Strong Armed in the School Yard

As I turned the corner onto Commonwealth Avenue, and passed the construction site that had occupied the already-scant visitor (2-hour, non-permit) parking spaces for the last few days, a memory bubbled to the surface. As I finished the warm-up walk and started my half-hour run around the reservoir, I couldn’t shake it.

I was perhaps nine. Standing at the corner of the street below the hill waiting for the bus to take me home. I was with a couple of friends, and we were bored and young. The schoolyard where we stood had a fence that was under construction, just an upright post with a bar for chicken wire.

I had recently seen Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood Men in Tights and found myself intrigued by a pose adopted by Little John, where he wraps both arms around a staff held across his shoulders. It seemed leisurely and badass, and I wanted to try it out for myself. So, I approached the upright bar, just at my shoulder height, and did so, wrapping both arms lithely around it. It was comfortable, and I held the position for a few seconds.

“Check out strong man over here,” came a gruff call from an approaching construction worker.

I was just old enough to recognize mockery, but not quite old enough to know how to react properly. Instead, I dropped my arms, stepped away from the fence, and hoped to all the deities new and elder that the bus would hurry up. I don’t recall whether it came with “Get away from there” instructions. But, I do recall feeling very small, very weak.

Back in my late twenties, as I crested one of the early hills in my run, something occurred to me. The difference between that moment, and me teasing my friends and family–and sometimes strangers–was subtle and key. In that moment, I was being mocked, and I knew it, because I was not part of the joke, I was the butt of it. He was calling to his friends, with a “Look at this freak!” circus barker air. Whereas sassiness and sarcasm, at least how I aim to do them, are inclusive of the subject of the joke. “Look at this silly thing you just did. Anyone could make the mistake, but let’s all take a moment to laugh at it,” instead.

I then started to feel a little larger about that moment, so many years now gone. The old adage about bullies needing to put other people down to feel good about themselves notwithstanding, my thought now was: some construction dude in his thirties or so straight up mocked a nine-year-old. I won’t judge his self-esteem, but it’s kind of a dick move.

In other words, if I could go back to that moment with my knowledge of my older self, I might have reacted more appropriately. Flipping him the bird, for example, or just calling him a douche.

As I paced on the spot at the red light coming back across Chestnut Hill Avenue, the main obstacle between me on the reservoir and Beacon Street, a large black pickup truck blew straight through the red light. I was glad I had not been too antsy to leave, and waited until all the cars stopped. However, I also felt justified (as, in my old age, my tolerance for douchebags has decreased significantly) in flipping him off as I jogged across the street.



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