The day I got suspended from high school was one of the best days of my life. The weeks leading up to it, on the other hand, were miserable. Fear. Sleepless nights. Dread. Depression.
And while I’d never wish my situation on another, it taught me some incredible lessons about facing fear.
Two Bullies, One Victim
I’ve always been an easy-going, “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along” kind of guy. I’m also a foot taller than most. Both have served me well in my adult life, but in the twisted world of adolescence, this particular combination made me a target. Bullies figure that if they can push the big kid around then they’ll move a rung or two up the tough-guy ladder.
This is the story of the day I finally had enough.
Daryl and Jeff were both shorter than most. Probably around 5’ 5”. Daryl was stocky and muscular. Jeff not so much. Maybe they had short man syndrome, I don’t know. But both were aggressive. And both had it in for me.
The story begins in study hall at Pekin High School. 1979. I was six foot tall and probably tipped the scale at a buck sixty. I was hunched over a desk made for someone six inches shorter than me, engrossed in reading ‘Salem’s Lot.
Crack! A searing pain on the back of my skull.
I looked up to see Daryl walking away, giggling, and rubbing his knuckles.
The kids around me laughed. I didn’t know how to react, so I laughed along. But I kept my eye on Daryl. He high-fived Jeff and took his seat. I went back to reading.
I noticed movement above my book. I glanced up to see Jeff walk past me carrying pencils to be sharpened in the back of the room. I kept an eye on him as he walked by. Nothing. I went back to my book.
Jeff busted my skull on his way back to his desk. It hurt like crazy. I looked behind me to see if the teacher had witnessed what had just taken place. No such luck. She was engrossed in her own book, at ease and ignorant of the assault.
From then on, reading in study hall was impossible. I could never fully relax. Couldn’t get caught up in King’s story of vampires descending on the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot. I had predators of my own to contend with.
Uncle Rodge Gives Me a Pep Talk
When I told Mom what was going on at school, she knew I needed something she couldn’t provide. Something no woman could give me. Boys need a man to usher them into manhood.
So, she called Uncle Rodge.
Thirty minutes later, Uncle Rodge walked into my room. Mom left us alone.
“So, Greg, what’s the que los problemos?”
Uncle Rodge took a year of Spanish in high school and liked to pepper his speech with Spanish phrases. More often than not, his phrases were grammatically incorrect.
I opened up and told him the whole story.
“So…having trouble with bullies at la escuela.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Why don’t you hit them back?”
I stammered. “I’m…well, I don’t want…I mean…”
“Scared to get hit?”
“Never been in a fight?”
“No, not really. Well, Jim Durbin and I used to fight some growing up, but nothing serious.” Jim was my best buddy who lived across the street.
“Greg…I want you to listen to me very carefully. No amount of pain of getting hit compares to the pain you’re going through right now.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to try to keep from crying. I did not want to lose it in front of Uncle Rodge. He saw my pain and softened.
“You losing sleep?”
“Hate to go to school?”
“Um hmm.” Tears were flowing freely now.
“It’s not worth it, Greg. Listen, I was about your age when I got in a fight. Same kind of situation. A kid was giving me a hard time. I finally had enough and let him have it.”
“What happened? Did you win?”
“Can’t remember. But it didn’t matter, because he never bothered me again.” He paused. “I guess I did win.”
“Yeah, but you were a boxer.” Uncle Rodge had been a Golden Glove boxer in his younger years.
“Not then, I wasn’t.”
I shook my head. “Still…”
He paused. “You know what the best part of it was?”
“Word spread. See, bullies look for guys who don’t fight back. Makes them look tough to pick on a kid who won’t do anything about it. Most of them don’t actually want to get into a fight. The day I fought back was the day everyone learned that you don’t mess around with Hoover. Never had another problem. With that guy or any others.”
The thought of putting a permanent end to all of this sounded really good. But still, there was the problem of what it would take.
“So, what should I do?”
He smiled. “When you walk into study hall tomorrow, I want you to set down your books and walk up to the biggest of the two guys.”
“The biggest?” I swallowed hard.
“Yes. The biggest. If you go after the smaller guy then the bigger kid might come after you too. But if you stand up to the bigger of the two, it’ll probably scare the little one off.”
Made sense. But I still didn’t like the plan. It meant I’d have to stand up to Daryl.
