It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, but when I was younger, I used to get picked on.
Keep in mind that when I say “picked on” I don’t mean I was being teased. No, it was more like I was getting beat up on a regular schedule. I was being bullied.
I know, I know… like I said, embarrassing. Unfortunately it gets worse. The kid I was getting bullied by was this white boy, half my size. Not that his race should necessarily matter, but I want you to keep in mind that we were living in an all black neighborhood at the time. So me, a black kid living in a black, respectably rough, neighborhood, getting seriously bullied by the smallest, whitest kid in a 3 mile radius.
I was 8 years old. Me and my mother were living in Litton Apartments in East Nashville. This kid Nathaniel lived on the same floor as me. My apartment was on one end of the hallway and he lived on the other. We were practically neighbors, but this somehow had no positive effect on his extreme, seemingly unprovoked, dislike for me. Every time I saw Nathaniel outside of our hallway, there was violent conflict. One particular instance, a group of us neighborhood kids are standing around, simply talking, Nathaniel pops up without so much as a greeting to anyone in the group, he pushes me down, punches me at least twice in the face and stands over me, telling me to leave and go away. He’s cursing and swearing and I’m on the ground crawling backwards like I’m trying to escape a monster in a horror movie. My eyes welling up with tears, humiliated.
This was common practice for him and I, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why. I was prepared to do anything to make it stop. I even tried being his friend. One day I invited him to my house to eat. Which for kids is a big deal to have someone outside your family eat with you, it’s something usually reserved for best friends and potential play cousins. I remember it distinctly because my mother was making Hamburger Helper that night and it was Cheeseburger Macaroni, arguably the best flavored Hamburger Helper on the market. I ask my mom,
“Can my friend come eat with us?”
She reluctantly agrees, she doesn’t know about the bullying but she can sense something is not right. I go back to Nathaniel,
“Do you wanna come to my house and eat?” I sound like a straight up sucker.
Of course he wants to come to my house and eat, he agrees with only a nod. So there he is sitting at my table eating my Cheeseburger Macaroni Hamburger Helper. Wolfing it down like he has never eaten before, and my mother is sitting there with this look of disgust on her face. She still doesn’t know the whole story, but I assume at the time, she knew enough. She knows we are not friends.
As you can imagine, my submissiveness and overall complete lack of dignity, did little to help the situation. Even after sitting in my house and eating my food Nathaniel was still giving me trouble. Still pushing me around and beating me up, and I was still taking it.
By nature I am an introvert, quite, soft-spoken and for the most part, a loner. This is especially true whenever I find my self in new surroundings, or in the presence of people I do not know. I tend to shy away from confrontation and as I kid, I definitely had issues with confidence and self-esteem. Personality traits like these in an eight year old can tend to attract the attention of other kids who also have problems with self-esteem, confidence and identity. It’s a sad, yet logical, way of thinking that if you can just get at least one person to fall beneath you in the economic value system of self-worth, then you can always take comfort in the thought, “At least I’m not in last place”. It is a foolish and superficial idea to take comfort in, but sometimes, when we are desperate, we are happy to settle with foolish and superficial ideas.
In the midst of this early life crisis, my cousin DJ comes over to the house to hang out for a couple of days. Now I have a lot of cousins, and we do this all the time. They come to my house and stay a couple of days, I go to their house and stay a couple of days, and we would just try to keep the cycle going for as long as possible. It’s like our mothers did a kid exchange from time to time, but we all loved being together so we encouraged the exchanges whenever possible. I moved around a lot as a child, always in Nashville, but never in one neighborhood for too long. We moved from the west side to the east side, east side to the south side, and then from the south side back to the east side again. Rarely did I go to the same school two years in a row. It was always a new school, always new friends. But my cousins were a constant. They were my peer group and my comfort zone.
At a certain point during his stay DJ and I decide to walk to the store. Now to get to the store we have to walk up a small hill through half of the apartment complex and then cut through this small wooded area, literally like a small forest that sits right outside of Litton Apartments. We’ve made the trip a hundred times, it’s a 15 minute walk there and back, it’s nothing.
