Owen Marcus was tired of being bullied, and when he finally fought back, he earned both self-respect and the respect of the other boys.
It was one of those spring days when you want to do something after a winter of hibernation. For the boys stepping off the school bus behind me that day, that “something” was releasing their energy onto me, via their appointed bully of the day, Rick.
Rick always enjoyed being the center of attention. I knew his friends’ suggestions would be all it took for him to step up to the task of going after me.
His insults about my speech impediment and my awkwardness were just the warm-up. With the encouragement of his friends, he started pushing me. I knew I had to make a choice in that moment. Was I going to allow this encounter to evolve into another beating (by at least one boy, maybe more), or was I going to fight back?
That second of debating what to do—which felt like five minutes—still lingers in my consciousness today.
I thought: “I could be done with this fairly quickly and just take the beating… or I could run… no that won’t work. My running sucks. I could ask for help? There’s no one here willing to help me, though…” I certainly wasn’t going to ask Kim Smith, the girl up the street I had a crush on, to help me.
Or I could fight. Something I had never done before.
As I pondered fighting back, I told myself I didn’t know how to, and I would probably piss Rick and the other boys off more, and they would seriously beat me up. That would hurt.
Then before I could think of another thought, I received another blow to my chest. That one hurt. It also pushed a button in me. Without thinking, I swung back. To my amazement I made contact. Surprised how good it felt to hit Rick, I wanted more. Without thinking, I swung again, hitting Rick’s head. I don’t know what stung him more: the pain of being hit, or the fact I took a swing when I never had before.
All the boys fell silent. They were all in shock. I was in shock. Some primal part in me was released. My avoidance behavior morphed into attack behavior, and I enjoyed it. My fear of injury and pain was replaced by a desire to inflict injury and pain.
I was on a roll, so I took another swing, hitting Rick’s nose. It felt soft. It broke so easily, it was like stepping on a twig in the woods. Rick’s nose gushed blood.
I don’t know who was surprised the most: Rick, his friends, or me. I not only fought back and won, I inflected a serious injury.
As the blood streamed down Rick’s face and everyone ran around trying to determine what to do, I walked away feeling something I had never felt before: self-respect.
Rick wasn’t on the school bus the next day. His allies told me I’d broken his nose. I had respect. All the boys at school looked at me in a new way. I certainly looked at myself in a new way.
My glory was short-lived, of course. Within a week, a bigger boy was set up to take me on. My pattern of avoidance was my first response, but this time I unleashed my anger sooner. We exchanged a few equal blows, but somehow I ended up breaking this boy’s finger, which quickly stopped the fight. As before, I was met with more respect the next day… followed by a bigger boy going after me a few days later.
As I was walking off the bus for another fight, I realized this was not going to end until I lost. There was always going to be a bigger and older boy to fight. In that moment, I made the decision to lose. I put up a fight, just to look like I was fighting, but I let the other boy “win.”
The next day on the bus there was a new equilibrium. The boys felt they’d won. I felt I’d won. We respected each other. We did not become friends, but we stopped being warring adversaries. The bullying shifted to occasional teasing, but as long as I attended West Hill Elementary School, I never got into another fight.
With the popularity of the “It Gets Better” video and website, and the recent posting of the Stephen Colbert video, men are telling boys that there’s no shame in being picked on. Over the years I have seen many men, some physically powerful men, break down in tears about how they were picked on as a kid. The trauma of the verbal and physical abuse imprints beliefs in us that can linger for our entire life.
The day I fought back was a turning point in my life. That said, I can still feel the vestiges of the old taunts when I get up to speak. My irrational reptile brain wonders if Rick will be in the audience to pick on me. I take a deep breath and step up, allowing that fear to be there, so I can have another experience of winning in the face of my fear.
—Photo Alex Grant/Flickr