“Then what?” I asked.
“Then…” he gritted his teeth. “…you hit him…hard. As hard as you can. Then hit him again.”
“Isn’t once enough?” As odd as it may sound, I was concerned for Daryl. I didn’t want to actually hurt him. I just wanted this to end.
“Probably not. The first will take him by surprise. But then he’ll come after you. You’ve got to hit him again before he gets that chance.”
“Uh…where do I hit him?”
“Right here.” He placed his meaty fist up to my nose and mouth. “That’s the best spot because you catch his nose and mouth with one punch.”
“And that’s good?”
“If a guy gets hit in the nose, his eyes start to water. He can’t see straight with water in his eyes. If he can’t see straight, you’ve got an advantage.” This was a Golden Glove boxer talking. “And if the punch also catches his mouth then his lip might bleed. He may panic a bit.”
The thought of making Daryl bleed was unsettling. Uncle Rodge must’ve read my thoughts.
“Busted lips heal quickly. It’s no big deal. He’ll be fine.”
I considered everything he was telling me. “If I get in a fight in school, I’ll get suspended.”
“Yep.” He looked at me and smiled. “You think it’ll be worth it?”
I looked at my hands in my lap. Yes, I thought. Oh, yes.
I looked up at Uncle Rodge. “But….what’s it feel like? You know…to get hit?”
“Honestly, you probably won’t feel it at the time. You’ll feel it the next day for sure, but by then it’ll all be over.” He grinned. “You might get a good shiner out of it too.” He leaned toward me. “Girls kind of like that.”
“Yeah.” He softened. “Look Greg…I know you’re scared. No one wants to get into a fight. Not good kids like you, anyway. But sometimes, good kids need to stand up for themselves to make bad kids stand down. It’s not fun, but sometimes it’s necessary. Only you can decide if this is one of those times.”
I’d already made up my mind.
Fight Day: The Call My Mom Got at Work
About 2 o’clock the next day, Mom got a call at work.
“Is this Mrs. Lhamon?”
“This is Mr. Thomas. I’m the principal at Pekin High School. I have your son here in my office.”
“Oh?” she replied.
“He was involved in a fight here today.”
The way Mom tells the story, she covered the mouthpiece of the phone and silently screamed, “YES!” She might’ve pumped her fist, too.
“As you know, Mrs. Lhamon, we cannot have kids fighting in school.”
“I understand, Mr. Thomas. But he had my permission.”
He stammered. “Your permission?”
“Yes. A couple of boys had been bothering him for weeks now. He was losing sleep, didn’t want to go to school. So, he had my permission to take care of the situation.”
I bet this was a first for Mr. Thomas.
“Well, Mrs. Lhamon, you know he could’ve come and told us.”
“Yes, he could’ve.” Mom paused in order to drive her next point home. “But you and I both know that wouldn’t have solved his problem, don’t we?”
Mr. Thomas went silent. Several seconds passed. “Yes. I suppose we do. But you know we have rules here. I have to suspend Greg for three days.”
“I understand, Mr. Thomas. Greg is prepared to take his punishment. Besides, I’ve got some work around the house that needs to be done. Greg can get a lot done in three days.”
My mom is the greatest.
One Hour Earlier
I wish I could say I walked into study hall that day like that part in all the Rocky movies when Adrian gives Rocky the pep talk and the Tom Conti music kicks in and then Daryl got up in my face and said, “I’m going to bust you up” and I looked right back at him with the Eye of the Tiger and said, “Go for it.”
That would’ve been cool.
Instead, I felt like the fat kid in that pie-eating contest in Stand by Me whose stomach was gurgling because he’d just downed a quart of castor oil and a raw egg and was about to spew the room with blueberry projectile vomit.
Daryl and Jeff were waiting for me at the door of study hall. They both shoved me as I walked past them.
I went to my desk and set down my books. I turned to see Daryl standing there with a big grin. He’d followed me. Any glimmer of hope I had that this could be resolved peacefully had just disappeared.
This was it. This was my moment. This was when my nightmare would end.
Daryl turned to look at Jeff who was walking up to the two of us. Jeff mocked me in some way, but I couldn’t tell you what he said. Daryl laughed and turned back to me.
And that’s when I nailed him. A right hook across his jaw.
