In school I was always an outcast. I called myself a loner, but the truth is I was an outcast.
My family moved from California to suburban Philadelphia when I was 11, and I was simply never accepted into the social fabric of my new school. I was not invited to birthday parties, to bar mitzvahs, to celebrations generally. On weekends no classmate called to suggest I meet at the playground to play ball.
I went to school. I went home. I had no social life connected to school. This hurt, of course.
Soon after we moved I began writing poems about loneliness. My teachers would read them and cry.
Then I buried myself in science and entered science fairs and won top prizes. To my classmates this made me a geek, and even weirder. And I became more outcast.
In eighth grade I started reading pornography and became obsessed with sex, a fact I could not hide. This made me yet more unacceptable to my classmates. The constant teasing took on a more sinister edge, and became something closer to taunting.
Of course, what I wanted was to expiate my loneliness in sex, which in 8th grade I could not manage. I became bitter, and angry.
One day at lunch I was enjoined by classmates from sitting at a specific table. That table was reserved for, for lack of a better term, the “in-crowd.”
I had had enough, and something snapped in me. I looked at the table from which I was excluded and proclaimed for all to hear: “All the girls in the in-group are sluts and whores.”
This outburst offended and infuriated all at the table. Girls demanded an apology. I refused. They demanded again. I refused again. Anger swelled. Voices were raised. Faces became very red as demands that I back-down increased.
I stood my ground, and repeated my assertion, again and again. It was my moment in the center of it all after years eating my lunch alone, and I was not about to back down.
The class pretty boy, the most popular boy of the in-group, challenged me to a fight after school. I agreed to the fight, and with that the confrontation ended. The matter would be settled after school.
News of my confrontation with the in-group, and that after school there was to be a fight between me and the most popular boy, spread fast.
We were to meet on a field near the school, but out of sight, the better to avoid interference from teachers.
When I got to the field the entire school was there. This was an event: the most popular boy and the outcast were going to have it out.
The greasers were there. They wanted to see the popular boy get whipped. The in-group was there, they wanted to see me get my comeuppance. The unaligned were there, they wanted to see the fight.
It was like going on stage. There was a buzz in the crowd. It was my moment. I was astonished and apprehensive. The boy I was about to fight was several inches taller than I, at least 10 pounds heavier and athletic.
One kid, a hoodlum, came up to me. He was carrying a stick the length of a billy club. He got close and whispered so no one else could hear: “If you get in trouble, look at me. I’ll throw you the stick,” he waved it for emphasis, “and you go fucking animal.”
When the fight started a ring formed around us. There were at least two hundred kids watching and there were no adults.
I beat the daylights out of that boy. His nose was bloody. His lips were swollen. His shirt ripped and covered in blood. He didn’t quit fast. I would take him down, and he’d struggle back up. I’d take him down again, and he’d struggle back up. But each time he got up he was a little woozier, a little more wobbly. And I kept pounding him.
Eventually he didn’t get up. He lay on the ground, cowering. He wrapped his head with his arms, as if afraid that I was about to kick his head and kill him. His body shook uncontrollably from pain and fear.
I looked down and saw him, a beaten terrified boy, and was overcome. I felt a wave of revulsion, an impulse of remorse, of deep shame. I could not believe what I had done, and I tried to help him up.
The crowd jeered. “Look at Phil trying to be the hero.”
I had forgotten about the two hundred kids watching, all my attention had been on the fight.
But now I saw the crowd. It was a ghastly impression. It’s the faces I remember: vacant and blood thirsty and mesmerized. They loved it. I could have killed that boy and no one would have intervened. We were 13 years old.
I swore that day never to make a fist and hit a man again. And to this day I have not broken that vow.
After that fight the teasing basically stopped. I did not all-of-a-sudden become welcome in my class—quite the contrary, I was not welcome in the in-crowd—but now no one bothered me. The next year my family moved to Europe and I forgot all about my high school until I returned a year later. On returning to town I made friends outside of the high school and simply went back and forth to the school as a kind distasteful necessity. The day I graduated was the last day I spoke to any of my classmates.
35 years after that fight I went to my 30th high school reunion.
I had thought to skip the reunion, just as I had skipped my 25th, 20th, 15th and 10th reunions. This time there was a class website and a near daily stream of imploring e-mails sent mostly by classmates I had hardly known. I had read a few of the e-mails, but not responded to any of them. I thought of the huge energy some of my past contemporaries were putting into planning the event and was both mildly astonished and vaguely amused. I had told a friend over a cup of coffee that I would no more seek-out my high school classmates than I would dig-up last year’s Christmas tree in the town dump.
The Saturday afternoon of the reunion my evening plans fell through, and I decided “what the hell, I’ll go to the reunion.” I found an e-mail with the time and address and, without having RSVPed, got in my car and drove the two and a half hours to the reunion. I arrived mid-party, paid the admittance, and grabbed a beer. Had my weekend plans not fallen-through I certainly would not have attended. After all, I had not kept-up with a single person in my class. I was living in Manhattan, and my time in a suburban Philadelphia high school was something I had not thought about in years, much less missed.
I had not finished my first beer when the boy I had fought 35 years before, now a man of 48, came up to me, half drunk, and said: “Phil, you want to go to the field behind the school and mix it up over the girls?”
“Jon” I said, “that fight changed my life. Remember when I tried to help you up? How everyone jeered and said I was trying to be a hero? I swore then that I would never fight again, and I haven’t.”
I went on to tell him how rattled and ashamed and horrified I was when I looked down at him, bloody, shaking and terrified. How I was revolted I was by the faces of our contemporaries, who were delighted with the spectacle, like Romans at the Coliseum.
Jon looked at me. His face became like putty on the front of his skull. He looked somehow deflated, and he said: “wait here” and left. He returned a few moments later with his wife in tow. “Tell her the story,” he said. And I told the story again. Then we opened fresh beers. Jon starting telling jokes and I started chatting with someone.
A few minutes later Jon reappeared. He had brought someone to me. “Tell them the story” he said, and I told the story.
As the evening wore on Jon came back to me at least 5 times, each time with someone else in tow. Each time he said: “Tell them the story.”
Each time I told the story Jon looked vulnerable and sad but strangely relieved.
As I drove home I thought about the reunion. Sipping beer and chatting with old classmates had brought me no sense of nostalgia for my time in that suburban Philadelphia school. I did have a few business cards in my shirt pocket that I had accepted in conversation, but I knew I wouldn’t be calling anyone from my class. My time there was over long ago, and I would probably never go to another reunion.
Still, I marveled at the exchange I had had with Jon. It seemed to me, as I drove the New Jersey Turnpike back to New York City, that he had carried the humiliation of that fight with him for 35 years, a kind of inner irresolvable loathing and shame. And I had the unmistakable impression that somehow, in hearing me tell the story of our fight again and again from my point of view, that Jon’s pain and humiliation had been washed away.
How well I remember those high school cliques! I enjoyed reading that.
This is a beautiful piece, my old friend. Such a very similar experience as the one I had on a playground in suburban New York, beating up a kid I had absolutely nothing against, simply because a mob of kids—some of whom had picked on me—were egging me on. I felt, simultaneously, self-disgust for perpetuating this stupid violence; elation at finally being a “winner”; and utter helplessness at being in a ridiculous, mindless situation over which I seemed to have no control. I too had an epiphany about the nature of violence (and mobs), and likewise have never hit anyone since that strange and awful day. And as I mentioned when we talked, the kid I beat up is now a multi-millionaire who has built a business that benefits millions of people. I hope someday I will be able to meet him and apologize.