Previously, I described some of the ways in which shyness affected me when I was growing up. It seemed like there were rules that one had to figure out and follow. I guess you could say these are social rules. Figuring out the rules is another way of saying that we are developing social skills. It's hard to know how to follow the rules if you are shy and are not sure what those rules are or if you will get them right. By 5th or 6th grade I started noticing that girls are pretty and I noticed I was attracted to girls. It seems funny now but I wasn't sure if it was okay to admit this new perspective on life.
I was afraid it was a trick because previously we didn't hang out with girls and it seemed that girls were yucky or whatever. That whole idea is a bit funny when you think about it. Why were pre-teen boys going around saying that we don't like girls? Where did we even get that idea?
Being shy makes you do things that are not very logical. I mean, I had a goal in which I wanted to fit in and be just like everyone else. I didn't want to be by myself. I wanted to be a part of things. Yet, I did so much that undermined that goal. It makes no sense to isolate oneself when you want to be a part of a social circle and feel like you are just like everyone else. I guess it is a fear of the unknown. Shy people do things to reinforce the feelings of isolation and increase one's shyness. The fear of rejection keeps us from trying to make friends and join in...
I was so afraid of rejection that I didn't take a chance to fit in and make friends. I missed many opportunities to make friends. This made it hard to know what the rules are for how one should act in social situations.
I was so confused and my way of thinking was a bit strange, looking back. My Grandpa and Grandma were protective and I had mixed feelings about that. My Grandpa worried that I would get hurt when we took out the garbage on Tuesday nights. That was our chore since I was the oldest and a boy. He would stack the garbage pales a certain way, on top of each other so that the dogs couldn't get into them. I remember how he worried that I would get a hernia if I strained myself too much lifting these metallic garbage cans. It was a little embarrassing because it was like I felt like a wimp if I got hurt lifting maybe 40 pounds or so.
I tried to act tough as a pre-teen boy. Also, when Grandpa called me "Brucie" I would say "I'm Bruce" because it seemed tougher. I guess.
I remember Grandma yelling out "don't hurt Bruce," on some evening when I was about 11 or so. She was yelling at Mom, her daughter, and Dad. Grandma was staying in the room near the kitchen and we were on the steps going upstairs to the second floor, right outside her room. "Leave him alone."
I remember thinking "but I am bad, Grandma." Looking back it is strange that I had that sense of badness as an 11-year-old boy. That idea had been there even before they moved in with us. Who knows where I got the idea that I was "bad." It was surprising to have someone intervene on my behalf. I would come to deeply miss my Grandpa and Grandmother when they died at a time when I was so young. My grandmother was forty when she had my mother and my Grandpa was 8 years older than that.
I thought I want to be just like Grandma when I grow up. Don't get me wrong, I loved Grandpa and I felt sad that Grandma couldn't get around well. There was something else about Grandma that made me feel special. Perhaps it is captured at that moment when I realized I wasn't actually a bad person and she noticed. That's love and losing them so soon in my life was not right.
The notion that I needed protection was planted in my mind early in life. Early in elementary school, kids don't understand how painful it is when you pick on a person. I was afraid that it would only be worse for me if I told a teacher. I thought that I would be laughed at for running to a teacher like a cry baby. However, if another kid or teenager was going to protect me that was okay. That was a rule, or so it seemed.
I remember walking up the hallway steps at DePaulo Junior High School as a 7th grader, early in the fall, and Tom, a guy from the old neighborhood told me that the 9th graders might pick on someone like me someday and that if that happens I should tell him. He was a 9th grader and he had lived across the street and a few houses down from where I lived on Woodruff Street before we moved to East Mountain Drive. I said "OK." Then I wondered, what did he mean they are going to pick on me? Or they might pick on me. Hmm.
I wish he had been more specific. I imagined various ways I might be tormented by other kids. I guess it created feelings of suspense. I mean you feel like something bad was going to happen but you don't know when. This creates a feeling of dread.
I was very skinny and small, so I could not defend myself against even my fellow 7th graders much less the 9th graders. I had noticed in the 1st and 2nd grade that some kids liked to pick on other kids. It's strange how people can figure out ways to torment another person.
My friend Paul seemed to be a big guy to me and he didn't seem afraid of anyone. This would come in handy. I never had to take up Tom's stairway offer of protection from the 9th graders because none of the 9th graders did anything to bother me, they probably didn't even notice me, which is fine.
There I was standing in line for lunch in 7th grade and some guy starts messing with me, pushing me around, trying to get ahead of me. He didn't seem aware that Paul was my friend because Paul turned around and pushed this guy up against the wall rather quickly. Somehow this guy didn't look as frightening and tough as he had a moment earlier. A male teacher saw the whole incident and just gave a look of approval. In my mind, it seemed to confirm the notion that asking for help from a teacher was not allowed according to the social rules that governed behavior for teenagers, almost like it would make things worse for the teenage boy.
I remember laughing when I sat down and overheard a conversation. The guy who started messing with me sat not too far away. I heard someone ask if he was going to fight Paul after school. He said, "I don't think that is necessary." To me, it sounded like fear. Mission accomplished.