The fight lasted all of 8 seconds. I don’t remember details, just snapshots. I recall Daryl falling back across a desk from the blow. He scrambled to his feet, not exactly sure what had just happened. He came toward me and I hit him again. He may have landed a punch or two but I didn’t feel it (Uncle Rodge had been right about that.).
The teacher stepped between us and ordered me to the principal’s office. She would send Daryl a few minutes later.
The walk to Mr. Thomas’s office was triumphant. If my life was a movie, this is where the Rocky theme would’ve kicked in. “Gonna fly now!” I was flying. Practically levitating.
I passed a cute girl in the hallway. “Howdy, ma’am. A lovely day, isn’t it? Care to take a stroll with me to the foot bridge?” If I’d been wearing one, I would’ve tipped my hat to her.
I walked into the principal’s office, tussled and unkempt. “Excuse me…Mrs. Potter sent me here.”
“Why?” the secretary asked.
“I was in a fight,” I replied with a marked lilt in my voice.
“Have a seat.”
A few minutes later, Daryl walked in looking far worse than me.
“Sit there next to him. Mr. Thomas will see you in a minute.” She went off to tell the principal about the two delinquents in the waiting area.
Daryl and I just sat there. For the first time in months, I had no fear of him. In a remarkable change of roles, he was the one who didn’t want to make eye contact with me.
After several minutes, he broke the silence, “What are we going to tell him?”
At that moment, I knew it was over. I’d never have problems with him again. Or Jeff.
I smiled. Not a gloating smile. Just confident.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m going to tell him the truth.”
What Does All this Mean?
I want to set aside the subject of bullying for now. It used to be a simpler topic to address. I’m not sure it still is. Especially when you consider that 30% of students who have been bullied confessed that they have taken weapons to school in response. It’s a different world today.
Instead, let’s talk about what my story can teach us about facing our fears:
Fear is crippling.
The weeks leading up to the day I finally took action were torturous. I couldn’t focus. It didn’t matter to whom I was talking, I was never fully present. I was perpetually distracted, always looking over my shoulder. Fear is incapacitating. If not addressed, it can adversely affect your relationships and even your health. It is a terrible way to live.
The will to act is the first step in overcoming fear.
This is huge. Once I decided to take action, my thoughts switched from stewing on the problem to planning the solution. Whatever you’re facing right now, you can overcome it, but you must first decide to do something about it. Most of the weight of your fear will disappear once you muster up the courage to act.
More often than not, the solution hurts less than your fear.
Uncle Rodge told me, “No amount of pain of getting hit compares to the pain you’re going through right now.” He was dead right. Once I took action, the fear lifted immediately.
Freedom from fear is possible, but it often exists on the other side of temporary pain.
As I high-stepped my way to the principal’s office I was overcome with joy…triumphant, all-encompassing joy. I thought, “Why did I wait so long to stand up to these guys?” You too can experience freedom from fear, but it might mean taking a punch in the process. Do it anyway. It’ll be worth it.
Courage is like a muscle…the more you work it, the stronger it gets.
Shortly after the fight, I greeted a cute girl in the hallway with a boldness that was atypical for me during my high school years. The truth is, when you overcome a fear in one area of life it makes you more courageous in other areas.
Sometimes the scariest options are the ones with the best results.
Uncle Rodge told me to stand up to the bigger of the two guys. In retrospect, it was the best choice, because it scared off both bullies with one fight. What is your biggest fear? Chase it first. Burn your ships. Your smaller fears will perish in the flames as well.
Enlist the help of others.
In my story, fear clouded my judgment. It wasn’t until Uncle Rodge gave me an uninvolved perspective that I began to see a way out of my misery. I encourage you to lean on a friend, family member, or co-worker to reveal options to you on how to solve your problem. For those who are in abusive situations, find a professional counselor, pastor, or some other authority. You need objective advice.
What fear are you living with right now? Take time to analyze what your fear is costing you. Seek outside help to determine your response.
“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
(Note: Those aren’t the real names of the bullies. I changed them to the names of a couple of my good friends, Daryl Skaer and Jeff Laird. I did this because friends are usually the ones who teach you important lessons.)
Questions: When have you needed to face a fear head-on. What was the result? How did your life change once you took action? Leave a comment below.