My ears stick out from the side of my head. Protrude. I cannot watch Dumbo or see Dopey of Seven Dwarves fame without a cringe and a furtive scan of the room to see who else is suddenly recognizing the resemblance. My ears, when I was in the ninth grade, made me a favorite target on the school bus. The cruel and the powerful passed their time on the bus sitting behind me and snapping my ears with their fingers, their pens, rubber bands, rulers. I was skinny and awkward and, although I was taller than most of them, I was terrified. I could endure the ear snapping, I thought, because I could think ahead to the total destruction that would befall me if I retaliated. I was smart enough to know that’s what they wanted me to do, but not smart enough to think of any other way out of it.
I was not like my brother who was seven the first time he punched a rival in the face: Timmy B. from next door who threw sand in his eyes. It wasn’t the first time Timmy had thrown sand and my father encouraged my brother to act if it happened again. “Stand up for yourself,” he said. “Some people don’t understand anything but a punch in the nose.” So when the sand flew again and peppered my brother’s eyes, he came up fist first and pulped Timmy’s nose. Blood down across Timmy’s mouth, glazing his chin, staining the white of his Happy Days t-shirt. Timmy never threw sand again and, to this day, almost forty years later, you say to anyone in my family that some transgressor needs a “Timmy Nose” and we all know what you mean.
I dreamed of leveling my tormentors. I knew all I had to do at the next stinging snap against my ear was spin in my seat, lunge at them and bury my knuckles in their eye. I could feel it. I practiced the move on the couch when I was home alone. Raging against pillows and air. But in the moment, on the bus, surrounded by cackles and ridicule, I kept my head down. I was frozen and could not act. I waited for time to pass. Because nothing lasts forever. I thought I could wait them out. I thought that eventually they would get bored and move on to something else, or someone else. But it didn’t work that way. Cruelty follows the path of no resistance.
But then one day a seventh grader snapped me. The little brother of one of the high schoolers who ruled the back of the bus. The older boys had decided, I suppose, that it was time for his initiation. Stinging my ear, crushing my pride, was his rite of passage. He sat behind me, stung my flesh and the whoops went up. “Get him again!” And he did again, and approval rained down on him. I sat with red ears and bowed head, as I always did, but that morning something changed. This kid making his reputation off of me, I could not endure. Being made powerless by the powerless, being crushed by the tiny. That was just fundamentally unfair. And that’s what it took to make me snap. I could suffer the slings and arrows of the powerful. Right or wrong, it was the natural order of things. But I would not be a piss-ant’s stepping stone to greatness.
When we got to school and left the bus, I followed him to the seventh grade hallway. I came up behind him as he opened his locker. I said his name and he turned and I balled my fist and I pulled it back and I picked a target on his face below his frightened eyes. Frightened eyes. And I could not swing. He was frozen, defenseless, and I could not swing. He was bracing for pain. He was afraid.
My hand moved forward. Slow like punching through water. My knuckles leaned into his face, flattened his cheek, pushed his lips to the left as I followed through in slow motion. I held my fist against his cheek for a beat screaming inside to try again. Pull back and try again! But the moment had passed. I couldn’t. I didn’t. I dropped my hand, I dropped my eyes and I walked away.
I don’t remember that boy’s name. I couldn’t pick him out of a year book if you gave me a hundred chances. But I do remember that he left me alone after that. The older kids didn’t, not right away, but that kid did and maybe he had something to do with the others finally leaving me alone. I walked away from his locker that morning hating myself for being weak, for being unable to stand up for myself. But with the benefit of thirty years of hindsight maybe I should be proud of that kid I was then. Maybe I wasn’t afraid of him or even of the older kids. Maybe I just knew at some level that I was unwilling to meet pain with pain. I would have been justified, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied.