As a young boy until well into my college years, the idea of my becoming a doctor like my father was a comfortable plan that sat well with me. Many times I had been with him when seeing patients in their home, for he took me along sometimes when making house calls. If the patient had young children I could distract or play with I was useful to him a time or two while he practiced old fashioned medicine. I say old fashioned because he still genuinely enjoyed making visits in homes. He kept his phone number listed so any patient could call him at home anytime. Such medicine is long dead now in America, and he was a dying breed as nearly all of his colleagues had already built walls around their families and lives to usher in the new way. My father remained faithful to his preferences and was beloved by his patients. Growing up watching the respect and awe so many people gratefully offered to him motivated me to desire medicine like that in my future career.
But I was never going to follow in his footsteps and make it into Duke where we all assumed I would go if I didn’t start to get serious about making good grades. In addition, it was stressed by both of my parents that I would have to go to a school with better academics than the public school system of Polk County, Florida. So at a time when I should have been rising to the top of the heap in Junior High School by ascending to the ninth and oldest grade there, I instead matriculated to be a Freshman at a private Catholic High School, where my brother Jamie had preceded me with uplifting results that saw him attend a good college.
The shift was two-fold for me, involving both a marked rise in academic expectations and workload, and also the insertion of spiritual and religious education not allowed in public schools by then anymore. I loved both of those aspects of it all, but really chafed at missing out being the king of the hill like most of my friends back at Jr. High. And to make matters worse, my delusional hopes of how a religious and spirit-based high school would prove my fellow classmates and upperclassmen to be of good Christian character, these hopes were in desperate need of a reality check. And I got one pretty darned quickly.
For many years prior, I had always been known as a defender of those being bullied, but I myself had not really endured much in the way of getting thoroughly tormented by one. Usually in a 1:1 situation I could muster up enough courage to either present a willingness to fight and thus dissuade one, or somehow sidestep the need for true battle. But as a 14 year old Freshman in high school I encountered now genuine young men rather than boys, and some really mean ones at that. Two in particular spent the next two years tag teaming me and since I was new to these kids most of whom had attended a Catholic Jr. High School together, I had no real network of friends to assist in my outnumbered defense.
What especially aggravated it all was my attitude which had been bolstered in Christian tolerance by my travels to Israel and the holy lands not long before. Just as I was really climbing a spiritual ladder of old and new testament knowledge and a fresh reading of the Gospels and challenging myself to love my neighbor (misinterpreting Jesus as somehow desiring me to endure stupid violence as a sign of faith in Him) these two boys really worked me over. It was largely my fault that it escalated because I’m sure had I not “turned the other cheek” and given them the idea that I was a genuine coward, we simply would have blackened each others’ eyes and bloodied a nose or two and then perhaps even become friends. Yet my deriding them as too stupid to be worth my lowering myself to their level, and my claiming them as spiritually worthless for tormenting an unresisting victim certainly was a different way to go: A stupid one, but it was definitely educational as time and blood loss accumulated.
I never ratted on them, choosing instead to focus on my academics, and so too I was increasingly interested in flirting with girls much more so than in coming across as a tattle-tale wussy. But it did weigh and wear me down as the next two years went by and my reputation at school became one of how I was strangely strong of spirit, but obviously either a coward or an idiot. I built my life around things I did outside of school, such as tennis (which I did play for the school’s team), and my growing popularity and friend network at the local skating rink which remained unaffected by my reputation in decline at the new school. Those worlds did not communicate with each other so my conflicting dual reputations did not collide. I found eventual romance at the skate rink, but I could never succeed with any girl I knew at the school. I can’t blame them then for thinking me unworthy.
Like such things sometimes will, everything changed in a flash with one deciding moment. As the years had gone by the three of us boys had grown rather used to an equilibrium of sorts in how they could taunt or sometimes torment and I would be a smartass perhaps in rebuttal, but not physical towards them in return. Yet for some reason I chose one day during the last week of my Sophomore year to react physically. I had only one more week to gut it out before summer break, but a terrible rage rose up in me as I was ascending an empty staircase to the second floor hallway with a large contingent of books balanced on my hip. It was the last moment between classes before the bell was to ring and the hallway was deserted already. But somehow one of the boys had snuck up behind me on cat paws. He threw a punch with all that he had at my lower back and it was a zinger. I had not seen him there and was unprepared to take the blow which landed squarely and powerfully exactly on my lower spine just above my butt.