My parents encouraged me to lift weights and they bought me a punching bag. They liked Paul and thought it was a good idea that I learn how to fight or protect myself. To be honest, this was not the big city and so you could say we lived a sheltered existence. Fighting was not a common thing in the neighborhood. That's not to say it never happened. Sometimes teenage boys feel like they have to prove themselves or they feel like they will be wimps if they don't.
I actually had a boxing match with a friend of mine, once, when I was in 8th grade. It was not even like we were mad at each other. It was just something to prove we were tough guys. To be honest, I wasn't very skilled or experienced at that time. Paul had noticed that I probably could take a punch pretty well.
He said, "Dude, you remember when we were playing soccer and that ball hit you right in the face? You acted as if nothing happened."
"Yeah," I answered.
"Dude, that echoed against the houses and everyone stopped to see if you were hurt."
"Okay," I answered, wondering where this was going.
"You can take a punch. You know what to do, give it a shot."
I was thinking to myself, "but what about being punched in the stomach. I seemed to remember being hit in the stomach, though not in a fight, and it knocked the wind out of me and made me a bit nauseous like I was going to puke. Actually, that was a few years earlier when someone was picking on me.
I decided that I could protect my stomach and besides my stomach was much stronger now. So, I gave it a shot and decided to have a boxing match with my friend. I wasn't very good and felt like I was letting myself become a punching bag. I was a bit scared of hitting my friend in the face despite the fact that he was doing that to me and it wasn't even bothering me much. Someone interrupted the fight, saying, "you're bleeding, you should wash that blood off."
I was surprised and said, "No way. I can't be." Then I thought I could feel some blood dripping from my nose, and so I brought my hand up to my upper lip to check. Yep, I was bleeding and so I was a bit curious to see how bad it was, though I was hesitant to concede the match.
I didn't stay inside long. I just wanted to see if I really was bleeding. Strangely, I hardly felt anything after being hit in the face a few times. I know why and how I learned not to feel but that's for a later story.
When I came outside my friend was bragging about how he won a match with the next guy he decided to fight after me. I was a bit embarrassed as he demonstrated how he won and how easy it was. I had acted like a punching bag and nothing more. I learned how to be a punching bag from my parents who would punch me when they were in a bad mood.
Sometimes a fight can be stopped before it starts and it's all about showing that you aren't afraid. Just being able to stand up to someone is enough.
It was the summer between 9th and 10th grade when I did just that. My younger brother and his friend Tom were wanting to sell lemonade to make a few bucks. It was a hot summer day but there wasn't much of a market for making money in our neighborhood but what the heck. They could get a few dollars, learn about capitalism, and have money for the movies the next time they went.
A couple of guys came riding down the street and decided to give them a hard time with their lemonade stand. One of them got off his bike and the others were still on their bikes. I took Mike's bike and moved it out of the yard because it was in the way. Mike took it as a challenge and thought he had to show how tough he was and how he wasn't going to let anyone mess with him.
It seemed more like an excuse to pick a fight with me, since there was some tension between us, already. He's like "what do you think you are doing."
I just stood there and said, "you have to leave."
"What are you going to do take us both?"
I thought this was rather silly but I wasn't in the mood for running away like a sissy. The whole idea of two against one, especially a small guy like me didn't seem like it was going to prove a thing. I mean, how can you feel tough if it takes two of you to take little me?
I guess none of this was logical and it was just the thing that teenage boys do. At some point, my sister's friend Laurie had shown up to hang out with Carrie, my sister and maybe play kickball with all of us.
Things were becoming real or serious faster than I imagined and it hit me that I could not possibly take both of them. The bigger guy was about to get off his bike and I heard, "kick your ass."
Laurie says, "No your not."
I was wondering what she knew that I didn't know.
"There's Paul," she said. And he was starting to run and had that look that he was not afraid of anyone or anything.
He had his eyes on the bigger guy who was now riding away but probably realizing he had nowhere to go.
I was thinking, "good enough." So, I ran in the direction of where Paul had chased the other guy. I said, "Let's just go hiking up Ragged today. Just forget him." It seemed good enough for me to know that I wasn't alone and that I wasn't going to be bullied in my own neighborhood and in front of where I lived.
I was thinking, "good thing he's on my side." Paul knew how to look scary in certain moments when necessary.
I took inspiration from the TV show called "Happy Days" like a teenager trying to figure out how to act and how teenage boys and young men act. That show had Richie, Potsy, and Ralph who were friends and then there was Fonzie or "the Fonz." The Fonz was fighting Richie's battles or that's what Richie said he didn't like. One cannot help but wonder what made Fonzie so great a protector. He was not very big at all.
Maybe it was about attitude and confidence. Plus, just like on "Happy Days" Paul had his friends who were very tough looking and his brother was big and clearly quite muscular. I hardly ever knew what to say to him. Anyway, it seemed clear that Paul would be a very important friend in the overall scheme of things or in terms of how I saw things.
I'm not sure if I wanted to fight my own battles like Richie or if I was fine with being rescued. I probably liked being rescued.