Let’s Get Physical

Fights. DK posted about them, and it got me thinking about my own history of getting physical. I’m four years older than my sister, so physical fights with her were out of the question, although I did once, at the age of seven, hit her with a peeled banana. Which she went crying to our mother about, to memorable effect. Yes, a soft, peeled banana. I didn’t even hit her hard enough to break the fruit.

I got in a few fist fights with other kids. Most of them were routs where I either took a swift beating, or in one shocking incident, gave one. I remember one fight in the fourth grade with the kid who lived on the other side of the apartment complex — Eric, maybe, or Shawn? — that was almost a fair fight. He was taller (and I think older) than I was, and I have no idea why we got into this fight, but I do remember that it was scheduled, like a duel. We met down in the gully near the wall between us and Moon’s Drugs, and slugged it out, and I landed as many hits as I took, until he got me a good one in the solar plexus and knocked the breath out of me, and that was an end to that fight.

I remember being pleased he’d fought me honestly, and not shrunk back just because I was a girl (although the size and age difference seemed unfair, but that excused my ignominious loss.) Some days later there was a shame filled moment when his mother made him apologize, and the whole “hitting a girl” issue came up. Pissed me off and made me as embarrassed as he was, I think, because of my mortifying femaleness which had somehow invalidated the honor of our fight.

The fight for which I deserve my shame was the one where I socked blonde-and-perfect Betsy Johnson (I think that was her name) in the stomach, and knocked her down, and then ran and ran and ran away from the schoolyard and the school and up the street into an unfamiliar neighborhood. That was me being a frightened mammal. Fight and flight. I was nine, new to the school, new to the state of Tennessee with my strange Yankee accent and my boyish awkwardness and my smart-kid-ahead-of-the-class-itis, and I’d been picked on by Betsy and her crew for weeks, alternately bullied and shunned, until I could take no more, so I knocked her down and ran.

I knew as I did it that I was committing a crime. I knew I was bigger than Betsy, who was delicate and slender and pale and perfect, and all the things a little girl should be that I was not and would never be. In perfect Art of War style, long before I ever read any Sun Tzu,  I targeted the leader, knowing that I could make only one strike, so it had to be an effective one. And yet it was all spontaneous: I hadn’t planned to hit Betsy, hadn’t lain in wait for her, or plotted my revenge. I just reached a breaking point, and, surrounded by taunting schoolgirls, I ran right at Betsy, fist outstretched, and knocked her on her ass. And I kept right on running. The rest of the girls shrank back, screaming, and I got a couple blocks away before Mr. Hightower, the (to my nine-year-old-eyes) enormous gym teacher whose impressive 70’s ‘fro made him all the more fearsome and manly, caught me. He literally picked me up and carried me back to the school, helpless and struggling.

And put me in the principal’s office. Alone. I waited there, alone, for a long time. No teacher came to check on me, and the principal never came on to deal with me. I sat there alone with my terror and my guilt and my helpless rage, and waited for condemnation, maybe the police, who knew? But there was nothing. Just her office which was surprisingly cluttered and full of books and papers in untidy stacks, and warm-orange-stained wooden furniture and richly colored upholstery. In my memory there was a rug on the floor, and a green-shaded lamp, lit, on her desk. But no Mrs. Kristoffersen. Her secretary checked on me once, to tell me sternly to wait there, but that was it.

Eventually someone came — perhaps my own teacher — and while the rest of the kids in my class went to lunch, I got sent to the nurse’s office, again to sit alone. There was no nurse. Then the teacher came back with Jenny H, from my brownie troop, and two lunch trays, and Jenny sat and ate in silence with me, in that dismal, putty-grey-painted nurse’s office, with its beige vinyl fainting couch and glass and wood cabinets full of bandages and tongue depressors.

I remember wondering why they didn’t get my best friend Liza to sit with me. And realizing that the punishment I deserved was not going to be forthcoming. After lunch they let me and Jenny out, and sent us back to class,where, subdued and puzzled, I spent the rest of the day in a distracted fugue, waiting for the fallout that never came.

Betsy and her crew let me alone after that, though.

I think the adults must have realized they had in me not a violent child, but a badly broken one. A child from a broken home, where things were happening behind closed doors to teach violence. A child too smart for her own good, too alien, too alienated. I know by that age I was already planning my suicide. And I know I had already learned to turn my rage against myself, beating my head with books, biting the skin of my wrists and forearms, though usually in secret, never at school. But it’s possible, in the terror of that moment, I did those things then, trapped in that principal’s office, and don’t remember them. They had no idea what do do with me, and so they put me in isolation until I was calm, the way you might lock a freaked out caged wildcat in a small, dark carrier until he stopped fighting.

I think there’s a part of me that’s still waiting for the fallout from that episode. There’s a part of me that wants to find Betsy Johnson and apologize. To tell her I knew I was wrong to hit her. Of course I also secretly want to hear her apology, but what child ever apologizes for tyrannizing the different? It’s just part of growing up, I guess.


~ by Nezu on 7 April 2010.

One Response to “Let’s Get Physical”

  1. I’m torn…. between anguish for your child self and admiration for your writing. Nezu, this is a beautifully written piece, and I could see it as I was reading.

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