A Year of Cowardice and Courage (Part 3)
Preparing for the most important fist fight of my life, I learned to call upon the barbarian inside and step forward with courage.
In Part 2, the Oklahoma tacking drill gave me the confidence to believe I was a spirited, aggressive, and capable 12-year-old kid. Snug in my helmet and obscured by the facemask, when Coach Manago blew his whistle, I unleashed the barbarian in me.
Finding my barbarian spirit in school, however, didn't come so easy. As a result, I allowed others to bully me. But that had to change. In school, I had to find a way to call upon my inner barbarian and step forward with courage.
That proved to be easier said than done. Despite my barbarian behavior in the Oklahoma Drill, I still walked the halls of my junior high like a coward, sometimes even shaking with nerves. Not willing to stick up for myself, Mike’s bullying and Clayton’s need to fight continued to plague me. But then something extraordinary happened. Something I never thought possible. I realized that my bully was a coward too.
Mike and his five-kid crew sat near my table of nobodies at lunch. His table, like mine, was on the uncool front end of the cafeteria. On the back end of the cafeteria sat the jocks, cheerleaders, and a menagerie of skaters, surfers, and preppy suburban assholes who formed the school’s ruling nobility. Right in the middle, separating the cool from the uncool, frolicked the school’s petite bourgeoisie -- the longhaired denim-clad metal heads known as “grits,” and the trashy chain-smoking, tight-jeaned 13-year-old girls who loved them.
Eating lunch on the extreme end of the uncool, I’d typically eat quickly and escape for the school library. But on one particular day, I stayed a bit longer to watch something that forever changed my perspective. A 9th grader skater with Flock-of-Seagull bangs from the cafeteria’s cool side walked towards Mike’s table. Pointing at my tormentor Mike, skater kid yelled something like, “You zit-faced dork, don’t even look at me! I’ll kick your ass right now in front of everybody.” Expecting a fight, I was surprised when Mike said nothing. Standing behind the seated Mike, his tormentor continued to ridicule him. But Mike just sat frozen. Paralyzed in his seat, he stared ahead, never said a word, and just chewed his food without expression, absorbing the humiliation like a sponge.
Unaware that I was watching, I can still remember his sad eyes sagging at the ends as he just kept chewing his food. His buddies sitting by him pretended like it wasn’t happening. But it happened. Mike’s veneer had been shattered.
Sadly, a few weeks later, I did some of my own bullying. On the night of a neighborhood girl's birthday party, my brother and I (along with another kid from the neighborhood) decided to crash it. Sneaking around the house, we observed that the party was all girls and just one boy – an outcast named Matt who also lived in the neighborhood. Knocking on her front door, I asked to speak with Matt. When he walked out and stepped onto the girl’s driveway where I stood, I insulted him and began picking a fight. "C’mon let’s go!” I said, knowing he would never fight me.
I’ll never forget Matt's response. He just looked right at me with sympathy, shook his head, and said softly, “Ed, I won’t fight you.” Then he turned around, walked a straight line into the open front door towards the sound of music. I stood there on the driveway. A few girls from the party who followed Matt outside, just stared at me, and then walked back behind him through the open front door. The last thing I saw was the front door slamming shut. The last thing I heard was laughter.
Breaking the Cycle
James Baldwin once wrote, "people cling to their hates so stubbornly because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain." He’s right – harmed people harm. Mike and I were victims, cowards, and bullies.
Here’s the deal: we’re all afraid. But what we do with that fear determines cowardly or courageous behavior. Do we transfer that fear like Mike and I did – going from bullied to bully and back again in an endless cycle of pain? Or do we overcome our fear with courage like Matt did?
Though Matt didn’t fight me, he stood up to me. He looked me square in the eye, said his piece, and then walked away. I felt humiliated; he didn’t.
Looking back, I slowly began to realize that so long as I bullied others, I could never stick up for myself. That’s because bullies are cowards who attempt to redirect their shame towards others who will accept it. But courageous folks like Matt won’t accept it. I needed to stop accepting Mike’s shame and stop trying to transfer my shame to kids like Matt. I had to stop this continual loop of humiliation. The only way would be through courage.
