When to Fight


Given the amount of time I’ve spent talking about domestic violence and abuse over the past seven months, it would be safe to assume that I don’t condone violence on general principle. I don’t believe in pre-emptive strikes against people or nations unless they pose a true and eminent threat. I believe that folks should take the high road and exhaust all reasonable means of resolving conflict before turning words into fists and negotiations into guns and missiles.

But not in this country, and not just in Iraq or Vietnam, nor in Cuba or the Philippines (Spanish-American War, 1898 and its aftermath, 1898-1902). Our everyday activities in this country when it comes to conflict vary from the litigious to the malicious. Conflicts that were settled by guns prior to the ’60s usually involved racists, police and organized crime — sometimes a combination of all three — have involved kids as young as nine or ten for at least a generation.

As far as my growing-up years in the ’80s, despite or maybe because of the violence I saw and felt at home, I did find myself in fights. Most of my fights involved facing down muggers and potential muggers in Mount Vernon. Three involved girls, and two of those were with my first crush. I wouldn’t call the fights with girls fights though — two of them stopped because I realized that I was punching breast instead of chest, and the other one occurred in the middle of my first crush infatuation.

There were other fights that involved my identity as a Hebrew-Israelite (and as an intelligent human being) and whether I would survive in my uninviting, multicultural and cut-throat academic environment. One involved a gang-like attack two months in the gifted track, at the beginning of November ’81, when a group of Italian boys grabbed me after school and jumped me. It was ten-on-one, and with other classmates watching in laughter, I simply had to take it.

Ironically, it wasn’t a particularly humiliating moment, unlike the fight I had with my best friend from elementary school at the end at sixth grade. Upon my becoming a Hebrew-Israelite — symbolized by my white kufi — he stopped talking to me. Given that his father was a preacher man and he was his father’s son, it didn’t entirely surprise me that he didn’t accept this change. What did surprise me was that he refused to even talk about it, only saying, “you made your decision,” as if at eleven years old, I had a choice in religions. He won that fight, and even though we’d both end up in the gifted track program for the next three years, we only spoke once after that. Now that was humiliating.

But one fight from those tweener years that defined how I would respond was with my first crush’s eventual high school/college boyfriend. He symbolized early ’80s preteen White cool for any number of folks in our nerdy group. He was well traveled, spoke other languages, took Karate and played tennis, wore Osh-Kosh and sported a Sting-like (of The Police back then) hair cut from time to time. I was too naive back then to be jealous, but folks like him forced me to realize how poor my family really was. Between the cool factor, my other humiliations and the slights I faced because of my kufi and my not-so-smart mouth, and my academic struggles the first half of seventh grade, I was in need of an emotional pick-me-up.

The week before the mid-February winter break, our seventh-grade English teacher was home with the flu. Our substitute’s idea of managing a classroom was reading a newspaper while the class engaged in verbal and physical combat. It seemed that no one was safe from strife that week, including me. Mr. Cool decided that it was his turn to give me a hard time. A ten-second scuffle took place on Tuesday over the usual tweener issues of communism versus capitalism, or to use more sophisticated language, neo-Marxism versus Keynesian economics. He also didn’t like that I had corrected him the month before about Australia’s official language, which he said was “Australian.”

When I walked into the boys’ locker room for gym class that Thursday afternoon, I was greeted with two punches to my chin and face. He walked away and went through the double door to his locker, arrogant enough to think I wouldn’t respond. He muttered “stupid” as he walked away. I think it was the combination of being caught by surprise and being called “stupid” by Mr. OshKosh that got the better of me. Or maybe it was five months of enduring public humiliation combined with the sense that things at 616 were spinning out of control. Whatever it was, I finally snapped. I stared blankly at the red lockers, green doors, and depleted beige-colored walls for a couple of seconds, and then my mind exploded in violent colors. I threw my entire being into the boy as he had started to undress at his locker, knocking him to the floor. I choked and punched him until I had bloodied his mouth and made his nose turn red. He attempted to fight back to no avail, as I kept my weight on his legs while I head-locked him with my left arm and wailed away with my right hand. Just as I began to run out of energy, the gym teacher came in to break us up. He yelled at us and asked “Do you want to be suspended?”

I went into the break with an emotional boost, one that I hoped would lead to better things for me at school. I don’t condone fighting in general, but there are moments when fighting is necessary. Twenty-six February’s ago, that fight wasn’t just one to correct some of the humiliation I’d suffered over the previous year. It was a fight for my identity, as a boy becoming a man, a seventh-grader who needed to believe that he was as smart as any student in his gifted program, and as a human being capable of defending himself. That fight reminded me that I was still capable of feeling emotions and responding to those feelings in remarkably proactive ways.

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