My back uncontrollably reflexed outward and my books went flying as my knees briefly collapsed forward unto the hallway landing, and my attacker was two steps behind me laughing at the marvelous destruction and mayhem he had created. The pain in my back was tremendous as uncontrollable tears welled up in my eyes, but I could still see clearly in that last second before I kicked him with all of my might in the chest. He launched backward with both arms and legs limply flopping in trail stretching out towards anything to stop his flight backward as he became airborne. I knew immediately a mortal fear for his landing as he was going to fly down five steps or more to the midway landing of the staircase and I could easily envision him breaking his bloody neck or cracking his skull if he didn’t take the fall well.
Fortunately for us both he landed without breaking any major bone and without anyone having seen either of our blows taken or delivered. It was an absolutely private thing between us, nearly two years in the making. He was uninjured but lying on the landing in a crumpled heap moving pretty slowly, and I was gathering my things when someone then came up the stairs and soon a teacher got involved and we were sent to the Principal’s office. My tormenter never spoke to me then, or I don’t think ever again to me about anything. But as we were interrogated about our fighting, I answered honestly that I had kicked him down the stairs, but that he had struck the first blow.
The Principal was a fair man, but the school had a strict policy against fighting that included automatic suspension which would go on our record and damage my college application questionnaires one day as something I would have to explain. My tormenter didn’t particularly care as he had been suspended multiple times before and was not college bound, rather just eager to squeak through high school and get a job.
I told the Principal that I would not tolerate being suspended over this. He looked at me with some glimmer of understanding, but said how his hands were tied and that the rules were the rules, etc.
“Sir,” I asked, “During my two years at this school how many times have I been sent to your office?” There was a pause as he looked at me.
“None,” he answered.
“And during those same years how many times has he been sent to your office?” Again, a pause as his eyes now narrowed and his head leaned back a bit.
“More than I can remember,” he answered.
“Then sir, I request that you let this matter go as settled and let us get back to class.” The Principal said nothing for a moment, then looked at my former tormentor who likewise said nothing.
“Get the fuck out of my office you two.”
I went home that day and told my parents that I was not willing to return to that high school for my Junior year and that I wanted to return to public school. They were stunned with little idea as to why, but I was adamant, and I suppose my brothers before me having been very rebellious in comparison to my request to change schools softened them to count their blessings. They relented with moderate ignorance as to my motives. I was doing well academically and why in the world would I want to harm my chances to get into Duke, etc., but oh well. They could see my mind was made up for some reason or another and they relented.
I guess the last thing about it all was how I changed when my Junior year began a few months later at a MUCH bigger school where again I was essentially an unknown in the network of students. Because I was still rather short and slight some Senior football players thought I was a first-year guy and they attempted to razz me on the first day. Over the summer I had thought many times about how I handled the previous two years and had come to realize that while I didn’t know much, I knew without any doubt I would rather fight and even get my ass beat a hundred times than gain a reputation of someone who would not fight.
So on day one at the new big school as I was walking down a crowded hallway a moderately harmless hazing incident occurred where two football meatheads tried to take my backpack and push me into the lockers. Tossing my knapsack down I erupted into an immediate challenge to fight them both right then and there. Though I was much like the Tasmanian Devil cartoon whirlwind, the truth is how either of them could have ripped my head off and shit down my neck. Yet, as I came towards them in a shockingly quick attack, they both were flabbergasted at my absolute serious intent of doing battle immediately.
“I’m not taking shit like this anymore,” I yelled as the hallway traffic stopped and tuned in. “Come on let’s go right now you bastards.” And they were backing up and putting up a hand to keep me back a bit saying things like, “Woah there little guy, back up… Hey we’re sorry man, Jeez.” As I calmed down they asked me my name and where I was from etc., and things simmered down quickly. But apparently word spread across the entire campus and within less than three hours on day one at the new school I had an entirely different reputation than I had earned and could not shake at the previous high school. Now I was known essentially as a bit crazy with a “don’t mess with Verner” tag.
And the shroud of an inability to secure a girlfriend at school was forever lifted.