I Really Don’t Want to Punch You In the Face

Punch in the faceMy 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.

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70 thoughts on “I Really Don’t Want to Punch You In the Face

  1. Great story! And towards the end, I was hoping for a proper conclusion – a good, memorable ending. And then came “I would have been justified, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied.” Brilliant.

  2. Hey that was a cool story. I understand where you were coming from. You are indeed the better man all around. Good for you. Nice job also I enjoy your writing style very much.
    Bill Pokins

  3. You were the bigger person and that takes more courage than fighting a bully with bully tactics. That’s my two cents. Good lord I do remember when we all use to flick each other in the ear like that back then. It hurt! I too was self conscious about my ears because they’re shaped funny more than they protrude. Being a kid can be hard. Thanks for sharing the story.

    • Kids can be terrible to each other. Hard for me to accept now that I’m a father, but that’s the reality. I suppose no one gets through childhood without a few wounds. Just hope they’re not too deep. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Yeah, I’ve been that kid on the bus myself — I spent most of my life from the age of 6 to around 12 or so being that kid on the bus before my parents were able to get me out to another, better school. I always ask myself why I never stood up — I was and remain physically weak, but I still ask myself.

    I’m not sure if it eats away at you worse if you swallow it, or if you let it out into the sun. Probably the former, but when it comes down to it, I’d rather just avoid evil people who require a bat to the head to get them to behave. I don’t want a bloody nose or bloody knuckles. I just don’t want any part of the whole brainless, evil, predestined dance of kill-or-be-killed. In a “lead, follow, or get out of the way” world, I am much, much happier to simply get out of the way. Participating in that pathetic baboon bullshit dance would be the same as accepting it, validating it. Let everyone else participate who’s too stupid to get off the dance floor — I’ll be over here with a book.

    Maybe the rest of the world is happy to be swinging, hooting, turd-slinging baboons, but I will be GODDAMNED if I’m going to be one.

  5. I love this, the fact that you had the chance and did not take it tells you a lot about your character. The line “I was unwilling to meet pain with pain” in particular goes back to the famous Gandhi quote “an eye for an eye and the world will soon be blind.” Well done,keep on the good blogs and the life lessons that come with it

  6. I’m right there with you, man. Laughter is one of those things – there isn’t a good defense for it. Someone yells at you, you yell back, and somehow you’re strong and retain your dignity. But laughter? Laughter strips you bare of every defense, and there is no rebound from it. I remember hunkering down from my bullies, too. Kudos to you for not hitting the kid, even though he had earned it. Mayhap it was the best life lesson he’d ever had.

    • Thanks for the comment. I have wondered if the fact that I could have hit him but didn’t made an impression on him and if he remembers the incident too only from his perspective. Unless he reads this and tells me, I guess I’ll never know.

      • It does remind me of one of my favorite Shakespeare quotes.
        “The quality of mercy is not strained.
        It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
        Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
        It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
        ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
        The thronèd monarch better than his crown.” The Merchant of Venice (IV.i)

  7. I actually did the exact same thing once when I was a child. How odd. Never heard of anyone else who’s done this. Like you I wanted so badly to punch someone but when it came down to it, the very thought of my fist hitting and hurting that person’s flesh made me sick to my stomach. I could not inflict pain on another like that.

    When I got older I realized self-restraint was a very positive – and rare – trait to possess. As is empathy. Glad at least one other human being in this world still has them.

  8. Pingback: Freshly Riffed 45: When We Go Up To Bed, You’re Just Not Good, It’s Such A Shame! | A VERY STRANGE PLACE

  9. Excellent post! Your whole piece struck a deep chord with me, especially now having two boys with similar natures as you describe.

    I’m from Glasgow, in Scotland. Quite a rough part but not the worst- and from a good family.
    I was a skinny, shy little alien at school – a loner, an old soul- I didn’t fit in with any of the ‘groups’. Sitting on the outside I became the target of some quite nasty behaviour. I realised quickly that I wasn’t afraid of violence, I was afraid of words. I couldn’t smack-talk back for shit and THAT made me feel powerless, weak. My brain couldn’t process insults to throw back to people, I never heard any at home and my mum didn’t swear.

    I was no match verbally for these little rough-neck bastards around me so I decided I’d match them in surprise with violence. I never shied away from a fight, if someone tried to intimidate me because I (really really) did look like an easy target they’d soon find out I was fearless. I was never bothered much more except for now and again from a couple of leaders of badgirl groups who suffered abject embarrassment because they took an absolute tanking. This strategy didn’t always work out for me though, age 17 I tackled a group of girls who were targetting – not me- my friends. Although I gave good I still ended up with a bottle neck slash to my head- that is losing a fight by anyones standards.

    It’s something that continued to bother me for years, the fact I couldn’t resolve situations and end confrontation by using my words (stage 1, I call it). I’d avoid confrontation (like a normal person, I suppose) but I was scared in the knowledge I didn’t have that safety buffer just in case. So, I surrounded myself with friends who can ALL smack-talk like fuck! If anything ever pops off ( it hasn’t, we’re nice folk) we’re all agreed that I will be the quiet one at the side while my (much more) verbally delft friends deal with any troublemakers. Then if they want to take it further they’ll have a severe problem because I am a full on stage 2 veteran. I’m not afraid of violence; violence is the worst they can throw at me (I can take insults like water off a ducks back) and I can throw just as much back; to me, that’s the level playing field psychologically in terms of power.

