When I was 11, a boy named Petey (really) picked me up out of my seat on the school bus and threw me down. Then he laughed, his friends laughed, and I sat in the aisle for a moment and did nothing.
When do you fight?
Gandhi famously advised the British to lay down their arms and welcome Hitler into their homes. His answer to the question of when to fight was simply, “never.” He believed that in order to defeat violence one would necessarily have to become violent, which would by its nature always be wrong. Fighting could not be justified, no matter what. It was therefore imperative to meet aggression with passivity.
“Then what did you do?” my mother asked the day I was tested by a bully.
I hadn’t wanted to talk about it, but I was an emotive little bastard and the woman could tell that something was the matter. She even acted the part of a normal, empathetic, cookie-baking sort of mom throughout the whole beginning of the story, an act I rarely fell for. But I was distracted. Her eyes abruptly narrowed when I got to the part about me on the ground being laughed at.
“Then I sat down somewhere else,” I said.
“He picked you up and threw you down and you did nothing, is what you’re saying,” said my mom.
My mom, who survived the projects of Manhattan and an atmosphere of drunks and convicts and heroin addicts and who, when under attack, is straight-up hood.
Oh, I thought.
Because I’m sure Gandhi was a real nice guy and all, but my parents’ logic was something like this: the world is kind of a better place without Nazis in it. The rule in my house growing up was very simple. You could never, under any circumstances, pick a fight, but when hit you must always hit back.
Friendly or thoughtful, hateful or silly, when two minds meet and interact a covenant is formed, and a relationship agreed upon. This initial mapping can be altered, certainly, but there are direct consequences to everything that comes to pass on first contact. Will the two of you ignore each other forever after that? Will you be having sex three weeks later? Or will you be picked on every day for the rest of the school year because you didn’t stand up when you were pushed down?
“Michael was hit by a bully today and did nothing,” my mom told my dad as he walked up the stairs from his man-cave.
“No,” said my dad, surprised and then angry. “No!”
My dad, who survived the swamps of Vietnam at 18 and never talks about what he saw there, but who no longer seems to believe in God and who for many years was not afraid of anyone or anything, even dying.
“What was I supposed to do?” I asked.
But I knew what I was supposed to do.
“You were supposed to get up and punch him in his face,” said my mom.
“You were supposed to stand up for yourself,” said my dad.
“Do you know how to fight?” asked my mom.
“I know how to fight,” I said.
My mom’s dad was a prize fighter. There are pictures of him on the beach with Jack Dempsey. He taught her how to throw and take a punch, a one-two piece of knowledge she’d been trying to pass along to me since I could stand. But, of course, she was my mom and a woman and the thought of being taught to fight by my mom who was also a woman was basically mortifying to the point of pain. Like, I would rather have gone to school naked, or swallowed fire, or died.
“He’s a bully,” said my dad, “And there’s only one way to deal with a fucking bully.”
In case you were wondering, this is how one deals with a fucking bully in New Jersey:
After much shouting and failed attempts on my part to reason with them, my parents forced me into the car and drove me to Petey’s house to fight him.
I repeat: My parents forced me into the car and drove me to Petey’s house to fight him. Because what?
Confronted by a development so totally insane that my brain refused to accept that it was real, that this was happening, I found myself struck numb and silent. What felt like seconds later, I was standing on Petey’s front porch. My parents were parked two blocks north, where they would wait until I had finished “what that little piss-ant started,” and then take me for ice cream. One last time, because WHAT?!
The sense of unreality had left me fearless, at least, which is not to say enthusiastic. This was simply something that I had to do.
I rang the doorbell.
“Petey,” I would say, “what you did today on the bus was really uncool, and I am here to fight you now.”
I clenched my fists. I could be a real little punk ass POS when I had to be, and on that day, I had to be. I called on Michael the Archangel and Wolverine; I would fall on Petey in a righteous blaze of holy fire and adamantium, the likes of which my town could not even fully conceive of. Petey’s mother would cradle the mangled result of Petey’s face’s marriage to my fists and sneakers and forehead and she would weep. Articles would be written. I would go to juvie for this and become “real.” A bad kid. Petey’s life would be over and my life would be changed forever. I would start smoking cigarettes.
I rang the doorbell again.
I peeked around back, then. A rush of adrenaline! He was there. We locked eyes, and I could see that he knew why I had come. But what I never anticipated was this: he was frightened of me.
He ran inside. Confused, and then amused, and then stupidly proud, I rang the bell one last time. But it was over. Petey and I did not need to fight, or even to speak, in order to amend our covenant. Nothing would ever happen there, at his house, and nothing would again ever happen on the school bus.
I walked back to the car and told the insane people who made me what happened. Satisfied, there were nods of approval and the comforting sound of the engine cough as my mom’s old Jetta came to life. I looked out the window and smiled.
The question of “When?” is answered for you if you have conviction, and that answer is “Whenever.” You’ll know a push when it happens, and then you’d better push back. But my parents taught me that it isn’t the fight so much as the willingness to fight that matters. With Petey, it was for myself. Today, I roll a little more abstract. It’s for family, too. It’s for technology, for art, and for love.
The thing is, I’ve found it’s simply finding something that matters and standing up for it that’s most important.