Like a lot of people, I remember my first. His name was Roger.
The intervening decades have blurred details but I can still recall the way his thick chestnut hair framed his rosy cheeks as he hovered over me, our faces separated by more or less 12 inches of air.
A twisting rope of saliva dangled from his lips and, with my shoulders pinned to the ground by his knees, the prospect of being spit on horrified me more than the thought of a continued beating. He had just finished slamming my head into the ground but that’s probably not the only reason I was crying.
When you’re a kid and you’re picked on, anxiety, fear and confusion manifest themselves in tears and screams.
At home my mom listened long enough for me to calm down. Then she made me go back to the playground. The hope — the command, really — was that I wouldn’t back down. Not without defending myself.
The lesson wasn’t about seeking revenge but about not being bullied. Only if Roger came at me again — and he didn’t back down after I told him to knock it off — was I to fight back. I hadn’t the first time.
If memory serves, Roger beat me up twice that day. I remember the tears in his eyes and blood from his nose just before he tackled me. Nevertheless, it was the last time he ever picked on me.
Undoubtedly Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. would have been disappointed with my mom’s parenting style. But those two almost mythical figures weren’t a single mother trying to teach her son to stand up for himself.
Back then there weren’t senistivity classes and anti-bullying rallies. There was the principal’s office and detention or after school fights. Or perpetual running and hiding and living in fear. My mom didn’t want the latter for me.
Today, thankfully, there are more resources available to kids who are bullied either on the playground, in the classroom or on the Internet. Fighting is seldom, if ever, advocated. If I had kids I’d preach that path of peace.
But at the same time I’d acknowldge that sometimes push comes to push and shove comes to shove and before you know it you’re forced to stand up for yourself.
It’s not easy being a kid. Never has been. Not all the time anyway. But some of the hardest, most painful lessons we learn are the ones that serve us a lifetime.
When it comes to bullies there are myriad ways of dealing with them today. But in the end what matters most is the moment you decide to stand up for yourself. Sometimes that first step is talking about about your problems with someone you trust. Even if she forces you back out to that playground.