Punch You in the Eye

Have you ever been bullied?  If you attended high school, there’s a chance that you have been.  Movies have us programmed to think that bullying only happens to nerds at the hands of the jocks, but they have that wrong.  In real life, no one is immune. Any one person from the proverbial and stereotypical teenage clusters of “try hards” emulating some sort of identity, the nerds, the preppies, the stoners, the jocks and cheerleaders, and the goths, could be attacked at any time.  An infiltration could come from within a core group, Mean Girls style, in an attempted usurping, but, more commonly, bullying occurrences happened across groups.

Movies do accurately portray how brutal bullying is. Bullies will torment your life. You will be viscously made fun of so that your bully can increase their own popularity and feel better about their life. Teen insecurities are a strong weapon, exacerbated by hormones which can incite soul punching verbal insults and humiliating physical actions more strongly than a twelve pack of beer will in an arguing couple. 

In the latter half of these movies, the victim strikes back against their bully using their wits, brains, and/or newly begotten brawn, whatever means necessary, for their own self-preservation.  In Back to the Future, George McFly knocks his bully out with a single punch to the face.  His fist encapsulates all this newfound power after he witnesses Biff sexually assaulting the object of his affection in the front seat of a car.  Many of these movies end in a similar manner.  The nerd is victorious, the girl in his arms and the bully to never bother them again. 

These movie tropes had to come from somewhere.  Part imagination, yet completely predicated on real life, albeit an exaggerated nonfiction.  I could use real-life events to spin a fictitious story on how I was able to stand up to my bully and take victory laps around his prone figure with my hands held high, my entire class clapping and cheering around us.  Instead, I will tell you the true David versus Goliath story in how these events went down and we can learn how these works of fiction may have been inspired.

I was a teen.  I attended high school. I was bullied.

My bully’s name is Jason W.  He was a 2000 graduate of Pittston Area High School, just as I was.   My last name also begins with a W and so we were always placed in the same homeroom together, from freshman to senior year.

Luckily for me, the bullying did not begin as a high school freshman.  That would have broken me.  I began 9th grade at the local public high school fresh out of nine years of private Catholic schooling.  I was eager to make new friends.  Because I am an extrovert, I wanted to have a gigantic throng of buddies, but, because I was a hormonal teen, I wanted my new gaggle of friends to be comprised of all the popular girls and hot guys.

I was also horribly, horribly insecure.  I had a sister-like cousin who was a grade ahead of me.  She was beautiful and popular and a cheerleader.  As a fourteen-year-old who wanted to desperately fit in at my new school I thought the best way to do this was to imitate my cousin.  Though I felt more comfortable encasing my short, curvy, and slightly overweight five-foot frame in bright polyester shirts, peasant blouses, and long colorful skirts, I chose the more fashionable clothes for the sake of popularity. I dressed like just like her, in plaid skirts and pants, shiny button-down blouses, and high heeled Mary Jane shoes, buying my clothes from the trendy or classically preppy stores like Express, The Gap, and The Limited. 

I also covered myself in makeup, hiding my lack of self-confidence in pounds of pancake foundation so that my mask was obviously visible by the makeup line where head meets neck.  I learned from and copied my cousin’s daily routine of eyeliner on top and bottom lids, three or four shades of eyeshadow, mascara, blush, lipstick, AND lipliner.  It was the 90s, so my naturally thick eyebrows were plucked down to a thin line, a slender worm instead of bushy caterpillar.

I completed this fashionable look with a bobbed haircut that included a set of thick straight bangs and a metal mouth of braces.  I was like Josie Grosie from the beginning scenes of the movie Never Been Kissed, looking as awkward on the outside as I felt on the inside yet encased in a costume of discomfort that I thought my peers would find acceptable. 

Fortunately, for me, I was accepted.  This was the mid-90s and everyone’s fashion sense and aesthetics looked just as ridiculous as mine.  Some were better at pulling it off.  People like my cousin would be beautiful in anything, even with that telltale sign of pancake makeup at the neck and the over-the-knee socks meet short, kilted skirt that Clueless had made fashionable.  But there were plenty of other teen girls who looked just as ridiculous as me. 

