Thursday, June 23, 2005

What Do You Believe In?

I was thinking the other day about what kind of person I think I am and the person I still want to become, and I began to wonder about what guides some of my beliefs. Some of it is experience, sometimes it’s a quotation that resonated with me. As my son grows I’d like to instill some of those beliefs in him, but the choice will end up being his – though I hope that I can at least teach him that HE guides his beliefs and actions, not everybody else.

I despise bullies, whether they be physical bullies or just the kind that try to take you down with a few cutting comments. When I was younger I was small for my age and for a while was a target for bullies. I grew a little bit, but that doesn’t really help you with bullies – the best thing you can ever do is stand up to them, good or bad. I found that one of them left me alone after I tried to fight back – I say tried because I didn’t do any damage, I’m not sure I even hit him, but I think he preferred prey that didn’t fight back. When I was living in Florida I saw a lot of bullying, sometimes I was the victim, sometimes I wasn’t. There’s a guy I remember who was one of my few friends in the high school I briefly attended before I moved back with my father. He wouldn’t speak. Ever. I now know that a refusal to speak is sometimes a reaction to an extremely traumatic event. We were friends I think because we were fellow outcasts – not many people wanted to be my friend and not many knew how to be his friend. He never said a word to me, but we somehow got along and managed to communicate anyway. I remember that one day I said something funny and I actually heard a short laugh from him. That was a moment I’ve always treasured. I think about him sometimes and wonder how he’s doing, where he is, if he’s gotten through his particular trial. He was a target in our school simply because he wouldn’t talk. One day I was walking down a hallway and I came upon him – he was being held in a headlock by a bigger guy than either of us. The guy kept telling him to talk and hurting him when he wouldn’t. I feel ashamed today that I couldn’t find the courage in me to even speak out and tell the bully to leave him alone. I was too scared, and kept walking. I didn’t know that that act of fear would affect how I thought about things the rest of my life.

I’m not sure when I first read the quote, and for a long time I remembered the basic message, if not the exact words or who spoke them. The quote is by Edmund Burke:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

I wish I could remember the moment when I first read that, or my first reaction to it. Maybe it didn’t have a huge reaction on me then, maybe it just grew on me. Now it is one of the things that guide many of my actions as an adult. I’ve been given a lot of gifts, a strong body, a fine mind, a sense of who I am and a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. I can’t take these gifts and reject the responsibility that comes with them.

My brother had it worse than I did. He was smaller than me, had fewer social skills (not that I had a lot) and wore glasses, and later on, wore braces. He was one big target as far as bullies were concerned. I have a lot of shame over how I treated him when we were younger when I was trying to fit in myself, but as I got older and started to mature I couldn’t help but start to stand up for him. When we came to live with my father people in our school didn’t believe we were brothers sometimes. Something about me had changed enough that most of the bullies would leave me alone. Maybe it was because most of the bullies in the middle class school we went to were what I would consider to be amateurs. They had nothing on the bullies where I had been living for years. One came up and shook his fist in my face, thinking I’d be intimidated, and didn’t know what to do when I started laughing. Another literally picked me up and held me up against the wall, my feet about a foot off the ground, threatening me. I started laughing because it was clear he didn’t have any intention of actually getting violent, and he let me go, confused.

Those kind of people started leaving me alone, but my younger brother seemed to attract more of them. He decided to join the wrestling team, and actually toughened himself up pretty good, but unfortunately, one of the people who liked to hassle him the most was on the team with him. It got so bad that one day I came home and was told that my brother had been taken to the hospital. They had pulled a set of lockers down on top of him. Thankfully, the extent of his injuries was a broken nose. I think my dad saw something in me, because he told me not to do anything about it, that he would take care of it. It took a lot of restraint for me not to go visit some of the people who did that. I’m shaking as I write this – it still angers me thinking about it.

I was not as restrained with another guy. Somebody told me that my brother was having trouble with a kid I didn’t really know. I remember that he was one of the first people I ever knew who had a mullet. I asked my brother about it and he told me that the kid had given him a couple of candy bars over time and then suddenly claimed that my brother owed him money for them. He was at that time claiming that my brother owed him over $40. That’s pretty good interest for two or three candy bars. I started going out of my way to find this guy. I never told him why I was confronting him.

One day we passed on the stairs and I knocked his books out of his arms – a mortal insult in high school, if you remember. I remember he actually asked me “You wanna fight?” – I readily agreed. He had obviously not been in very many fights. One of my favorite teachers stood at the side yelling at us to stop, and (wisely) only stepped in when I knocked the kid to the ground. We spent the next couple of hours in the Principal’s office. He and the Vice-Principal were trying to make sense of what happened. It was pretty clear that I was the aggressor, and the kid’s cheek was swelling where I had hit him. When they asked me why I had started the fight, I told them. I told them about my brother and the candy bars and the supposed money he owed.

The kid actually asked me “He’s your brother?” He was clearly very uncomfortable at this point with his junior candy bar loan-sharking operation being exposed. I learned a little about political connections that day. His father was going up for the position of Vice Principal of the local middle school and probably didn’t want his son’s pseudo-mob activities getting a lot of attention. I think that was the biggest reason I wasn’t really punished by the school for the whole altercation. The best thing for me was that my brother was never bothered about his “debt” again.

I didn’t know what to expect when I went home. I had to tell my father about it, and when I did I think he understood why I did what I did. I think he was happy that I had stood up for my brother, as we did not always get along. He, being a good father, couldn’t let it go, however. He asked me if I knew what I did was wrong. I said I did, but I’m sure I gave a completely wrong answer for why, I don’t remember. He told me that while what I did seemed right, it was something I could never do again. He explained to me that if I had been older I would have been arrested for what I did because I didn’t need to get into the fight. I might have seriously hurt him or been hurt myself because the outcome of a fight is never assured. Before I resorted to fighting I could have come to him or a teacher at the very least. He never yelled at me or told me I was being stupid, he just taught me why I couldn’t act that way. He taught me in just a few short minutes that there were only certain times when violence was appropriate. I never got into another fight in school after that.

I want to be to my son what my father was to me. Somebody I respected enough that he could just tell me what was right and need do nothing more. There’s a lot of me in my son already – I’m told by people that he gets his smiles and attitude from me – that makes me feel good. So later today when I see him I’ll teach him just a little more, and I’ll keep doing that, day by day, visit by visit. Sometimes I think that it’s what keeps me going.