I stood there stunned. No crying, no scream of agony, no reaction whatsoever. My stare clearly scared him, the bully who had plagued me for years. Why didn’t I fall? Why didn’t I hit him back. It wasn’t that I was incapable of reacting; the punch wasn’t particularly debilitating. I was simply amazed he actually hit me.
It was a sucker punch. I was sitting, he was standing behind me, I started to rise and he struck me as hard as he could along the side of my eye socket as I was still only halfway up and turned toward him. It was a cowardly punch, but in retrospect something I would have expected of him. After all, he was the brawny (if not brainy) quarterback and I was the somewhat diminutive and scholarly introvert. Not a particularly fair fight even if he hadn’t been so gutless as to strike me from behind.
The first incident of his bullying me was in seventh grade. He would follow me around and knock the books out of my hand. One day he did it while I was crossing between buildings, the books flying into the newly cut grass. Making a mocking show of helping me pick them up, it was only when I opened my book in my next class that I found he had surreptitiously tossed in a few handfuls of grass clippings. During this time my brown bag lunch would mysteriously disappear from my hallway locker on a routine basis. Early in eighth grade my pre-algebra book was stolen. I could never prove it was him, but the school refused to replace it and I barely passed the course. Consequently, I was forced to retake the class during my freshman year, thus leaving me a year behind my fellow 10 percenters in math throughout high school. I did make advanced placement English, Biology, and History; those books hadn’t been stolen.
One day in high school I was pinballed down the hallway by a half dozen of his friends out to terrorize. As I walked down the middle of the aisle, one of them stepped out from his position along the wall and shoved me into the opposing wall, where his buddy shoved me back to the other side, only to be shoved back by a third bully. Repeat until after five or six of these careens I finally lost my footing and slammed headfirst into the concrete wall as I hit the floor. All this happened within a few seconds and I never knew if any of them got into trouble, although my concussed mind seems to remember a teacher rushing into the fray. I don’t recall if my obsessed bully was one of the group, but I do remember that at least the first one was his friend.
Then came the day of the sucker punch my sophomore year. We were in chemistry class together. As usual for this less than top student, he was goofing around with the Bunsen burners, setting various stray items afire to show off. As the teacher approached to monitor him, my bully rushed over to the desk I was sitting at along the side of the room in an effort to hide his complicity. Given our history, I was obviously not interested in covering for him, and when he pushed me and threatened me by placing his fist over my papers I told him to get away. I started to rise from my seat – one of those combined chair/desks that constrict movement (I think of Senator Charles Sumner trapped by his desk as a crazed Congressman beat him to near death with a cane in 1856). Before I got halfway up and turned he had punched me with all the force behind the extra 50 pounds he had on me in weight.
To this day I recall the fear in his eyes. Whether it was because he feared retribution from the school or from me I don’t know. After staring at him in disbelief for what seemed hours but was probably 10 seconds, I picked up my stuff and walked out of the room without saying a word. The loudspeaker blared my name and his – “Please come to the principal’s office immediately!” – as I crossed the soccer field in front of the school, not caring about the rest of the day’s classes. I kept walking. By the time I got home there was a phone call from the principal telling me to meet the next morning.
My bully was there too. My eye by this time, indeed the whole side of my face, had turned a ghastly palette of yellow and green before settling into the traditional black and blue for the next week. I said nothing but was made aware he had been dressed down the afternoon before. I don’t recall if my bully got suspended, but it was clear that I was off limits to this person forever. He didn’t become a model student – in fact, he apparently continued to be a less than stellar citizen throughout high school and into life – but he never came near me again.
As I look back on the incident I still marvel that he actually hit me. Others had tried to pick on me before – bullies like to go after the little guy because the big guys might beat them in a fight – but no one ever was able to strike me before or since. I learned early on about using a person’s balance and momentum against them. I was quick and flexible enough to avoid attempts to trap me or hit me. And no one ever succeeded. So when my bully connected so demonstrably his fist to my face, even considering I was half standing, half turned, and fully defenseless at the time, I was pained not so much by the actual punch but by the fact he had actually punched me.
No one ever did again.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.