Jamie Gardner was the type of guy who could kill you with his hands if he didn’t scare you to death with his eyes. He wasn’t huge, but he was an elastic bundle of muscle and he punched faster than any of his peers. He’d put down guys bigger than him and would take on a crowd if he had to. He was the great white whale of young fighters, the type of guy you’d be surprised to find without a scar near his eyebrow.
That’s why I had to kick his ass.
It wasn’t as if he’d ever done anything to me. It was more like the first day in prison–you find the biggest, meanest guy you can and tear him up. Fifth grade in a rural school is a combination bull ride and urban street fight. There are no second chances, and if you don’t cement your reputation in the grade school equivalent of eight seconds, you’re dead. Or, at least, that was my reasoning at the time.
I was a skinny, pointy kid with strange teeth, whispy hair, and arms like the icicles that form on the underside of cars in the winter. I was beneath Jamie’s fighting weight. I was outclassed.
None of it should’ve mattered. Fifth grade in Ms. Nelson’s class was actually pretty good. I was no pariah. As was my wont at that early age, though, I wanted more. What exactly, I didn’t know. Now more than a quarter century later, I can’t recall the reasoning. I only knew that the key to my success was putting a ring of purple around Jamie’s left eye.
I passed the word on the bus after school. “Stick around,” I said, “because Jamie and I are going to fight.”
Stick around they did–my friends, his friends, and people who simply wanted to see blood. I skipped my bus stop and rode all the way to Jamie’s house. The bus emptied and there we stood at the end of his gravel driveway.
“My stepmom says I can’t fight anymore,” Jamie said. He looked a little dejected, like he half-wanted to kill me, and half-wanted to go inside for a glass of milk.
I was nonplussed. Here I stood in front of fifth grade’s best fighter, a dragon which, if slain, would serve as my escalator to heights of…of…well, I didn’t know what. But it had to be something, right?
So, I pushed him.
He stepped back and gave me a look that said, “Seriously, kid, you don’t wanna do this.”
So, I pushed him again.
There apparently was a rule that I’d walked around not knowing for a long time: when pushed a second time by a spindly little kid from Yulan Drive, Jamie’s Stepmom’s Rules on Fighting are null and void.
The next 30 seconds or so are are a blue blur of Jamie’s fists, the hood of a parked car, and sticky road tar. When I opened my eyes again, there was a crowd of people standing around me looking mildly disappointed. It might have been worse but for Jamie’s mom coming to the door and yelling at him for kicking somebody else’s butt.
“I didn’t want to!” he yelled back. He looked at me. “I didn’t want to fight.”
I stood there bleeding and humiliated. “You didn’t kick my ass, so don’t go around telling people you did.”
I made a lot of mistakes that day, but my concession speech compounded all of it into one big life lesson.
“You didn’t kick my ass! We’re not finished!”
I was screaming and bleeding as I walked back up Hialeah Ave. I held my tears until I got home and into my mom’s arms. And there I bled and cried.
Jamie didn’t really hurt me physically. In fact, he’d only done what I’d asked him to. When it was over, he didn’t even try to humiliate me. The kid had already faced a really tough life, losing his mom and younger brother when he was very young. All things considered, when it came to having to beat me up, he was a real gentleman about the whole thing.
I’d done it all to myself. I’d picked a fight I couldn’t win in an effort to win some ethereal prize that never had a chance of realizing itself. Worse, when beaten, I stood in front of a crowd of people I wanted to respect me and screamed that it wasn’t over, that I would be back, and that I hadn’t lost. That day I lost the fight and lost a significant piece of my pride in the aftermath.
It’s not a proud memory, but it is significant in how it taught me to conduct myself.
From then on, I may not have always lost with grace, but I always knew the wrong way to lose.
For an update on this post and a couple of corrections, please see “Fight, postscript.”