Freshmen year went bully free.  No one threw mean words or unkind thoughts my way and I was able to spend those nine months slowly befriending my own little clique of girlfriends. We were a tight knit group of five who were in the second tier of popularity.  We were on the precipice of ascending to that top tier as we frequently hung out with the most admired teen girls and boys within our class.  We were sometimes invited to their parties, and eventually were given admittance to their lunch table and smaller gatherings, but in ninth and tenth grades this was less common. 

In the fall of 1997, my sophomore year of high school, we five had been invited to a Friday night party in the coal banks.  Cindy had invited the four of us to sleep at her house.  Her mom was a sound sleeper and wouldn’t notice if we got in late.  Even more importantly, Cindy’s central Pittston location would allow us to walk to the coal banks from her house.

Pittston was located deep in the vein of the booming anthracite industry of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The coal mined from within this small city made for a thriving economy and a hub of business activity for over a century.  Then, in 1959, the Knox Mine disaster happened.  When you mine under one of the largest rivers in the state, you are just digging for trouble.  A gigantic hole formed on the bed of the Susquehanna River and water poured into the mine for three days. 

We would be partying within the culm banks, the leftover dirt, slate, and unwanted detritus from the usable coal dumped in gigantic piles of filth mountains, from that very mine.  When the Knox Mine disaster happened the coal mining industry in the area disappeared, as did the booming economy and all its commerce.  Forty years later, hometown teens had nothing better to do than hang out in valleys of coal dust and drink cheap beer and chain smoke Marlboros. 

My clique of friends arrived at the party after dark, fashionably late, but not on purpose.  We were not aware that the Keystone Light consumption had started when the sun was still up.  I was as sober as a nun when a drunken Jason, then only the nasally voiced boy from my homeroom and not yet my tormenter, approached me.  He was close to a foot taller than me, with ears that stuck out and a flattened nose that gave the rest of his face a squished appearance, resembling a never-once-dead monster of Frankenstein. 

He bent down and stuck his tongue down my throat as he groped my chest.  “You have big boobies,” he slurred. 

As glaring of a sexual assault that this was, teenagers in the mid-nineties were quite unaware of the many nuances that make a sexual offense. I did know that I did not like his slug-like tongue slimy within my mouth or the rough way he had grabbed me.  Stunned, I froze for three seconds and then pushed him in the chest as I pulled away.

 I wasn’t given a chance to voice my displeasure. Someone shouted “police” and we all dispersed, running away as fast as our legs would take us.  I arrived back at Cindy’s with a heart racing from the late evening exertion and my once white shoes now almost completely black.

The torture started shortly after that party. 

It began in homeroom.  He sat three people behind me.  He would call insults up to me as we sat there for the twenty-minute attendance class that began our day.

“You’re so ugly.”

“You’re fat.  You have a gigantic ass”

Wow, you have a bigger nose than Big Bird.”

Each slur was said within ear range of the Ws, Ys, and Zs of our sophomore class.  His ugly opinions of my face and my body shared not just with me, but our contemporaries, and so these ideas now not only belonged within him but were perhaps allowed to give birth within others. 

I pretended to ignore the insults as he lobbed them my way, either with a straight face and a feigned nonchalance of not hearing his denigrations or loud and contrived laughter meant for someone else.  Inside, it was anything but relaxed.  My brain absorbed his insults and magnified all my insecurities.  Everyone must think that I was ugly and fat and that my nose longer than Pinocchio’s.  Jason said it out loud, but everyone else had to have been thinking it.  I started to believe it.  I would never, ever, no matter how I dressed, applied my makeup, or cut my hair, be as pretty as my cousin.  I was ugly. Fat. Disgusting. My nose, thighs, hips, and butt all competed against one another over which was the largest. 

Ignoring Jason led to more hostile bullying tactics.  His most aggressive attack came late  one morning, at the beginning of our lunch period.  I had just walked into the lunchroom with a few of my friends only to be immediately separated from them by a forceful hand that grabbed me from behind. 

Jason. 

He was behind me, his arm across my chest and gripping me by the opposite shoulder, holding tightly so that I couldn’t move.  With his free hand he slapped my butt repeatedly.  As he struck me, he shouted out to the group that had gathered around us, “Look at this fat ass.  Your ass is fucking huge. Have you ever seen such a fat ass?”