DJ and I step out of the makeshift forest on our return home from the store trip, we are laughing among ourselves, each of us with a large 2-liter bottle of soda cradled in our arms. We’re still on the dirt trail when I see him. Nathaniel is standing there, directly in our path. He is with this other kid named Dontell. I know Dontell from the neighborhood, he was one of the more popular kids in Litton apartments. He had a slightly older brother that everyone kind of looked up to, and for some reason this made Dontell feel entitled to act like a bit of a jerk. Usually whenever Nathaniel was giving me trouble Dontell was not too far behind egging him on. Apparently today was no different. Nathaniel stood there in silence, which was usually the case before an altercation between him and me. He always stood around with these dead silent stares. I tried to play it cool.
“Watch out Nathaniel, I ain’t even got time for you today” I say with a false air of confidence, as if in all previous encounters had not been extraordinarily one-sided, as if every other time I’d seen him, my schedule had been open and clear for a humiliating beat down. DJ is confused, me having a bully had never come up in general conversation but he can sense the tension in the air, he stays quiet and simply follows suit. I try to step around Nathaniel, he takes a silent side step and blocks my path.
Damn… so here it is. Even with an ally along with me Nathaniel is still undeterred. He is more than willing to embarrass me in front of my cousin, in fact, he’s planning on it. This kid had been making my life hell for no earthly reason that I could understand, and even now when he sees me smiling and laughing and happy and minding my own business, he’s made it his duty to come rain on my parade. And he is even willing to do it all right here in front of my cousin. The respect and admiration of my cousins is all I had left, it’s all I ever really had as a kid. It was my primary source of identity and belonging. With my cousins I wasn’t shy and quiet and reserved. I was confident and smart and strong and brave. And now Nathaniel wanted to take that away from me.
There was no fire in my belly. There was no split second flashback of every time Nathaniel had ever punched, kicked, abused or humiliated me, coming to my mind all at once. There was no rage. As a matter of fact there was no emotion at all, not a single thought crossed my mind. I went to step around Nathaniel, he stepped out to block my path and POW!
It was like lightning struck. Without a single word and one swift movement I dropped my soda and slammed my fist into Nathaniel’s face. I punched him in the jaw so hard and so fast that neither he nor I even saw it coming. Everyone was quiet. Nathaniel stood there stunned and silent. He didn’t move. After a second, I bent over and picked my 2-liter soda bottle out of the dirt, and as I gathered it into my arms I distinctly remember staring, for a moment at Nathaniel’s shoes, they were so small… like a doll’s feet. I stood up with my drink in hand and Nathaniel was still motionless. I walked pass him and begin making my way home.
Dontell followed DJ and I as we walked down the hill through the apartment complex, he was poking and pushing me in the back trying to get a rise or response, trying to get me to turn around and face him, asking me who I thought I was and what did I think I was doing, but it was pointless, the gravity of what I had just done had start to set in and I was beyond elated. I had crushed my bully with a single blow and now I was a giant. Dontell was about as significant to me, at that moment, as a fly to an elephant. I was on cloud nine. I continued down the hill completely ignoring Dontell at my back. It wasn’t long before I heard someone shout.
“DONTELL!!! LEAVE HIM ALONE!!!” Tony, Dontell’s older brother was standing in front of the building they lived in. He called Dontell away. I kept walking, DJ followed, he asked no questions.
We made it back to the house and went back to business as usual. I don’t recall ever actually discussing our trip to the store at all. DJ never brought it up and I never brought it up, at least not that I can remember. But I do recall, however, is later that same day me and DJ along with another one of my cousins were in the hallway making up dance moves, when Nathaniel’s apartment door opens and he steps out, jogs down to the end of the hallway where we are standing and without ever making eye contact reaches out shakes my hand and then jogs back down the hall and goes back into his own apartment.
I didn’t have any more issues with Nathaniel after that day.