I was not a very emotional kid. The only time I remember being angry was when I saw other kids bullying kids and probably 2 or 3 times I remember kids trying to bully me. Because I grew up in poverty this often involved getting physical in one way or another (pushes, shoves, wrestling to the ground, and sometimes a fist fight). I think the most impactful event involved a chubby kid named Felipe in 6th grade. A new student, Tony, had recently transferred from another school. Rumor had it he was expelled for being too rough and mean (a rumor likely started by Tony himself). Tony was small. He was the smallest kid in the 6th grade class and he was the new kid in a school that had kids from bad areas. His strategy, like most small kids in areas like this was to be loud, aggressive, and scary from the get go. I was friends with him and the group he was in, at least as much as 6 graders that only ever see each other in school can be friends. The group was always stressed by politics. Not that there was fighting but everyone was aware of their status and either trying to unglue themselves from it if they were at the bottom or stressed about maintaining it if they were near the top. I managed this with general detachment and diplomacy. Occasional misbehavior would keep me on the upper end (jokes in class, crude humor on the playground, knowing the newest curse words, etc…) It helped that I was also good in school and could help others with work.
One day I was walking out of the bathroom and noticed a crowd gathered around one of the portable classrooms. I could hear laughing and occasional ‘oooo’s. When I made my way through the crowd I saw Tony in the center of a semi circle of 6 graders, and huddled along the wall of the portable was Felipe. Felipe was a fat kid with unkempt hair. He was squishy and pasty. It didn’t help that his looks fit his personality. Afraid, timid…squishy. I remember walking up and thinking “gawd felipe you need to do something.” Tony had been messing with him before I got there, and making comments about his weight or his hair and then looking back at the crowd and laughing. Everyone would laugh. The semi-circle was boys and girls. Some of them “model” students. Some of them not from ‘the ghetto’. All standing there laughing. I looked back at Felipe. He was cowering. He was crying and trying to hide his face behind his hands. I remember distinctly realizing that there wasn’t anything substantial I could do to help him. If I helped him it would follow him everywhere. It wouldn’t do anything for him. He needed to do something. He was twice Tony’s size. All he needed to do was stand up straight and say stop and say it loudly. Tony might puff his chest but if the stop was stern enough he would disengage. Tony was tiny. But Felipe just stood there, hunched against the wall…cowering. I kept thinking “Do something. Just do ANYTHING and it will get better. You look like a 3 year old and you’re just making it worse.” I was staring at Felipe intently hoping he would see it in my eyes…but he probably didn’t see anything. Just a blur of faces through his tears, teeth flashing every time the faces laughed at one of Tony’s jeers. “Just look at him! Just look at him! How are you so fat?!?” Tony faked a punch and Felipe cowered even lower and let out an audible sob. The crowd laughed even louder and Tony turned to the crowd. His laugh was the loudest of all but then he quickly turned back and this time punched Felipe hard in the mouth. I heard Felipe grunt, and his teeth and lips went red with blood. This time he let out an honest wail and it didn’t stop. He was full on crying. Tony pointed and laughed “Oh my god look at him!” and the crowd, the girls, the boys, the “model” students, the white kids with moms that didn’t work and drove nice cars, the honor roll students… they all laughed with Tony. This is one of the few times in my life that I remember being angry. Not just at Tony, but at everyone. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t protest. I didn’t say anything. I found myself walking towards Tony and shortly after Tony was flying several feet from my shove. Tony was tiny and he flew far. He landed in a puff of dust, dumbfounded and disoriented. When he finally saw my silhouette through the dust he cried out “What the fuck?”. It was such an odd thing to say in that moment. His contorted face asked “why would you push me? I wasn’t doing anything to you? Why would you ever hurt anyone who wasn’t hurting you?”
The crowd went quiet. I was not a fat kid, or a small kid or a big kid honestly, but everyone knew I was a serious kid. No one was laughing anymore. Very shortly after, Adam another 6th grader who was part of the group with Tony and I, stepped out into the center and shoved me hard. Unlike Tony, I didn’t go flying into the air and tumbling into the dirt. I bounced back from the shove and immediately shoved Adam back and there was a 3 or 4 second scuffle that ended in a stare down with mine and Adam’s faces very close to each other. Adam was not tiny either and like me, Adam always had intent behind his actions. Now things were serious serious. Adam said something to the effect of “don’t ever mess with Tony again” and I responded with something to the effect of “Did you see what just happened? You’re going to defend him?”. Felipe, like my sister when I had took the spankings for her, slipped through the crowd and ran away. Tony had stood up and was now standing far behind Adam, still looking confused and calculating what the event had done to his status. Everyone had seen him go flying. Everyone had seen him be ‘rescued’. The crowd broke apart shortly after that and I ended up walking away alone, and for the most part, spent the rest of 6th grade alone.