I Beat Up a Boy for My Own Betterment
No one had any idea what to do with me when I was nine years old. That included me.
I was awkward as hell and, more than anything, I just wanted to be less so.
I was goofy looking. I had a serious overbite and was pretty tall and gangly. I had no idea how to pull off this magnificent craptastic array of physical attributes.
Adding to the mess was that I had super weird, coarse, Italian girl hair. If I wanted it to go right, it went left. If I wanted to go up, it went down.
It was like every follicle was possessed by a rogue Gilda Radner character.
There was a girl at school named Stefanie. With an F. Of course. I would spend hours in front of the mirror trying to emulate her hair. It was perfect. She was perfect. The result was never what I wanted it to be. There may have been jokes that ensued about fingers in light sockets.
Elementary school playgrounds are a hotbed of self-esteem ruining events for kids.
The problem was never really the girls. In fifth grade, girls really don’t know how to be bitchy yet. They kind of blow you off but, if you were willing to come over to their house and you brought a can of Pringles, you were pretty much going to have a friend.
Still, it’s a really sad existence when you have to bribe people to be your friend with potato chips.
It worked out, though. I was especially joyous when I got an invitation to go hang out with Stefanie with the Good Hair one afternoon. She let me wear a couple of her bangle bracelets after that. It didn’t make me suddenly cool. We never hung out again until 25 years later when we had to plan our high school reunion together. She still has perfect hair. I don’t like her.
But, the boys. The boys were ruthless. I didn’t pay any of them much attention except for one brand new student who came to our school mid-year. A cool skater dude named Matt. Matt never really picked on me but merely tolerated my existence, which was enough to make me feel like I was winning at life.
There was an entire legion of boys who were ready to jump on the bandwagon of making fun of my overbite. That was the common thread in my prepubescent bullying. So many jokes to be made.
I was a pretty passive kid. My dad tried to instill in me the importance of the age-old preemptive strike of beating them to the punch with the laugh.
My mother, who had that fate of being bullied in much the same manner, was a frequent reminder that she got through it and so would I. She grew up to be beautiful, so I had hope.
I was doing pretty well with the resources that my parents gave me until one afternoon walking from reading class to math class when it all fell to shit.
Somebody said something stupid. I can’t tell you what his name was. For some reason, my brain has deemed that detail completely unimportant.
His name didn’t matter at that moment. He was every single boy. He didn’t have to have a face or a name. He was all of my rage.
Interestingly, I remember exactly what he was wearing. It was a white Varnet France tank top. If you were a boy in the 80s, you know exactly what tank top I’m talking about. The fact that it was so generic, yet stands out so clearly in my mind, is just one of the wonders of how my brain works.
I grabbed him by his shirt and yanked him down to the ground. Two-point takedown. In the process of doing this, I scratched him so hard that I remember having skin underneath my fingernails. Skin.
I sat on him and started wailing on him like I was Scout Finch if she had actually been bitten by that rabid dog coming down the street.
One of my teachers had to come over and pull me off of him. This was mortifying because there was no one in the school that I hated more than Ms. Kennon, my fifth-grade math teacher.
She had this light brown, football helmet-like head of hair and was the meanest human being at Bellair Elementary. She dragged me by my ear to the office.
It didn’t hit me exactly what I had done until I was walking into the principal’s office. Our principal was a very sweet man and I immediately started crying and begging him not to call my dad.
My dad was the great enforcer in our house. He was tough and really good at discipline. If my dad had to be dragged out of his office and down to the school to discuss my behavior, it was not going to end well for me.
My principal did, in fact, call my dad. I can tell you that there are few times in my life that I’ve been more terrified than during that 10-minute span of time during which I sat in a chair in a sterile school office waiting for my father to arrive to deal with me.
I had no idea what was going to happen to me. Back then, corporal punishment was an oft talked about legend of school discipline.
There were rumors that the principal had not only a wood paddle, but one with holes drilled into it so that air would pass through it more quickly.
It seemed a pretty fantastic story and I wasn’t completely convinced that the entire concept wasn’t dreamed up by our mothers. Tales told on patios on late Saturday afternoons over a few wine spritzers where they would talk, in a voice just loud enough for us to overhear them, in efforts to scare us into behaving well.
Somehow the fact that our parents were cunning enough to pull something like that off was more believable than the fact that our principal brandished a large oar as a means of discipline.
My dad sat down. I looked around for the oar of doom.
The principal looked at my dad and said, “Mr. Torre we have a problem.” What happened next shocked the hell out of me.
My dad looked the principal right in the eye and said, “Mr. Little, my daughter comes home crying every day from your school because of things that your students are saying to her that nobody does a damn thing about. You’re telling me I have a problem? I don’t have a problem. You have a problem. She can beat the shit out of any kid in the school if she wants to. I’ll come down here every day if I need to.”
What. Just. Happened.
There was absolutely no arguing that my dad’s logic made perfect sense. My dad was an ex-New York City cop and can make just about anything make sense. It was aggravating as hell for me growing up, but in that moment, it was a talent I was very happy he had.
My principal wasn’t going to call his bluff either. My dad was dead serious. He would have come down to that school every single day. That moment was without a doubt, the greatest gift he ever gave me.
Mr. Little let me go back to class and when I walked into the room there were whispers.
No one had swatted me. I didn’t get suspended. I didn’t have to spend time in detention. I didn’t even have to bang erasers together after school outside teachers classrooms. Life just went on.
In that moment I became untouchable. Mess with Vanessa and she will kick your ass and nothing will happen. I was a made member of my own little one-person 5th-grade mafia. I loved it. I felt powerful.
It didn’t help me make friends. Matt, the Uber cool skater dude with the moppy hair, never asked me to the 6th-grade graduation dance. But, people pretty much left me alone after that.
I had this newfound appreciation for sticking up for myself. I never got in another fight in my entire life.
I don’t believe that violence is an answer, but in that moment, it was. I couldn’t reason with 10-year-old boys so I shocked the hell out of them. I shocked the hell out myself. I learned that I had a limit to how far I could be pushed.
Sometimes I wonder if that boy remembers the time that some crazy, goofy looking girl beat the crap out of them in 5th grade. But it doesn’t really matter. Because that day he didn’t get the best of me. I got the best of me. And I’ve kept that for years.