To break the cycle of humiliation and overcome my fears, I’d have to become a Protector instead of a bully. I’d need to start protecting myself and protecting others. I knew I had it in me -- football proved that. Football proved I could ignite the barbarian inside. All I needed to do now was awaken that barbarian off the field.
My ninth-grade brother Hap was a veteran of many school yard scraps. Though he seemed to lose more than he won, he always believed he could win. I still remember a few years before when Hap beat the living shit out of a kid named Seth after school. Through a series of jabs and right crosses, Hap beat this poor kid until his nose and upper lip burst with blood and Seth finally quit in tears.
Because word traveled fast, Hap soon caught wind of my on-going feud with Clayton. As we watched MTV after school before hopping on our bikes for football practice, the Tom Petty video, “I Won’t Back Down” came on. I still recall Hap saying during the song, “You gotta fight this kid. He and his friends will pick on you until you do. You don’t even have to win,” Hap said, “you just have to fight.” In other words, you need closure. You need to end this loop of humiliation. You need courage.
For my inevitable duel with Clayton, Hap volunteered to be my second. At school the next day, he met with Clayton’s second, Mike, and they agreed upon a time (after school) and a place (on the edge of school grounds). With my dad on military deployment, Hap and I asked our mom to pick us up at a pre-determined spot following the fight. She reluctantly agreed. (Thanks mom for letting me grow up.)
On the day of the fight, I still recall Clayton and I in gym class shooting baskets, laughing, and getting along. We’d never hung out like this before. Seeing us together another kid walked up to me while Clayton shot free throws.
“Aren’t you and Clayton fighting today?” he whispered.
“Yeah," I replied. Then I walked away.
Looking back, Clayton and I had to fight. Like Hamilton and Burr centuries before, the behavioral codes and alliances of our time and place demanded a clash. By doing so, we hoped to move on from a feud that had no real cause. (Maybe this is why most duels centuries ago ended with both men firing their pistols safely into the sky and then shaking hands.) But this was not the eighteenth century and we were not gentlemen; we were 12-year-old kids in Reagan’s America. There would be a fight.
Four years before in the third grade at a Catholic School in Jacksonville, FL five kids swarmed me at recess. After throwing sand in my face, they darted at me and began, literally, kicking me in the ass. Wind milling my arms like the spinning rags of a carwash, I tornado’d my fists and elbows until a PE teacher grabbed me behind the neck and marched me to the principal for “swats.” (Like any credible Catholic school of the time, they beat their children with paddles.)
Sulking in the corner of the main office waiting room with dirty hair and swelling tears, I awaited my corporal punishment. Before that sentence was carried out, however, I turned to see a tall lean man with aviator sunglasses and short dark hair stride into the main office. Seeing his khaki Navy uniform and shiny black shoes, my stomach dropped.
“Dad!?” I trembled, as my short legs hung over the chair, “But, how’d you know!?”
He smiled and said, “Eddie, I know everything.”
Coincidentally scheduled to visit my class that day to wish us luck on an upcoming school play he’d miss due to night flying, my dad grabbed my hand and cleaned me up in a nearby bathroom – eventually delivering me to my classroom without an ass whooping. I felt like he’d just sprung me from jail. Before we entered my class, however, he knelt down to me in the hallway. We were face to face. “I’m proud of you," he said. "You stood up to those kids and fought back. Don’t ever let anyone push you around.”
As the final bell rang and school ended, Hap and I walked to the agreed upon site, a piece of grass in front of a trailer classroom -- the same classroom where Clayton challenged me to a fight weeks before and called me a bitch for backing down (see Part 1). Awaiting us were Clayton, his second (and my real nemesis) Mike, and a gangly kid who breathed with his mouth and never said a word; he just gazed forward with dead eyes, collapsing shoulders, and a blue windbreaker with “USS Enterprise” on the back.
As we convened, the predictable pre-fight ritual began. We stared at each other for a few awkward moments. Then, to get things going, I began a verbal string of clichés.
“What’s up man?” spreading my arms and inching closer to him. “Here I am. Now go ahead and hit me.”
My heart raced. After months of suffering, I was finally in a semi-permissive environment (after school) where I felt comfortable enough to fight. Comfortable enough to awaken the barbarian in me and beat this kid to a fucking pulp.
