Get on the bus
What you’re about to read is a confessional of sorts. No, I’m not going to tell you I was a childhood bully. But I am going to confess that I was not a pushover, either.
There were a group of kids from up the turnpike south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania that came from pretty rough backgrounds. Their homes were pushed up against a hill on a gravel driveway. Our bus stopped at that drive and every kid on the bus tensed up in preparation for what came next. The tough kids would climb on and instantly begin kicking kids out of their seats. They did this without words and without incident. We all just knew to move when the bullies got on board.
Of course it’s all part of the pecking order of being a kid. Another stop on our bus route included a trailer park near the Conestoga River. That’s where a kid named Rodney got on the bus. He had a strange condition in which his nose was turned up and was always filled with golden-green boogers. His nickname was Booger Nose for a good reason. When Rodney got on the bus you hoped and prayed he would not sit in your seat. Pretty much everyone on the bus paired up with someone else, anyone else, to avoid having to sit with Booger Nose.
There were one or two other girls we all tried to avoid as well. One was named Peggy. She was part of what the school called the Corps, and we call called them the Corps Kids. That was a euphemism for being, in that non-politically-correct term of the day, mentally retarded.
So the bus ride every day was a mix of social strata. There was jockeying for seats and pairing up with friends. There were mean words and actions toward children we did not like or wanted to avoid. All in all it was a core sample of the cruelties of childhood.
My mother was a school teacher who tutored kids with learning disabilities after school. Those kids would come to our home to get help with reading or math. After their lessons we would play together. There was never any problem with those kids. They became my friends. In fact I knew enough even at that tender age to recognize that I was not perfect either. One of my imaginary fears was that the rest of the world was actually playing along in liking me, or putting up with me. I know. Pretty sad fantasy huh? That’s how the mind sometimes works when you’re a kid.
But on balance life was manageable despite my hyper-sensitive emotional framework. I recognize now that some of my challenges were related to a form of attention disorder. I’d excel at some subjects and struggle with others. The only realm where I felt truly happy and engaged was while playing sports. That’s where creativity and activity mixed together in my head. I felt alive. Expressive. And fearless.
Then in 5th grade one of the bullies began to single me out for unwanted attention. He kicked over my instrument at the school bus stop and challenged me to fight. I was deathly afraid at first. Then a deep resolve began to build inside my head. I already got picked on at home in a pecking order that passed from my father to my brothers and on to me. I earned the nickname The Mink for the way I could erupt with spitting fury to any sort of transgression.
By 6th grade that determination to defend my honor and pride poured out in negative ways. I started fights on the playground even with friends. All it took was one unkind word and I’d be swinging away. Some fights I wound up getting whopped in the head but good. Other fights ended before they began. But a reputation was building.
That’s when another of the bullies started to target me for a fight. His name was Davey. He had pasty white skin and a set of lips that made him look like a vampire. His demeanor was viciously quiet and calculating. One day he walked up to me and said, “I hear you’re pretty tough. Meet me at the Media Heights pool at noon on Saturday. We’ll have a real fight.”
It was November so the Media Heights pool had no water in it. The idea of fighting deep down in that concrete pool was both frightening and thrilling. I did not fear Davey exactly. But I knew this was going to be somehow different.
Which meant that I started bragging about the fight that morning while playing basketball with friends. An older neighbor whose name was also Dave heard me and walked right over to me. “You’re not going to that pool,” he warned me. “I’m going in your place.”
I tried to protest. Dave looked me in the eye and said, “If you try to resist, I’ll kick your ass.”
Well, I liked this older friend Dave, but I knew he was kind of crazy. He played basketball like he was trying to kill a batch of bees. The idea of fighting him did not appeal to me at all.
So he went in my place. Half an hour later he arrived back at the basketball court. There was a bright red stream of blood all over the front of his shirt. “I busted his nose wide open,” he told us. Then pointing at me, he gave a stern warning. “He pulled a knife on me Cudworth. Now promise me you’re all done fighting. That’s not you, and you know it.”
And I can’t say that I never fought again. But the cycle was largely broken. From then on I only fought back in self-defense. I started no more fights to prove that I was somehow tougher than someone else.
People who believe in angels might think of them as gentle spirits looking out for our interests. I don’t quite believe in that kind of angel. I pretty much believe that what we conceive as angels are the badass forces in the universe willing to save our souls to make a very good point. The right kind of pride is that which does not need to prove itself by singling out or punishing others in any way. That does not mean we cannot be critical or fight in the name of justice. Quite the opposite. The right kind of pride demands that we call out wrongs where we see them. We all make mistakes sometimes in that category, but dealing with bullies in positive and not so positive ways requires that we learn lessons from both ends of the spectrum.
Christopher Cudworth is author of The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of positive survivorship through his wife’s cancer and other challenges. It is available on Amazon.com.