This past school year, one of my favorite newspaper students told me she was considering switching English classes, and she asked me if she’d be able to transfer into my sixth period.
As any teacher can tell you, there’s one period every year that you label the Asshole Class, and this year, sixth period was mine. Since I actually liked my journalism student, I told her it wasn’t a great idea.
“Why not?” she asked, visibly disappointed.
Charlie was a football player, talked like Jeff Spicoli, and suffered from a significant superiority complex.
“You have to teach Charlie?” my newspaper student said. “He’s such a douche.”
I told her I wouldn’t know because I hold all of my students in equal high regard, and I almost said it with a straight face.
I said I hadn’t, and she pulled out her phone.
It was a shaky Snapchat video of a parking garage, a crowd of high schoolers posturing and yelling at each other. Then there was Charlie in the center of the frame, wearing a camouflage North Face windbreaker, his flowing hair unmistakable.
“We’re scrappin’ bruh,” he yelled over the din, and then he approached another boy with the aggression of a UFC fighter.
The video ended with them rolling on the ground, Charlie straddling the other boy’s chest and landing haymakers as another three dudes tried to pull him off.
It didn’t exactly surprise me Charlie was the one at the center of the fight, but it’s always strange to see kids in the wild, behaving the way they do when adults aren’t around. It’s the same way kids look at me when they encounter me at the grocery store, confused why I’m not sitting at my desk waiting for school to start again.
What fascinated me the most about this video, though, is that I really didn’t think kids fought like this anymore. In the era of snowflakes and lawsuits, I thought kids just took out their aggression on each other with mean Instagram comments.
“Play it again,” I said to my student.
Because the thing is, I’ve never been in a fight, and I feel like that’s weird.
To me, your first fight is a rite of passage, no different from stealing from your parents’ liquor cabinet or playing spin the bottle or running from the cops. I grew up hearing stories about my dad battling bullies on the train tracks in the ‘60s. I watched my TV heroes defend their honor on the playgrounds, getting shipped off to aunties and uncles in Bel-Air for fear of additional violence.
Getting in a fight was just a thing that happened, as I understood it. So I waited. And waited. And waited.
And suddenly I was 35 years old and I realized that maybe I wasn’t going to have to get into a fight after all.
When I was a junior, the same age as Charlie, a kid on my bus got off at my house to fight me because I’d told him to stop picking on an 8th grader with cerebral palsy. Rather than fight him and possibly probably get pounded, I pretended I had no idea what he was talking about.
Once the bus pulled away, the kid dropped his backpack and said some line that belonged in the mouth of Hacksaw Jim Duggan.
I stitched together my eyebrows in mock confusion. “Do I know you?” I said.
This tactic immediately had the desired effect.
“We’re fighting,” he said, the rise in his voice indicating he wasn’t so sure himself.
“Whatever you say, buddy. Have a great afternoon.” And then I went inside, leaving him at the mouth of my driveway.
He stood there for a few minutes trying to process what had just happened. Eventually he left, I assume walking the several miles home.
Then there was the time I was working at a guitar shop in Maryland and a customer started yelling at me because I wouldn’t return a case he’d clearly been using for the last 3 years.
The angrier he got, the bigger I smiled, until I looked like Davy Crockett grinning down a fucking bear.
“What are you smiling at?” Angry Guy finally said. “You think this is funny?”
“I love smiling, smiling is my favorite,” I said, my mouth so wide he could see my tonsils.
That’s when he shoved me. Not enough to knock me off my feet, but enough to let me know he wasn’t kidding. “How about I knock that smile right off your face?”
Even though my heart was racing and enough adrenaline coursed through me that he probably could’ve amputated an arm and I wouldn’t have noticed, I did not for a second consider hitting him back.
Instead, I continued with my shit-eating grin and picked up the phone. “I’ll be calling the police now. Would you mind sticking around?”
After he’d left, and I’d given my report to the cops, the rest of the employees at the store gathered around me and recounted my showdown with the shitty customer.
“I can’t believe you didn’t hit him back,” said one of my friends whose biceps were the size of my thighs. “I’d have dropped that dude.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, my knees still shaking. “It took every ounce of my self control, I can tell you that.”
While those two events made it pretty clear I was a lover, not a fighter, the one that really sealed the deal was when a guy broke my nose and all I did was laugh.
We were at a local punk show at a bowling alley when my buddy George, who’d had too many grown-up sodas in the parking lot, started wrestling with someone in the crowd.
Not wanting to see him kicked out, I grabbed George from behind and pulled him away from his attacker. Unfortunately for me, George thought my attempt to restrain him was a sign of aggression. He looked at me cross-eyed and slurred what I think was the phrase “letsfuckinggo,” Then, in one swift motion,he TOOK HIS SHIRT OFF AND HEADBUTTED ME IN THE FACE.
My nose exploded, spraying the people around me with blood like a bad kung fu movie. I was so surprised by the transformation from appendage to pulpy mass that I stood there laughing. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I said.
It took several of my friends to convince George I wasn’t interested in fighting him, and they drove him home to sleep it off. He called to apologize the next day, telling me he’d been blacked out, but if it was any consolation, he woke up with a wicked headache.
Then why was I feeling a spark of envy, seeing Charlie stride toward that other kid with such confidence, such conviction?
It was a mid-life crisis moment, a worry that maybe I’d missed out on an important life event. Suddenly, my youth was in the rearview mirror, my opportunity to test my skill on the battlefield all but a speck.
It ate at me the rest of the school day, until finally it was sixth period, and I was standing before my Asshole Class. There he was, Charlie, sitting in the third row.
No way could I go on teaching. All I could think about was him punching that other kid like Jean Claude fucking Van Damme.
It was time to throw the lesson out the window.
The students didn’t think anything of it, because I ask them weird questions all the time.
Over half of them raised their hands, but Charlie didn’t.
I told them about how I’d never been in a fight, how I’d always wondered what it was like. “Because I saw this video today of one of my students fighting in a parking garage, and it just made me think I was missing out on something.
The whole class turned and looked at Charlie, who sunk deeper into his seat. “Seriously?” he said in his Spicoli voice. “You’re going to call me out like that?”
“I’m not calling you out,” I said. “I’m just curious.”
The class laughed, and Charlie’s face turned crimson.
“I mean, if you really want to know what it’s like,” he said, “we can go outside now and I’ll show you.”
I forced a laugh. “Yeah? We’re scrappin’ bruh?”
He raised his shoulders. “If you want.” I could tell he was not joking, that he’d gladly provide me with the ass-kicking experience I so desired.
I told Charlie I appreciated his offer, but I was going to pass. Maybe I didn’t want to know what it was like to fight after all.