Ugly is everywhere. Some of it is visual. Most of it is internal. None of it is ever hidden.

A lot of it used to be punished via Ugly Laws. Some of the best Ugly Advice I was ever given came to me as a youngster in the form of punches to my face from a crew-cut boy two years older than me — but in my same fifth grade class. His name was Alex.

He was a bully. He wore a perpetual scowl.

He outweighed most of us in class by 75 pounds.

Everyone hated him.

Everyone admired his giant fists and punching power.

He was a brute in a boy’s body.

He was a boulder that gathered moss.

While the rest of us wore mop-top bowl haircuts, Alex waxed the ends of his crew cut and shaved the base of his neck every morning.

Alex imparted his reality to me in a flurry of blows to my face after I had taken the advice of my mother’s boyfriend to “stand up to a bully and fight him on your own turf!”

One day after Alex had been bullying all of us with taunts and provocative arm punches during recess soccer practice, I told him to knock it off and to leave us alone.

As Alex approached me with cocked fists, I told him I wasn’t scared of him and that if he wanted to fight, we should do it off school grounds and in my backyard. I stood up to the bully; and the bully stood me down by accepting my offer with glee, a handshake a jumping up and down with a joy I had never seen before. I felt sick as I realized I had invited him to my own pummeling with my permission and blessing.

That was not how the episode was supposed to play out: He was supposed to back down from the direct challenge and run away forever. News of our impending fight spread throughout school and by the time I arrived at my backyard, Alex was surrounded with 50 other students who quickly encompassed us by forming a circle of bodies around us.

Before I could say anything, Alex was on me and punching me in the face. I fell.

Through a curtain of my own blood I saw I was being picked up like a bride and carried over to our garbage cans as the circle of bodies moved with us without ever breaking stride or form. The crowd roared their approval.

Alex folded me in half and stuffed me into a half-empty can. Alex looked down at me, his blue eyes buzzing with electricity, and said to me so quietly that only I could hear it above the din of cheers and applause, “Remember. There are always people who don’t mind being uglier than they already are.”

Alex smiled at me with pity, booger-spit in my face, and took the aluminum lid of the trash can and slammed it down with all of his body weight with a booming thud on my feet. My knees collapsed into my chest.

There I was, alone, sealed in darkness, numb, ears ringing, stinking of day-old leftovers and I realized — through the unfamiliar taste of my own blood mixing with foreign spit — that Alex had taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my brief life.

16 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    And when one grows up, there is no getting away from the bullies. They grow up also and take the form of Intimidators in Corporate America. Maybe they don’t use physical prowess to achieve their ends, but they still manage to hit below the belt.
    Donna

  2. Donna’s right. It’s strange how these folks do manage to get ahead. When they do, it’s as if all the rules of honor we were taught as kids were a joke. It seems to me, though, that people like Alex are in tune with just how ugly they are on the inside and all the success and achievement in the world can’t paper over the ugly reality of their lives.

  3. Hi Sandy —
    Alex was sent off to “juvenile prison” a year or two later. He was always so full of rage. He’d fight anyone… younger, older, taller, adults, teachers… he always had to prove who he was with his muscles.
    The kids would tease Alex — always behind his back and out of earshot — with taunts of “Ajax” because his crew cut looked like a scrubbing pad.
    What shocked me most later on was realizing what Alex told me is something that he must have been told earlier in his life. I think the lesson was meant as a warning, but for him it became a war cry.
    Bullies like that are born in the home and not the womb — Alex must’ve had a very hard home life where you had to fight and bleed to get left alone.

  4. Hi Nicola!
    It was a humiliating experience — but one that served me well. My friends had a new respect for me because I did something they never would’ve done and Alex left me alone from then on before he was sent away.

  5. David,
    Oof! What a brutal beating! It is a good story, though.
    The two biggest bullies from my childhood took very different paths in young adulthood: one is now in prison, the other is a cop. Heh!
    I hope that the police officer uses his new position of power to stand up for the little guy and pay back, little by little, all the awful things he did to the little guy for most of his life. But…I doubt it.

  6. Emily!
    It is a great story. I just wish it didn’t involve me! 😀
    I think cops are an interesting breed of people based on the comments I received on my NYPD articles. There’s a fine line between love and hate — and probably an even finer one between lawlessness and the law.

  7. David,
    Ha! Yeah, too bad you had to live that experience to tell it.
    I think there are more good cops than bad cops; but the bad ones tend to steal all the headlines and reputation, don’t they?

