So there I was, hanging upside down, flailing ineffectively as the bigger kid shook me, called me names, and most of the other kids laughed.
I was 12 or 13. I had broken my leg in gym class some weeks before, so my leg was in a cast. I had been on crutches for a few weeks, but had been upgraded to a walking cast, by then. It was during lunch break and I had been sitting off by myself, reading and hoping to be ignored. But one of the more accomplished jocks had decided to come harass me. I don’t remember what he was harassing me about, exactly. I know I was missing most of track season because of the broken leg, and it’s possible it had something to do with that. But since I was a skinny, clumsy, nerdy, gay (though not openly so—no rural middle school kid in 1973 or so was) introvert, being bullied was almost an hourly occurence.
I said something—probably an attempt at a witty rejoinder to one of his insults—and he got really angry. He grabbed my foot and proceeded to drag me across the school lawn by my cast. When he got me into the middle of the lawn, he lifted me up into the air and kicked me in the back of the head once or twice, while calling me various vulgar names most of which referred to my presumed homosexuality.
A couple of his buddies slapped, kicked, or spit on me while, as mentioned above, it seemed the entire population of the school laughed.
And then someone said, “Put him down!”
When these things had happened before, the person who usually came to my rescue was my best friend, Patrick. Patrick—the basketball star who dated a cheerleader and whose friendship with outcast me had defied the stereotypes—had saved me many times.
But it wasn’t Patrick. We had had a big fight about something a couple of weeks earlier, and we were still not talking to each other.
The person who said, “Put him down,” was Calvin. Calvin hadn’t been a particularly close friend, but he wasn’t one of the guys who regularly bullied me, either. And he was one of only a few of my classmates who was physically as big as the one who was currently holding me upside down.
The bully ignored him. Calvin asked, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
The bully responded, “Make me!”
And Calvin charged him.
I don’t know precisely what happened in the next few seconds. I was dropped onto the ground. There was some scrambling and a chaotic scuffle. By the time a couple of guys were helping me try to stand up, Calvin and the bully were going at it pretty viciously.
And finally some teachers appeared and waded into the scrum.
My leg hurt like hell, and my walking cast was clearly cracked in multiple places. I was hauled off to the nurse’s office while Calvin, the bully, and several other kids were taken to talk to the principal.
They called my mom to take me to the doctor to have the leg checked and to get a new cast. I don’t remember exactly what order the various interrogations took place. I know the nurse asked me what happened, and I think both my wrestling coach and track coach (besides those being the sports I participated in in middle school, each coach had a past relationship with my dad) talked to me before Mom took me away. I don’t think I was talked to by the principal until the next day.
I do know I was chewed out by my dad several times that night and over the next several days because I had let the bully get the better of me, requiring more medical treatment and expense. I should have stood up for myself better, Dad said. I shouldn’t have needed to be rescued by another boy, Dad said. I had better learn to be a man or this bullying would go on forever, Dad said.
Which is similar to what I got told at school. I needed to stop provoking these boys, the principal said. I shouldn’t put people like Calvin or Patrick in a position to get hurt coming to my rescue, the principal said. As long as I acted and talked the way I did, these things would keep happening, the principal said.
One of the coaches, who had spent extra time working on weight training with me during wrestling season, offered to arrange access to the high school weight room over the summer, so I could be in a better position to defend myself the next school year. The other coach suggested I learn how to be “less mouthy.”
Calvin and the bully both got a token amount of detention. One of the coaches apparently did chew the bully out a bit. I got detention, and was required to attend weekly counseling sessions for the rest of the school year, or be expelled. The counsellor, as I recall, spent all our time trying to teach me to act more like the other boys.
I only remember talking to Calvin about the incident once, after. I wanted to thank him. He shrugged it off with some comment about his dad telling him that “you’re supposed to stand up for the little guys.”
I was reminded of Calvin coming to my rescue by the dust-up between two NFL players and a Maryland legislator this last week. The sum up: Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo recorded a TV spot for a group supporting marriage equality in Maryland. Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote a letter to the team’s owner demanding the owner silence Ayanbadejo, claiming, among other things, that no other NFL player has made such statements and that speaking out on public policy isn’t something athletes should do. Which prompted Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe to write a scathing open letter on Deadspin.com, laced with profanity of a truly artful nature, and pointing out that he, another NFL player, has a vocal supporter of a similar Minnesota campaign.
Brendan Ayanbadejo’s and Chris Kluwe’s willingness to speak out in favor of marriage rights for same sex couples is a far cry from the kind of “manliness” that many (myself included) have come to expect from athletes, particularly American Football jocks. What I particularly like about Kluwe’s contribution in here (besides the fact that it’s both funny and intelligent), is that it isn’t all touchy-feely. The colorful and belligerent use of language is almost stereotypically macho, while demonstrating a basic human empathy at the same time.
That’s a definition of “manly” that we need more of.