    I have two little boys now; aged 7 and 9. The eldest is very timid and reluctant to stand up for himself – he reminds me of me in that he doesn’t like hurting others. My youngest is more ready to defend himself (and his brother sometimes lol) and, like me, feels the equal field is stage two – if they would like to go that way, if not- then stop wasting his time. My mum installed a lot of self confidence in me, which I try to pass on, so most verbal nonsense is easily discounted. It’s hard to teach them the right way – we’ve never been shown. I’m hoping my smack talking friends rub off on them a little (not in the foul mouthed sense) but just that quick wit that is so useful through life. It’s really something I can’t show them. It’s never good being a stage two only person (I’d prefer to be both – who wouldn’t?) but in the absence of verbal prowess in an arguement (it’s ironic I’m a writer haha) my mantra is – I believe in violence.

    Sorry for the loooooong post. Just really hit a chord with me. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂
    Alanna xx

  10. Apparently, ears such as yours perceived more, caught more lift, and allowed you to rise above that stagnant pond of cruelty. When you did, you could not hit the brother of one of the pond prisoners. This mercy you showed opened a small running current through the pond. You may have drained it my friend.

  11. I used to have nightmares about this happening when I was in high school! I got picked on for being a straight up weird lookin’ tomboy, and I kept having this dream where I’d go to punch someone in the face and miss or fall short. How crazy to think of it happening in real life to someone! I love seeing how far those asshole bullies have gotten in life since high school (not very). Thanks for a great post!

    • In my charitable moments I tell myself they were lonely kids dealing with pain of their own without the knowledge of how to process it constructively. In my less charitable moments, I revel in the fact that I have left them far behind and they ain’t gone nowhere! Thanks for your comments.

  12. Absolutely loved this post. When I was at school I was bullied by one particular boy for about five years, for no other reason than the fact that I worked hard and did well in school. He spat on me repeatedly, tried to get the older girls to beat me up (due to the unwritten social rule that boys can’t hit girls), made up ridiculous lies about me and generally made it his life’s purpose to make mine hell.

    I got my own back by continuing to work hard, getting a good job and having a good life. However, I still secretly hope that somewhere, whatever he’s doing, that the fleas of a thousand camels infest his crotch, and may his arms be too short to scratch…

  13. Pingback: I Really Don’t Want to Punch You In the Face | Man In Boots

  14. Really enjoyed this. Children can be so horrible, but in this case the bullies weren’t actually quite as bad as I at first read them to be. Suffice it to say that my brain unaccountably added an extra letter to the “pens” being flicked at your ears. I was very relieved when I read it a second time!

  15. “I would have been justified, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied.” That’s one heck of a quote.
    I mean just as the saying goes, violence brings upon violence and it usually gets people no where. Sure someone may avoid you for quite some time, but word about that flies fairly quickly and before you know it, you’ve become the violent one at school. You’ve definitely got more patience than I do. I probably would’ve turned around, held him down and gave him a good taste of his own medicine and see if he likes it.

  16. how can we justify hitting back people who hurt us? however, there are times we can no longer contain the pain and hatred we’re experiencing. sometimes we have to make a stand. maybe then, those bad people will learn to stop picking on us. i don’t know. i’d probably punch, then later on say why i acted in such manner. will feel sorry though. arghhh…. i always feel guilty when i know i hurt someone..

  17. Wow, that was intense! Your writing style really had me engaged in your story. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing that. I felt as though I could relate. I’ve always wanted to act out but something inside me holds back because I can’t imagine physically hurting someone. Then later on, I feel glad that I never did. Kids are kids and one day they may realize how bad they were. They’ll have to live with that forever….

  18. I often have dreams of scenarios like this, where I need to defend myself but I just can’t bring myself to punch whoever it is. It’s always slow-mo and you described it perfectly.
    Great post!

  19. You are a great storyteller. I can envision every scene and it brings back many similar memories. It’s sad to think about how many of us were bullied, but as Nora Ephron’s mother told her, “it’s all material” for the stories you will tell.

    • Thanks Suzette. I appreciate that. Yes, everything is material. One of my English professors once warned us “never make a writer mad they can destroy you in a way that lasts forever”. He sounded like he was speaking from experience.

  20. Great article Ethan! Last night, at dinner, some drunk guy at the next table over kept pouring wasabi in his miso soup till he coughed with his mouth closed and sprayed me with a fine mist of shame. Justified punching? You bet! But, alas, every time I punch someone in the face, I seem to break my hand. So instead of going to jail or the emergency room, I swallowed my anger, packed up my sushi, and moved to another table. To reward me for my zen-like self control, the sushimaster honored me with a very lucky and delicious dessert of tempura oreo cookies.

  21. I can definitely identify with this. Unfortunately, big ears were hereditary and I only grew into mine in my late teens. At least I grew a thicker skin because of it.

  22. A bully will go as far as the victim lets him/her. I was a bully as a child but honestly I had no idea. in sixth grade there was a girl named Rene. She was so tall and very big so I every time I had a chance to let her know how big she was I would. She was actually a nice girl but I didn’t seem to care. One day, after I told her a few mean things, she got the courage to stand up to me and say something back. She said a few things but I will never forget when she ended by saying,” …and most of all I hate your guts!”. After that I never, ever bothered her again. We didn’t become friends but I finally was put in my place. I’m glad you finally stood up for yourself. Bullies need the courage of the victim to stop. Wherever you are Rene…I’m sorry.

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