  8. Hi Emily —
    There does seem to be a “cop personality” that many of them have, though. I have several female friends who “refuse to date cops” because of that controlling personality and you are required to desire control and laws and strict order because that’s the job description. You aren’t there to hold hands and share feelings.
    One cop friend of mine told me, “Never touch a cop. On duty or off duty. Don’t touch them.” He said that to me after I had saw him at a theatre performance — he was off duty there with his girlfriend — and I had put my hand on his shoulder to welcome him and to say “Hi.”

  9. I know how it feels to be bullied David, I have a personal experience.
    I used to get religiously betaen up by a kid in our residential school when I was 4/5 years old; he was in his 3rd/4th grade – I don’t remember.
    I was too shy to complain about it to anyone, as I was surrounded mostly by unknown people but fortunately our superintendent saw it one day and probably did take some action – he left me alone after that day.
    I still remember my panic while playing in the afternoon – the play-time was mandatory for everyone, no one could stay back in their room unless they are seriuosly ill – but it used to be a nightmare for me.

  10. Hi David,
    Your never touch a cop story made me think back to something I witnessed during a memorial for the victims of 9-11. I was out at court in Elkhart County, Indiana, so I decided to check out the noon-time service that was held in downtown Elkhart. At one point during the ceremony, a pastor told the crowd to reach out and hug the first responders and cops that they saw. You could see the cops weren’t going to show it, but you could tell that they weren’t happy that strange people were approaching them to give them a hug.
    I tried “Googling” an old bully from my 7th grade days and couldn’t find anything.
    I also called a bully’s bluff once by offering to take up his challenge to fight at a local park after school when I lived in New Jersey. (This was also during the 7th grade — there is something about that age that brings out the craziness in people). I went home after classes to put on some work boots and rode my bike to the park thinking that I’d have to figure out a way to make a quick getaway on my bike if things weren’t looking good for me.
    I showed up, but he wasn’t there, so I rode around for a few minutes, then went home. I never had a problem after that.
    I also remember when I went to high school for a semester in NJ before we moved to Indiana. When we were thrown into the big pond of kids from all over the county, some of the kids who were the biggest bullies in middle school suddenly tried to act like they were your best bud because you were from the neighborhood they knew you.

  11. Hi Katha!
    I appreciate your experience.
    We have all been bullied in our lifetimes — how we deal with that humiliation is what forms us and our kindness towards others. Bullies are not created in vacuums. Bullies have been bullied and the way they deal with that pain is to pass it down to others.

  12. Chris!
    Now that’s a telling story about the cops at the memorial service not wanting to be touched. The guy I touched was very nice about it — though his initial admonishment took be aback a bit because I thought we were pretty good friends. He told me cops are “on” 24/7 and if you touch a cop you are initiating their subliminal instinct to step away and pull their gun. Scary stuff. They are unable to “leave it at the office” because “once you’re a cop, you’re always a cop.”
    If my friend had seen me coming and watched me — as cops do — and saw I was going to touch him on the shoulder, that would’ve been fine. In a crowded theatre lobby, however, and with me touching him on an angle that was his blind spot, he freaked out a little bit and I’ve always made a point of talking to any cop after that — on duty or off — face to face with plenty of space between us and my hands visible. They are always much easier to talk to that way.
    Another bully I knew in school is now a major player at a major bank. He made his bones in the business in the home loan industry. I can imagine how effective his good looks and bullying technique forged a successful career in pushing up the interest rates charged to people with low FICO scores…
    It’s always good to stand up for yourself — but especially if a bully pushes you there. I made the mistake of seeking out a bully who wasn’t really interested in me specifically. Even if you take a beating you rarely have to take a second one if you put up any sort of fight at all. If you hold your own, or if you at least hold on for a bit, then taking a second bite out of you later becomes a risk few bullies are willing to take. You can’t play the same moment a second time and they already “defeated” you once. Why chance a change in the win/loss record?
    I love it how geography can create allies out of enemies! What a great lesson!

  13. What a good post!
    There are always people willing to do the unspeakable.
    There is always an Alex.
    But there will also always be a David that will even if he doesn’t stand a chance at least try and stand up for what he believes is right.
    And sometimes one David will become two, then three and eventually there will be enough to actually overcome Alex.
    We just have to stand our ground!

  14. Welcome to Urban Semiotic, Jeannine!
    I appreciate your kind and insightful comment. You’re right that we will always have our Alexes — the trick is learning how to deal with them before they cause any lasting damage.