I was frozen.  Horrified.  After several rounds of this indignity I broke free of his grasp and escaped, in tears, from the lunchroom.  I refused to enter it for weeks, choosing to eat my bagged lunch in the dimply lit lobby outside.  My friends sat with me. 

Why did he bully me and bully me so aggressively?  Was it because we were from a shitty town with nothing to do?  Because I had pushed him away from me in the coal banks?  Was he trying to make himself more powerful? Look cool? Was he just that big of an asshole?

It was all those things.  Life, including bullying, is complicated.  And it complicated my life.  He made it so that I feared going to school every day.  My heart would pound as I entered homeroom, hiding my fear behind a big smile and fake laughs at things friends and classmates said.  You don’t bother me.  But he did.  I was filled with dread every time I stepped into the lunchroom, wondering what kind of attack he had planned, or what he would do if we passed one another in the hall.  Would it be a fake punch to the face or a more aggressive and classic act of knocking my books on the ground?  The bullying didn’t happen every day and so the guessing game of would he bother me today caused a constant heavy chest of waiting for it to happen.

My after-school life suffered because of this as well.  I would arrive home and lock myself in the bathroom, crying and refusing to come out.  It wasn’t just teen hormones that would cause me to snap at my mom, but teen misery.  I put even more time and effort into choosing my school outfits, putting my mask on, fixing my hair into Velcro rollers so that my haircut, layers to emulate Rachel Greene from Friends, fell perfectly.  If I could look prettier, maybe he would leave me alone.  The prettiest girls never got bullied from outside their group.  That harassment only came from within. 

This did not work.  The agony continued through to the end of sophomore year.  Summer came.  I lost a bunch of weight. When we entered eleventh grade, I had a lot more confidence.  I wore less makeup.  My group of friends had expanded.  As a high schooler, it was all about your appearance.  To me, nothing was more important than being physically attractive to the opposite sex.  Bullies thought the same way.  Jason branched out to other victims. He couldn’t make fun of my fat ass anymore.

            Fall and winter passed without much incident.  Then, a rainy morning in early spring, I heard that nasally voice echoing down the long hallway where most upperclassmen classes were held. 

“Here comes someone waddling down the hall.”

It was me who was waddling.      

There was a reason for this.  It was the same reason for my summertime weight loss.

I have multiple epiphyseal dysplasia.  Danny DeVito suffers from the same ailment.  It is a genetic condition-thanks Dad- that affects the ends of your long bones.  It can cause deformities in your legs, hips, back and/or arms as one grows.  I am fortunate and only my legs have taken on the brunt of multiple epiphyseal dysplasia.

 I was diagnosed at age five, when my growing legs started to grow into each other.  My knock kneedness became more and more obvious as I grew, but my doctors advised against corrective surgery until I finished growing.  At fifteen, and five feet tall, I made the decision to have double reconstructive surgery.

The operation took place the day after my sixteenth birthday.  May 27, 1998.  Both femur bones were broken, and titanium rods were hammered down the entire length of each long bone to hold my newly straightened legs in place.  I spent a week in the hospital, connected to a morphine drip that I only used once because I didn’t like getting high-yet. Between the anesthesia, pain pills, and trauma from the surgery, I didn’t have an appetite for weeks.

The summer was spent in wheelchair as I attended physical therapy three times a week learning how to walk again.  Junior year began three months post op and I still walked with a noticeable limp that disappeared with time.  The limp, my waddle, came back in inclement weather.  Rain, snow, any kind of front that moved in caused an ache in my knees that made it painful to walk. 

“Here comes someone waddling down the hall.”

It was the most innocuous affront he had ever directed at me, but, at the same time, the cruelest.  Yes, I was waddling, but I had just had both of my knees fucking broken and I was in a lot of fucking pain.  The fury of a year’s past of bullying combined with my pain and I was overcome with the rage and the need for retribution.

My next class was just a few doors down and I hurried inside.  The only person in the room was my Physics teacher. I slammed my heavy Science book on the table as I huffed, “I’m so angry I could punch him.”

Mr. Skechus shrugged.  “Well, why don’t you?”

I looked at him.  Mr. Skechus wore a bushy gray moustache and a perpetually amused expression that matched his acerbic sense of humor.  Tanya would end up marrying his son, Teddy, fifteen years later.  They shared a similar wit.  I couldn’t tell if Mr. Skechus was serious or not, but I took his question as permission.

