Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Lesser-est of Two Evils

When I was in elementary school, there were two bus stops near my house. I did not have the vocabulary to accurately describe the difference between the two stops until I read "The Odyssey" in ninth grade. From the safety of my house - squarely centered on the block - I could choose to brave either Scylla or Charybdis. Despite Odysseus' heroic transcendence of both obstacles, when I was eight, no one had thought to share a copy of his tribulations with me. I was left to flummox with the decision, and, as my panicked, undeveloped self knew then, there really was no right one.

At one end of the block was the Scylla-like hell-beast I will lovingly title "Jerk-face." Jerk-face was the youngest of three boys, and although he was only two years older than me, he was a leviathan. He towered nearly six feel tall, and had a gut that hung like a damp sack of rice over the waistband of his sweatpants. Jerk-face ate anywhere from two to four packages of either Pop-Tarts, toaster pastries, or some other pre-wrapped breakfast pastry product for breakfast, and always littered his wrappers on the lawn of the sweet old couple whose house was on the corner. He and I were most often alone for the five to fifteen minutes before the bus arrived, and he was the type of bully who presented an angelic face to adults, then turned to show you the glowing embers of hell-fire in his eyes behind their backs.

Unless I timed my arrival to be almost concurrent with that of the bus, Jerk-face took advantage of every second of our time together to injure me in ways that were virtually undetectable by the school nurse or my mother when I went to one for treatment. Jerk-face could punch literally anywhere on a prepubescent body without leaving a mark. He could force you to eat anything from old leaves to small rocks (although I developed a strategy of hiding stuff in my cheeks that probably saved me from a lot of potentially dubious snacks shared with me by college classmates). Jerk-face's worst punishments came way after the fact: he would blame me for any perceived slight to his appearance or intellect, none of which I was stupid enough to perpetrate in the first place, then attack me during recess, while I was playing in my yard on the weekend, or really any time adults were not present. I was pelted with BB's, splattered with mud, pushed over onto asphalt, and forced to punch visiting friends while he watched, cackling like a hungry ghost starving for the nourishment only my suffering would provide.

The Charybdis at the other end of the block presented a far more subtle danger. I'll call them "Demon A" and "Demon B." Demon A was a scrawny, freckled, baseball cap-wearing little asshat who most enjoyed teasing me for my weight and not-so-stylish second-hand clothes. Demon B was the kind of chubby that adults still considered "baby fat," and he liked to bump me with his gut while telling me how much everyone else in our class hated my guts (oh, the irony). Since both boys were in my grade, some combination of us ended up in the same classroom every year, and in fourth grade, we were all in Mr. O'Brien's class. He was an exceptional teacher - really top-notch - but he suffered a back injury mid-year and was temporarily replaced by a woman who utterly ignored the obvious bullying happening in the room.

My life rapidly became a living hell. Not only was my awesome teacher no longer there to get my back, but my mother decided that I really needed to make nice with the Demons since we had to spend the whole year together. She called the Demons' parents, complained about the bullying, and suddenly everything they did grew quieter, subtler, and almost impossible for an adult to overhear or notice. Nice one, Mom.

What could I have done, Batman? I had one obvious choice. I started lurking in the whatever shrub or bush looked densest near either bus stop, and I would leap out and bolt for the bus as soon as either the Demons or Jerk-face had already gotten on. I did miss the bus a few times this way because my backpack or clothes got caught in the branches, but it was totally worth it. Was this necessarily the best problem-solving strategy? Probably not. Did I survive until middle school with a drastic reduction in social and physical abuse? Heck yeah. This, Batman, is the kind of conflict avoidance that yields the most positive results: if you know someone will just sucker-punch you in the solar plexus when you try to overcome their douchebaggery, it's better to hide in the bushes and know that their uppance will come.

The real win came my last week of high school when I learned that Demon B hadn't been accepted to ANY colleges because of his hideous disciplinary record, and that Jerk-face (who had graduated before us) had dropped out of school and was employed as a paper pusher in some hideously boring government basement. Demon A, on the other hand, approached me at graduation to ask if I thought it was as funny as he did that he used to torture me so. I told him it wasn't funny at all, and he seemed confused. In front of his current girlfriend (who I gather dumped him during their first semester of college), I asked him if he thought it was funny as funny as I did when he crapped his pants in kindergarten. Surprisingly, he did not agree.

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