” whenever I walked by, thanks to the brand of shoes that my dad and I bought instead of the Nikes that I had longed for. But if it wasn’t the shoes, I know they would have picked something else to mock me about.
My popularity began to improve in grade 9, and thanks to one night when Andreas and I stumbled upon (and helped) a group of popular girls who had imbibed more than a few alcoholic beverages during an unsupervised sleepover — a whole nother story, as the saying goes — I regained a hint of the positive relationship that I had held with most of the girls prior to The Fight (despite their promise to the contrary, the girls also turned away from me after that fateful day when I lost by winning; they were never really mean to me, but within days of The Fight they appeared to forget that I had ever existed).
During my time in popularity purgatory, I made a number of new friends and learned that most of the “geeks” and “headbangers” in our school were actually nice people — in many cases more sure of their own abilities than those who defined themselves by the perception of others. I also learned a great deal about myself, and about what really mattered to me. My dad has said that he wonders if my friends in grade 7 saw a shift in me, a realization that I didn’t want to continue doing what it took to be popular, and that they voted me off the island before my personal growth could rub off on them. I don’t know if that was the case or not, but I like to think there is a grain of truth in his assessment. What I do know is that my expulsion from “the gang” was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, and my experience at both ends of the popularity spectrum helped to shape the person I would become. Though it was difficult at the time, I am thankful for everything I went through.
As for David? If you’re out there somewhere, I’d love to know that you’re doing okay. I could not possibly claim to understand the hell you went through as a kid, so I won’t try. Just know that the relatively small amount of bullying I endured was a small price to pay for the much greater wound that I inflicted on myself by being a bully in the first place. In hindsight, I guess it was a modest dose of karma, and a great learning experience for yours truly.