From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul on Love & Friendship

On Shame and Shadowboxing

Nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as real strength.

Ralph W. Sockman

That summer I spent my days with a group of young men whose long, stringy hair was bleached from sun and saltwater. This was in Corpus Christi, Texas, on the Gulf Coast, and the boys went surfing in the mornings then returned in the afternoons to play football on my parents’ lawn. My parents warned me about them. They knew about cars and smoked cigarettes, and when they took off their shirts for our games, their chests and arms were hard with muscle that came from paddling out into the ocean before dawn. Girls fawned over them, and that summer I idolized them, too. I’ve forgotten all but one of their names, Barry, though maybe another was called Todd. Always in this ever-present gang of boys there is one named Todd.

My father didn’t like the boys smoking around me or their long hair, and he didn’t like things he’d heard about them, things he wouldn’t tell me. But he wanted me to spend more time outside and must have figured that since the games took place in our front yard, the shadow of our house would protect me from them, from their influence.

Earlier that year my father had taught me to throw a football, and by summer I could pass the length of two, sometimes three, lawns. These were high, arching throws that should not have come from the small arms of a boy who preferred books to ball games. Every time I heaved the football, I expected it to veer off course into a window or under the tire of a passing car, but instead it almost always went where I wanted it to, into that pocket of my father’s chest and arms. “Perfect,” he would say. “Right in the numbers.” When I played football with the boys, I was “All-Time Quarterback,” which meant that I threw for both teams and got sacked a lot.

In addition to teaching me how to throw long bombs, my father also taught me how to fight. He stressed that I should never throw the first punch, but once it’s thrown, I shouldn’t hold back. My father had fought a lot: In his youth, in the army and once in a pool hall after a man made a vulgar innuendo toward my mother. He taught me how to shadowbox and how to hit someone, how to twist my fist just as it made impact so that it cut the skin. He encouraged me to bite, scratch and pull hair, to use sticks or attack from behind, to kick whoever had started the fight in the shins or between the legs, or to stomp the bridges of his feet. I nodded as my father told me these things, but I knew if the time came, I would worry that hitting someone would only make him hurt me worse. In the pool hall, my father had hit the man in the knee with a pool cue, and when I asked him if it had broken, he said, “The stick or his leg?”

Maybe I wanted so badly for Barry and Todd and the boys to accept me because each of them seemed more like the young man my father was than I did. And maybe, too, that’s why my father worried about my time with them and taught me how to fight. He thought the boys would bully me, take advantage of my adoration, and he knew I would not snitch on them. I would suffer their insults and mockery because I feared bringing trouble to anyone, and he saw that these boys thrived on trouble, as probably he had.

But in the summer when I was fourteen, the boys tolerated me because of my quarterback abilities and my parents’ long, even lawn. The target of their harassment that summer was a boy named Robert, but they called him Roberta. They called him Roberta because of a high voice and the feminine lightness in his stride, something like a prance. For three months, he stayed with his grandmother who lived across the street from my family. Robert usually left on his bicycle in the mornings and returned in the afternoons while we played football. When he rode past, the boys acted as if they were going to peg him with the football. Although they never actually threw it, every time one of them dropped back and took aim with the ball, Robert flinched. Sometimes he fell off the bicycle and turned red. If his grandmother tottered outside, the boys waved at her and asked Robert if he wanted to join the game. He never did.

I felt sorry for him and hated to see him turn the corner on his bicycle because I knew Barry and Todd would start insulting him. He made an easy target, and for all of their muscle and mouthing off, for all of their bragging and bravado, they were weak, insecure boys. But I never interfered with their cruel impressions of his prance or tried to silence the jokes they made about his voice; I just waited for the game to resume. As much as I wanted them to lay off of Robert, there was always the great sense of relief that the insults weren’t being hurled at me.

After almost an entire summer of enduring their threats and slurs, something happened on a hot August afternoon. I’m not sure what changed that day; maybe they’d finally pushed him too far, or maybe he’d been planning it all summer. Maybe he’d been scouting our games like a coach from an opposing team, looking for weaknesses, trying to identify the player who would fumble or fall most easily. When Barry and Todd started in on Robert when he returned from his bike ride, he didn’t retreat. Instead of sulking away, he stood flat-footed in his grandmother’s driveway and started insulting me. I can still hear his high, girly voice coming across the street, across all of these years.

I hoped the boys would rush to my defense, but as Robert marched into my yard, they only laughed, their eyes boring into me as if it were the showdown they’d been waiting for all along. My knees trembled as they did when I had to speak with girls. With everything Robert said, the boys cackled louder. He fed off their laughter, his words growing louder and more harsh, and soon the boys rallied behind him and egged him on. They listened to him as a football team listens to its quarterback.

That afternoon when he gathered the courage and confidence to insult me, I did the one thing that would have disappointed my father: I threw the first punch. I whipped a hard, perfect spiral into Robert’s face. Then as he brought up his hands, I exploded across the yard like a fullback charging for a touchdown, barreled into his chest and knocked him to the ground. The boys closed in around us, yelling and laughing. Robert and I grappled with each other—he was much stronger than I would have anticipated—then I managed to mount and straddle his chest. Aside from an awkward, frantic slap that bloodied my nose, I owned the fight. My fists flurried on his face, and his pale, freckled flesh tore between my knuckles and his cheekbones.

Soon my father broke through the boys around us and pulled me off him. Because he never learned the truth behind the fight—Robert, like me, would never tell—I knew he was proud of me. I felt ashamed, and even then wished I had the strength to walk into my house and leave the boys in the sun. The truth is, while I’ve grown to resemble my father in many ways—his stubborn optimism, his broad, round shoulders and his inclination to protect those he loves—on that day in the yard, I was the weak one. I think Robert understood this. He saw me as an outsider in the group, someone like himself who would never quite fit in, and he knew the boys would turn on me. If his eyes would have been open, he would have seen that I winced with each strike, and was as scared and ashamed and in as much pain as he was. It was as if I were shadowboxing, throwing blows at my own image, and with each swing, I came that much closer to connecting.

Bret Anthony Johnston

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