I remember the first time I swore. Not the childish whispering of a taboo phrase I’d heard in the school yard, it was a true curse. My father would tell me, “You shouldn’t swear often. That way, when you need those words, they mean something. They can be your most powerful sentence enhancers.”
I was in in fifth grade when those words exploded from my mouth, but the seeds of that event took root a few years earlier. Due to some funky algorithms in a fledgling computer system, I spent second grade in a split class with third graders. I loved it and I wasn’t the only one who did. The class was such a success they moved us all up together to a third and fourth grade split the next year. By the end of third grade I had mastered multiplication, expanded my English, and made fantastic friends.
The teacher called my parents in for a conference. I did not attend. She told them I was at the top of the class, not of the third graders, but of all the students. She was nervous that fourth grade would bore me to the point of acting out. I wasn’t the most well-behaved student as it was. My parents left that room with two options: Send their son an hour away each day to a special program or skip me ahead to fifth grade.
The thought of leaving my friends made me sick so I begged my parents to skip me. I’d have friends, I’d be at the same school with my siblings, and I wouldn’t be one of the weirdos who goes to a special school. Now that I have children of my own, I know what my parents gave up when they made the decision to push me ahead.
With everything settled and a summer of extra tutoring under my belt, I stepped into fifth grade ready to take on the world. The next eight months shaped me into the man I am today.
The kids that were my friends didn’t see me as the cool, younger kid anymore. They saw me as a the nerdy kid. Nobody likes to get a lower grade than someone a year younger than them. I became the target of relentless and ruthless bullying.
I was chubby and they knew it. I wore matching sweat suits and they saw it. I was alone and they felt it. I was afraid and they smelled it.
My parents were amazing people. Their souls ached when they saw their energetic and outspoken son come home each day angry and bitter, but I was too stubborn to let them help. By the time spring rolled around, I was out of coping mechanisms. I’d tried ignoring the kids, I’d tried asking them to stop, and I’d spoken with the teacher about it. Out of options, I slipped a pocketknife into my backpack.
In the hectic morning routine of getting four elementary aged children out the door, my mom pulled open my bag to put my lunch in. There in the leather bottom of my Jansport she saw the bright red Swiss army knife. She pulled me out of the morning chaos to ask me about. I told her I just wanted to show my boy scout friends. I refused to go without it and promised her I wasn’t going to use it for anything. With the bus schedule drawing closer with each tick of the clock, I waited her out.
Despite managing to get out the door with the weapon, my argument wasn’t as convincing as I thought. My mom showed up during the first hour of school and called me down to the office. She wouldn’t let me go back to class until I gave her the knife. I’m glad she did. I snapped a few days later and am so thankful I didn’t have that.
It was late spring and the teacher was out for a day. A doe-eyed, brown-haired woman was left in charge of the class. I have no idea what her name was. Looking back, she was a child, probably less than a year out of college. I see her at home, frustrated that she couldn’t land a permanent job. She put her best foot forward as a sub to get experience. She went home at nights tired, but confident she was one day closer to her own classroom.
During one of the class math exercises, one of my tormentors seized his opportunity. He came over to me holding a ruler. I was sitting, staring at the completed page of numbers, praying he would go away. I felt a poke at my arm, “Shut up, Teige.” I can still feel the sharp edge of the boy’s voice.
A fire lit in my gut. My blood boiled. I balled my fists under the table. I looked up at him from my seat, “Touch me again and I’m going to hit you.” My voice shook, but the words came easy enough.
He laughed. His mouth opened too far and he tilted his head back like a cartoon character, “Hey everyone, look at this.” His head dropped and his eye’s fixed on mine. He reached out with the ruler and poked me, “Shut up, Teige.”
I burst out of my seat, sending the colored plastic chair skittering to the ground. All of the anger, all of the humiliation, and all of the year’s shame swelled in me as I swung my fist. I can still feel his nose squishing under my knuckles. It made a popping noise like one of those fireworks that shoot strings, the kind parents give out at kids’ birthday parties.
The force sent him flat on his back. Fifty shocked eyes locked on me as I stepped over him. I watched the blood ooze from his nose, run down his cheek, and drop onto the pale blue carpet. Now I could smell his fear. I placed a dirty, knock-off Nike on his throat. He reached for my leg and I stepped down, cutting off his air. His eyes bulged.
I pointed one finger at his face, “Touch me and I’ll crush you.”
The tears filled to the brim of his eyes. He blinked and they overflowed as he pulled his hand away. His chest heaved as he tried to draw a breath.
“Stop! What are you…” The substitute’s feet pattered across the room towards me.
I lifted my finger to her, “Back the fuck off.” She skidded to a stop and she put both hands up in front of her. I stared into her wide eyes as I said, “I’m going to talk and he’s going to listen.”
Satisfied, I returned to my victim. “We’re done. Don’t talk to me, don’t touch me, don’t come near me. Got it?”
His head vibrated, trapped between the cheap, industrial blue fibers and my foot.
“Good.” I pushed my foot down one more time before I lifted it off his neck and returned to my desk. I picked up my pencil and began running my eyes over the numbers while trying to sort the feelings that flooded over me.
My next memory is standing in front of the instructor’s desk. My regular teacher, Mr. Danielson, sat behind the cluttered, generic piece of furniture. His forearms were as thick as telephone poles and he rubbed callused hands over his bald head.
I had to say something in my own defense, “I told you if you didn’t deal with it, I would.”
Mr. Danielson lifted his head from his hands. He gave a slow nod, “Yes, you did. And you took care of it, alright.”
I pushed down the tears that threatened to overwhelm me. I wasn’t sure what would come out if I opened my mouth. I braced myself for the worst.
Mr. Danielson’s lips pinched together and his brow furrowed, “I just wish you had done it when I was here.”
The world stopped around me. I shook my head confused.
Mr. Danielson let out a magnificent smile and small chuckle, “I don’t think you should go to recess for a while.” I was expecting anger and a good tongue lashing, but Mr. Danielson leaned back in his chair, crossing his thick arms across his chest, “You can either spend recess in here with me or you can go to the library.”
My friends and I already spent most recesses playing Guess Who or Battleship in the corner of the library. I mustered my strength and met his eyes, “I’ll go to the library.”
“Good, head down there. I’ll see you after recess.”
I don’t think I said goodbye. I left, my punishment seeming too good to be true.
I wish I could tell you that things turned for the better at that moment, but they didn’t. It took years of hard work and grit to ride the ups and downs of life to a good place. I fought plenty more emotional, spiritual, and physical fights before I graduated high school, but that one confrontation stands out in my mind.
I broke more than that boy’s nose. The only thing worse that being the chubby, nerdy kid is getting beat up by the chubby, nerdy kid. It didn’t take long for the sharks to smell blood and devour him.
He transferred schools after that year.
Teige Weidner lives in Portland, Oregon, where he spends his days working in the outdoor industry. When he’s not writing, he can be found exploring the woods of the Pacific Northwest or playing any instrument he can get ahold of. He holds a BA in Music, a MBA, and is an active member of the Willamette Writers. Follow him on Twitter: @TeigeWeidner