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Lessons from the locker room

I was sitting on the bench in the locker room, changing for  gym, when a big kid I hadn’t met before sat down next to me. With a broad smile on his face he said, “Hey.”

Appreciating a potential new friend, I smiled back and replied, “Hi.”

He then he shoved me off the bench, slammed my locker shut, and started laughing. The kids around us laughed, too.

I got up off the floor and yelled, “Not funny!” then tried to sit back down on the bench. Once again he shoved me off. When I tried again, he hit me hard on my shoulder.

Reeling in pain, I stood and waited until he finished dressing before I could get back into my locker. I was thirteen years old. It was my first year in high school. Jerry, the big kid, was fifteen years old. Apparently he’d been held back a couple of grades.

The next day the same thing happened, and again the day after. On the following day, I tried avoiding the problem by arriving early, but with only five minutes between classes that proved to be impossible.

I tried distracting him with friendly conversation, “Hey Jerry, did you see Alias Smith and Jones last night?”

“Yeah, it was good.” Then he body slammed me off the bench. Again the kids around us laughed. And, again I was forced to stand and wait until he was finished.

The problem continued for three weeks, and on a few occasions I was scolded by the coach for being tardy to the gym. I couldn’t tell him why I was late because Jerry had the mirth of our fellow classmates and I feared their ostracization more than Jerry’s fist.

My few friends in the class kept asking me what I was going to do about the problem. The rest of the kids just looked at me with contempt. It made me feel isolated and totally not “cool” for being unable to find a solution.

Finally in frustration I went to my dad.

“How do you feel about my getting suspended from school?” I asked him.

“What!” he cried.

I then explained the situation, and how I felt the only solution was to stand up to Jerry and fight him. To my surprise, he agreed.

“Son, I understand that you have to fight this boy. If you get suspended, you will do so with my good graces.”

That was an awesome bonding moment with my father; and even though I was afraid of Jerry and knew that I was probably going to get hurt, it fortified my resolve to stand up to him.

The next day, with butterflies in my stomach, I arrived as early as I could and took my seat on the bench. As expected Jerry shoved me off the bench and slammed my locker shut. To his surprise, I got off the floor and started punching him as fast and hard as I could.

On his face, I saw the shock that he never expected me to retaliate, but that didn’t last long. Jerry was taller and much more muscular than me. He simply picked me up and threw me against the lockers and laughed. The pain shooting through my back mirrored the explosive sound of my body hitting the metal doors. From the ground, I could see him looking around the room for approval, smiling and nodding at those who laughed with him.

In that instant, when he wasn’t paying attention, I scrambled off the floor and started hitting him again. I landed one good punch on his jaw. He was no longer laughing, but he still seemed completely unfazed by my fists. Once again, he picked me up and threw me into the lockers. As I hit the floor, he ordered me to stay down.

Ignoring him, I leapt to my feet.

“Fight! Fight!” someone yelled, and 60 boys who were dressing stopped and rushed over to watch.

Suddenly, Jerry and I found ourselves in the middle of a space no more than four feet wide surrounded by boys cheering for one or the other of us. We both had our fists up and were circling around wondering who was going to make the next punch, when someone yelled, “Coaches are coming!”

Everyone in the room dispersed instantly. Jerry and I, panting from the adrenaline and exertion, sat down side by side and opened our lockers.

Three coaches walked through the room demanding, “Who’s fighting?” “Somebody tell us who was fighting!”

No one said a word. Everyone silently finished dressing. The coaches finally left but not without warning us that fighting was not allowed.

I didn’t get suspended, and Jerry never bothered me again.

In my previous columns, I have written that bullying is not just a childhood phenomenon. We must learn to get over our fear of the consequences of standing up for ourselves because bullies never go away.

One of the problems is that, as a society, we don’t really look at the motives behind bullying. Bullying is a trickle down phenomenon, which is most likely learned at home. Many of us know that bullies are insecure. They don’t feel important, loved, or cared for. Bullies seek attention, so that they will feel wanted, desired, and appreciated. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to achieve that through normal channels.

If we can take a moment to have empathy for them, perhaps we can give them what they need, and cut off the problem at the source. Today, I can look back and see that Jerry probably felt inadequate because he was nearly two years older than everyone in his class. I never saw him again after that year. He turned 16 over the summer, and I heard he dropped out of school which probably added to his sense of failure. 

As an eighth-grader, all I could see was the violence. I didn’t have the maturity or the self-confidence to reach out to him as a friend. 

In hindsight, I wish I did.

      – Robert Wilson

• Robert Wilson is an author, humorist and  innovation consultant. He is also the author of the children’s book, The Annoying Ghost Kid. For info, visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.

Posted: Jun 2, 2014

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