Clayton just stared at me and said nothing. So I shoved him. He shoved me back.
Then we stared at each even longer… In the fifth grade, my first kiss occurred under similar circumstances – weeks of anticipation, happened after school, and was arranged by “seconds.”
After even more staring and no action, Mike had finally had enough. “C’mon Clayton, deck this motherfucker.”
“Hey kids! Ya’ll break it up!”
Oh no! Turning our heads, we saw our principal, Jefferson Davis (I am not kidding, that was his name!) struggle through the library’s heavy double doors. Bald, shaking, and well into his 70s, a Jeff Davis citing was rare – but here he was in the flesh. (Worth noting: Principal Davis’ yearbook photo included a portrait of the former Confederate president and namesake on his office wall.)
As our aging principal shuffled towards us in a faded three-piece suit, pointing his long dangling finger towards us, Hap yelled, “Let’s do it in the woods!”
Sprinting 100 yards into the tree line, knowing the old man would never give chase, we found agreeable ground -- a flat dirt arena void of heavy rocks, spikey sticks, and spider webs. A good place for a fight. The clock was ticking, however. We knew old Jeff Davis was calling the cavalry.
Quickly picking up where we left off, I pushed Clayton again, hoping to instigate the fight without actually starting it.
Expecting him to push me back, I instead felt Clayton’s right fist crash into my left temple.
It was on.
In a flash, I heard Coach Manago’s whistle blow… Bigger than Clayton, I charged at him like I charged Al in the Oklahoma Drill, driving my left shoulder into Clayton’s boney chest, lifting him off the ground, and slamming him into the dirt on his back. After years of watching Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes battle in the squared circle, I knew a thing or two about headlocks. Instinctively I wrapped my left arm around Clayton’s head and began hammering him in the face with my fist, Nolan Ryan style.
After a few rapid punches, Mr. Johnson, a cocky blond-haired cop-mustached PE teacher, stormed towards the woods and screamed, “Hey! Break it up!”
Releasing my headlock, I rolled up onto my feet, and before Mr. J could identify me, Hap and I escaped the woods, swatting branches as we went. Entering an open field, we sprinted towards our getaway car like we’d just robbed a bank. Idling on a corner just off school grounds was my mom’s Dodge van. Jumping into the back, we yelled, “Go! Go! Go!”
Throwing the old Dodge into drive, my mom hit the gas. Rounding the first corner, she looked at us through her rear view mirror and screamed, “you damn kids!”
Besides Clayton and me, three people saw the fight. Mike, the mouth breather, and Hap. Thus, the 2-1 split decision went to Clayton.
“Clayton decked you!” Mike taunted me the next day in the hallway.
Looking at this swollen chest, smug grin, and red sea of acne, I replied, “Yeah, then I put him on the ground.”
“Bullshit. He kicked your ass.”
I just kept walking... Clayton and I had fought. We had closure. The duel was done. Clayton could hold his head high knowing he connected a punch and I could do the same because I slammed him to the ground. The only loser now was Mike.
As I walked to my next class, Mike stood there – like I did outside that party -- with nothing left to say.
We never spoke again.
A Year to Remember
The seventh grade was Year-1 on my road towards adulthood. Like adulthood, it was filled with contradictions. During that pivotal year, I learned that it’s in our nature to be cowardly and courageous, to bully and protect, to live with shame and virtue. After all, we’re apes. But we’re also human. And as humans, we can overcome our fears and do what’s often scary or uncomfortable in the moment. Our ancestors did this for eons, confronting their daily fears with courage. And thanks to evolution, they left us a gift, a little piece of them – that piece is the barbarian in you.
When you're afraid or anxious, don't forget about your evolutionary superpower: the barbarian in you. Literally become the barbarian in those moments of fear. In doing so, you'll step forward in life with more courage, compassion, and love.
Thanks Barbarians for reading this series. While it has been pure therapy for me, I hope it has been entertaining and worthwhile for you. There will be one final entry, returning to the football field one last time to close out the series. In Part-4, I’ll share how barbarianism forever and positively changed the trajectory of my life. Till then, stay brave.