The Name That I Have
Odd that just the other day President Obama held a conference at the White House on bullying, because that was the very topic of my next post.
At the conference the president said, “If there’s one goal [of the conference], it’s to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage.”
The POTUS even confessed to his own tussles. “With big ears and the name that I have, I wasn’t immune. I didn’t emerge unscathed.”
Although I didn’t write about it at the time, a lot comes back clearly—too clearly actually—when I think of that locus, that inner circle of hell where bullying freely consorts with the demons and the damned—school.
Mine was Shirley Hills Elementary School, a couple miles west of where we lived in Navarre. Shirley Hills still sits on a hill, so the name seems apt, across from the Mound Fire Department. It still has its original brick façade, ’50s style lettering and a wide, back playground with ice hockey rink and an open field where the school athletic games were held each spring.
I was a small, slight kid, tentative demeanor, gap-toothed smile, greasy hair that Dad wouldn’t let me grow long (as all the other kids were doing), and had what I, like Obama, considered to be big, funny ears. And a big nose—just another cartridge in the chamber of the bully’s weapon.
Dad sensed I was insecure and tried to give me advice about dealing with other kids.
You see, when he was growing up, my father was a bit of bully himself, though he’d have never considered himself that, as I suspect most bullies don’t.
I could instantly spot a bully since my rough days at Farquhar Middle School back East. Dad had their swagger, cocksureness, and the ability to fill up a room just by walking through a door.
All the swagger of a field mouse. In a tutu.
Bullies also operate on a highly charged olfactory sense that sniffs out field mice in mere seconds. They observe for a while, assess weaknesses, look for reactions—then set about their plan to slowly and effectively disassemble their prey’s emotional constitutions.
My nemesis at Shirley Hills was Pat McGowan.
A wiry, snarling little American-Irish sixth-grader, McGowan needled his victims into flinching submission. He traveled with a gang of two other guys, whose names I’ve since forgotten.
Our daily confrontations always occurred in the library’s math resource center, where I was sent to “work harder on my arithmetic skills.” McGowan sauntered in, choosing to “visit” with his victims until they’d displayed the acceptable amount of fear and dread.
McGowan always settled on the easy first strike—find creative ways to mess with his victim’s surname. In my case, “Maupin” (pronounced “Mah-pin”) became everything from “Mops” to “Mophead” to “Moppet.” You name it, it was open game.
The effect was to chisel away at your equilibrium, your bonhomie, your energy and vitality. Bullies are energy vampires. They get their charge from stealing whatever vitality their victim may have. Nothing is ever given back.
After weeks of dreading math study hour, I went to Dad. He gave it to me pure and simple.
“Son, you gotta pop him one.”
“That’s right, you have to hit him. Show him you’re not going to take it anymore. Here.” Dad set about showing me how to do it.
We role-played a bit. He made me stand in for McGowan while he played me—this time in a way to effectively master the desired effect. He said I should get as close to him as I could, but not look frightened. Smile, even.
The idea horrified me. Last thing I wanted to do was get closer to the little monster. Or even smile at him.
He said there was a reason for that. “Because, once you’re calm and close to him, you can hit him hard and fast. He won’t see it comin’.”
That nearly made me faint.
But I soon recovered, because the next day was math study hour in the library. It was do, or die another day in bully-controlled hell.
Like clockwork, Patrick made the rounds. I can still recall the exhilaration of the moment.
The moment he swaggered over with his goons.
The moment I tried to calm my shaking.
That moment when I stood up and stepped over … I smiled (weakly) and peeped:
“Not takin’ your shit anymore.”
My right fist connected with his jaw.
McGowan was shocked. Before he could swing back, the librarian pulled us apart. I might have been sent to the principal’s office; I don’t remember that.
But Dad sure nailed it.
After that day, the pressure at school eased.
~ by completelyinthedark on March 13, 2011.
Posted in 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, Adults, Bullies, Casco Point, Dad, Family, Minnesota, School
Tags: Barack Obama, bullies, bullying, journals, library, math study hour, Mound, Navarre, Pat McGowan