The adrenaline coursing through my body was fierce.  I was riled up and no longer felt any pain.  I marched, not waddled, out into the hallway to meet Jason three doors down.  He stood like an overlord in the doorway of his next class, observing the action in the hallway and occasionally calling out a greeting or insult, depending on whom he laid eyes on.  His hands were in the pockets of his letterman jacket, which he wore more than necessary so that he could proclaim to the world that he was a member of the football team. 

I stood defiantly before him, standing up straight and proud with my head tilted up so that I could stare him in the eye.  He looked down on me with narrowed eyes.

“What do you want?” He sneered.

“What did you say to me?” I challenged him.

He let out a scoffed laugh.  “Ha!  You can’t even walk right!”

I didn’t have time to think about what to do next.  My body took control over my brain as I brought my hand back and involuntarily curled it into a clenched fist.  Using all the skills I had recently learned by following along to Billy Blanks’ kickboxing videos and evoking all the mental anguish this piece of shit had caused me into my right fist, my hand shot up and forward with all my might.  I hit my target square on, or almost square on.  My hand made contact with his face and his head rolled backward on his neck.

His head recovered quickly, back upright on his neck in a few seconds, but his face betrayed his disbelief.  Eyes wide in shock and jaw slack, he looked at me, his sneer replaced by an open-mouthed look of surprise. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

Once again, my brain had no time to think about my actions.  Possessed by the ghost of Bruce Lee, I punched him again.  And again, my fist hit its target and his head rolled backward.  Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me.  Yes, shame on you, Jason.  The “athlete”, with over a foot of height and pounds of muscle on me, had just been punched twice by a diminutive and essentially handicapped girl.

“Don’t you ever fucking talk to me again!” I shouted at him. 

My heart was racing, and I could feel it pounding the blood throughout my body.  I was warm and breathing heavy and couldn’t really make out what was happening around me.   I stormed off before he could reply, making my way back to Physics class, where Mr. Skechus began class as if nothing had happened.

Physics preceded our junior class lunchtime and throughout that entire period of science I wavered between feelings of pride in having finally stood up to Jason and nervousness that I was going to be suspended for my violent outburst.  Pittston Area wasn’t a very large school, and my actions took place in front of dozens of students and plenty of faculty.  My actions were bound to be reported to the principal.  I waited for the classroom phone to ring, but the call to the front office never came. I like to imagine that the school staff had been waiting for the day for someone to give it to Jason and that they all quietly pumped their fists in exultation at me.

Word had no problem in getting around.  Forty-five minutes later I made my way to the lunchroom and my arrival was greeted with a thunder of applause.  Friends, footballers, and peers made their way to me, clapping me on the back and grabbing me proudly at the shoulder.

“Rachael, I can’t believe you did that!” said in a completely different tone than Jason had muttered that sentence.

“You are fucking awesome!”

“Way to go!”

My classmates may also had been eagerly anticipating the day that Jason was stood up to.  Who would have thought it would have been me?

Though she be but little she is fierce.  I am strong, and not just in the physical sense.  I tolerated Jason’s mental abuse for months, going to school and making it through each day no matter how much I hurt on the inside.  He made my life suck, but I persevered.  This takes courage. 

Violence is not to be condoned, but sometimes it may be the only option left to bring about change. My self-preservation was on the line and someone like Jason would never have stopped his bullying tirade through words and reason.  The bullying would have continued in some form if I had not taken action that day.

Jason took my words to heart.  We still had the rest of junior and all senior year to get through.  Twelve months of sitting in the same homeroom and socializing in the same circles without a word ever coming my way.

He never bothered me again, nor did I see him after we graduated.  Twenty years later, on the rare occasion that my mind takes me back to high school, I wonder about him.  Where is he?  What does he do?  Is he a middle-aged bully?  One thing that I don’t question is that he’s gone downhill since.  High school was his peak.  After all, isn’t that what the movies teach us about bullies?

Rachael Wesley: I am an unpublished author who is looking to change that.  I live in Denver and am a writer and a high school intervention teacher.  I find life to be the most fulfilling when I can spend time with my loved ones, traveling, and seeing live music.  The pandemic has drastically changed this, and I currently find my sanity with outdoor activity and escaping with reading and writing. 

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