In kindergarten I remember a kid I’ll call Marcus. What a jerk that guy was. I mean, sure, he was a 5-year-old jerk, but a jerk’s a jerk, right? Marcus was always throwing his weight around, knocking people’s blocks over, stealing milk and cookies, always climbing up the slide the wrong way so no one could come down…. Okay, I’m a little hazy on the details. I was a 5-year-old too. Point is: I have this memory of a feeling of, That kid’s a mean Jerkface and I don’t like him and I wish I could just beat him up.
So I did.
One day on the playground I walked right up to him and I pushed Marcus as hard as I could and I knocked that little sonofabitch right on his ass. And yeah, all the other kids on the playground saw, and erupted with boisterous reply. And if memory serves, I might have been hoisted on some 5-year-old shoulders and carried around the see-saw for a victory lap as the ticker-tape fell from the sky.
Thing is, what I don’t remember is the why. I mean, sure, Marcus was a big fat Jerkhole, and deserved all of the wrath and fury I could muster. But I don’t actually remember him doing anything to me. Nor do I specifically remember him doing anything to anyone else – not that day, anyway. Nothing that I could point to and say “that is the reason that I did this.” My action sort of stood on it’s own as an independent, isolated, 5-year-old-JERK move.
A bunch of years went by. Meek, skinny, puny years. Not that the years, themselves, were puny – I was just puny during those years. And other kids… weren’t. During that time, a club emerged amongst my peers, and the club had a name: “The Bathroom Beatdown Club.” Not the most imaginative of monikers, as it was a fairly explicit description of the club’s purpose and primary activity. Generally speaking, members of The Club would position themselves – sometimes hidden, sometimes in plain sight – in the lavatory, and wait for a non-member to arrive. Sometimes non-members would enter on their own, with their own agenda, as it were. Other times, they would be… lured. In either case, they quickly realized when the door slammed shut behind them that this would not be the bathroom experience they had anticipated.
Now before you go conjuring images of prison yard shankings and dropped soap fantasies, let me put your imagination at ease. I went to what is considered one of the finest private all-boys schools in New York City, and while we had our bullies, they all still hoped to get into Harvard some day. So while nobody left the bathroom bleeding, there were definitely some hidden bruises, vicious wedgies, and neckties soaked in urinal water.
I guess I was one of the lucky ones. I had my run-ins with The Club, but not often, and was never too badly abused. Over time, I got a little less puny and a little more beefy, and actually did a half-way decent job of fighting back. I actually became friendly with some of The Members. Friendly enough, that at a vital moment I received a Tip.
A new boy (we’ll call him Garrett) was being initiated into The Club. Initiation worked very similarly to active membership, except you had to carry out the Beatdown on your own. Now, Garrett’s worthiness of membership in this very exclusive fraternity was questionable at best. He was athletic, sure; but more of a running track or gymnastics floor routine athlete. So when Garrett was stationed away in the toilet, a Representative of The Club approached me with an invitation to join him in the bathroom for something “really cool.”
I know. Tempting, right? I mean… how often do you get invited to participate in something really cool? And in the bathroom!
So I confronted: “Why? You think I want to come to the bathroom so I can get beaten down?”
And he confided: “Look, it’s Garrett in there. Just him. You can take him.”
And you know what? I knew he was right. I took off my sportcoat and hung it on the back of my chair. I unbuttoned my cuffs and rolled up my sleeves as I followed this harbinger to my fate. As we arrived at the door, I exhaled, then filled my lungs, and pushed. It swung open freely, revealing the empty space, and Time took a time-out. The odor of ammonia and pine penetrated my sinuses and lightened my head. The echo of the dripping faucet slapping the porcelain sink reverberated against the beige tiles that spanned the room. The steel stall doors hung ajar, revealing grimy latrines that seemed to wear hungry open-mouthed grins. I exhaled, and crossed the threshold.
The door clapped shut behind me.
The lights went out.
In darkness, two hands clasped my shoulders. Garrett’s hands. And I was ready.
I beat the crap out of Garrett that day. And you know what? It felt damn good. And you may be thinking, ‘that’s not bullying – that’s standing up to a bully.’ And you’d be right, if that’s where the story ended. But stories rarely end when they stop being told.
You see Garrett didn’t get to join The Bathroom Beatdown Club that day. I did. And while I was never quite as active a member as the psychopaths who founded that obscene institution, I was a participant. I was given the option to be a bully, rather than be bullied, and I made the easy choice.
I have a young son now, and while our conversations mostly consist of me pleading with him to take a nap so I can finish writing about my experiences with bullying; before I know it, the time will come to talk about how he should handle bullies, and how he should not bully others. And I’ll be honest here: I’m really not sure how that conversation’s going to go. I hope I’ll steer him in the right direction. I hope he will heed my good advice. But I also hope he will tactfully reject my more foolish ideas, in favor of his own better instincts, whilst skillfully placating my tender ego so I can feel like I did a good job as a dad.