As our outdoor, high school assembly wound down one spring morning, my friend and I playfully tossed into each other’s shoes a variety of wood chip which coated our seating area’s floor. This back-and-forth escalated with increasing quantities of wood chips, and then, as we were dismissed and my friend stood up to head to class, he scooped up a great mass of the substance in both hands and dumped them on my head and into my shirt.
I was flummoxed, but not especially concerned–I simply brushed the chips and dirt from my hair and shook them from the back of my shirt, then took off for class myself. Still, I wondered why my friend had done what he had done.
Others had witnessed the transgression, and throughout the day they egged me on, telling me they would be “pissed” if it had happened to them, that I should fight my friend and beat him up. I had no interest, and I sensed outside forces coercing me into violence.
Midway through the day and at lunch, I sat eating a slice of pizza and cookie when suddenly my friend from the assembly emerged behind me, hoisted up my plate with the entirety of my lunch, and threw the whole combination into the trash.
“What the hell?,” I said.
“You threw away my lunch,” he said, indignant.
I hadn’t, but behind him stood the same crowd who earlier had encouraged me to get physical, and I later speculated they had stolen and disposed of my friend’s lunch in order to instigate things.
“Fight, fight, fight,” this group began muttering, not wanting to raise the attention of teachers but also wanting to further incense my friend and me; in the swirl of their energy, we were taken to the field and encircled.
As I continued to protest what was occurring, various actors from the mob informed me that my friend and I would have a three round fight, with people placing bets on each side. One figure from the mob would time each round, and my friend and I were further instructed not to hit each other in the “face” or “balls” so as to respectively maintain secrecy and dignity. Money flashed among hands, and the next thing I knew the first round was being called and my friend was upon me.
I still didn’t want to fight, and for two of the three rounds I was pounced upon, held by the shirt and hit in the chest, thrown to the ground and kicked. I struggled against my friend, but mostly to get away–I wasn’t yet retaliating so much as protecting myself, still in disbelief. All around us, people jeered, commented, admonished.
By the third round, something in me broke, and suddenly I unleashed against my friend the rage that had been building throughout the day. He tried to tackle me, and I grabbed him by the neck and threw him to the ground–he was smaller than I was, and this reversal wasn’t difficult once I set my mind to it. As he had done in an earlier round, I grabbed him by the shirt and punched him in the chest, this time swiveling with him as he attempted to escape and hailing in the blows. As a spectator later told me, my face could be seen smiling while I did this–some part of me enjoyed delivering the pain.
Because of the strength of my third round performance, it was unanimously agreed I had won the fight, and people from the mob congratulated me as they rushed off to class. Earning a portion of the bets placed upon me, a flimsy dollar bill hung in my hand, and I watched as my true friend himself limped off; later, I heard from someone else he had called his parents and gone home early, feigning sick.
As I look back over this experience, there are several aspects that stand out to me as traumatic:
The first is being manipulated by those who weren’t my friends, systematically tricked into fighting–and hurting–one who was. From this experience, I viscerally felt how underdogs were pitted against each other, how the so-called ruling class exploited them as entertainment.
More lastingly, the experience harmed me by illuminating my sadism. While I hate the fact that I was forced to fight by people indifferent to my feelings, and that I hurt my friend, I hate all the more that I seemed to enjoy it–as stated above, I was seen smiling while pummeling my friend, and those are a sight and memory I can’t forget. Although my sadism existed within me and no one but me can take responsibility for it, I also did not ask to see it; it was revealed to me by force.
That evening, I called my friend on his home phone, conjuring some reason to ask his parents to speak with him. During our conversation, I asked how he was doing, apologized for the events of the day, clarified that truly, my problem was with those who had constructed our fight–not with my friend himself. My friend offered his own apology, and we actually wound up becoming better friends in the future.
If I could change one thing about my memory, it would be to have my friend and me locate our voices, not our fists, recognizing what was occurring and declaring that we wanted no part in it. I believe that not only the two of us, but also those who taunted us from the mob were governed by minor frustrations, and that if those frustrations had only been isolated and verbalized, we might have resolved things peaceably.
I wish for all beings a clarity in which feelings can be granted space, needs granted language, and those who would be caught in the crossfire left to wander free. Most urgently, I wish these things for men and young boys.
And once more and across the years, I apologize to my friend for those blows.