Back when I went to elementary school, in the mid-seventies, life was pretty old-fashioned. Unlike the chaufferred children of today, kids back then – all of us – walked to school. Though there never seemed to be anyone to play with during the summer or on weekends, hordes of kids came out of the woodwork like zombies every school morning, stumbling sleepily towards compulsory attendance.
The elementary school was at the end of the block behind my street. From my house, it was actually faster to walk there than to get in the car and drive around the block, not that anybody would have driven us; that’s something people just didn’t do in the seventies. There were two neighbors between my house and a path that cut back to the school. The path took you along Mr. Geisinger’s property and past his gargantuan woodpile before opening up into a large field. Through the field you hit the tennis courts (which also served as parking lots for the teachers), then the playground, and finally the brick school building.
By the time first grade came around, I was expected to get myself to and from school. I walked the path every morning and afternoon. It was a really nice walk, actually. There were a lot of trees on our end of the path, a perfect setting for a seven year old with a wild imagination. There was a blackberry bush at the back of Mr. Geisinger’s lot, and in the wintertime, a low, wet area near the field would freeze over and make a perfect little spot for sliding and skating.
I walked to school by myself. There weren’t any kids in the houses immediately surrounding ours. It seemed like most of the kids lived at the far ends of our street. But there were a few boys one or two years older than I who lived somewhere near us. Oddly, I never knew where they lived, or what their names were. But they were a classic gang of bullies. All three of them are probably fat and bald and have to pay for sex nowadays. That’s my fantasy, anyway.
Now, maybe it was because I walked by myself, or maybe it was because I was a silly-looking girl with funny teeth and glasses, but for whatever reason, those three boys decided to pick on me. It started out as just teasing, but as time went on and no one ever said anything to them, they got bolder (and meaner). I remember walking home one really snowy winter afternoon, heading across the tennis courts. When I got to the field and stepped onto the path, the boys were there, playing around on the icy patch. They started teasing, taunting me. I just kept walking. If I don’t look at them, they’ll forget I’m here, I remember thinking to myself. One of them picked up a snowball and threw it in my direction. It missed, and I kept going. My teeth were clenched. I was angry, not scared. I knew that there were more of them than me, and they were bigger. I couldn’t do anything but keep walking, and that made me really mad.
Suddenly, WHOOOOMPF. Something violently knocked the wind out of me. Then I realized that an icy snowball had hit me square in the back. My eyes welled up and I could hardly breathe. I stopped for a second to catch my breath, and everything got unnaturally quiet. My boots no longer made crunching noises in the crusty snow. My winter coat stopped swishhing as I walked. The boys were quiet, too. They knew someone had hit me hard, and they were waiting to see what I would do. Part of me wanted to cry, because I was scared now on top of being really, really angry. Plus, the snowball had hurt. A lot. But I knew that crying was something I could not do.
Catching my breath, I paused a second longer. They boys had started laughing again and I knew they were going to start throwing more snowballs soon. As much as I wanted them to feel bad for hurting me, I knew it wouldn’t do any good. I took a deep breath, and without turning around, I just kept walking.
Their disappointment was palpable.
But I had just discovered a very valuable secret. I had figured out, with my innocent, naive, seven-year-old brain, that this was an interesting sort of outcome. Those bullies had hit me, so score one for them. But I had kept my composure, and had not let myself give in to fear and panic. They expected me to burst into tears and run home, but I hadn’t; and this, for them, was a total spoiler. I didn’t enjoy my moral victory much, but I sure felt better about ruining theirs.
After the snowball incident, the bullies seemed far less interested in picking on me than they did some of the other young kids. That lasted until late spring. Just when the weather had started to warm up and the days began to grow longer, the three boys started antagonizing me again. They did annoying things like splashing me with water from a puddle, or standing in the middle of the path so I had to walk around them. I never said a word to them. This was mostly because I had no idea what to say; plus, I figured that talking would let on exactly how scared I really was of them, and it seemed better to to just keep quiet. I’m sure they thought I was a weird kid. That probably didn’t help matters.
One really nice afternoon, I started down the path on my way home. They boys were ahead of me and I walked really slowly, hoping they wouldn’t see me. For some reason, I just didn’t want to have to walk past them that day.
Unfortunately, they stopped, and I didn’t have much choice. They stopped just past Mr. Geisinger’s wood pile, a tall, neatly-stacked thing that was probably higher than my dad’s head. One of them pointed back at me and said something I couldn’t understand. Another one said something like, “hey, let’s have a fight.” A fight? What sort of kid would want to fight with a girl? I stopped, my shoulders even with the wood pile.
“Yeah,” said the biggest one. “Let’s have a fight.” He picked up a couple of pieces of gravel from the path. “Let’s have a rock fight,” he grinned.
My stomach lurched. Were they planning to throw rocks at me? I glanced around, trying really hard not to look as scared as I felt. There was no way to get home other than past them, down the path. The brush was too thick for me to try to run through the back yards, and anyway, I had never tried to go that way before. I wasn’t sure where I would end up. And above all, my mother had told me very sternly to stay on the path. I was almost as scared of breaking that rule as I was of these boys about to throw rocks at me.
The big one tossed his rock near my feet, as if he was inviting me to pick it up and play with them. I didn’t move. What should I do? What could I do? My heart was pounding. This was the most afraid I had ever been in my whole young life. The other boys picked up some rocks, too. I did the only thing I could think of: I ducked behind the woodpile.
Though it was tall, the pile wasn’t very wide across. I would guess it was six feet wide or so, and maybe about the same height. I’m sure it is actually even smaller, since this happened when I was quite small. But, for some bizarre reason, the boys didn’t try to come around the sides of the wood pile to get me. And I felt strangely safe behind it, as if there were unwritten, unspoken rules about the pile being an uncrossable line. I pressed my back as close to the musty wood as I could get.
Soon enough, the rocks started coming over the top of the wood pile. At first, they landed quite far behind me, since the pile was tall and the boys had to throw the rocks fairly high to get them over it. But after a while, they started getting better, throwing them higher and landing them closer to my side of the stack. I tried to look through the logs to see them. Finally, I found a chink big enough to get a glimpse of the other side of my barricade. They were standing a short distance away from the pile, picking and throwing the stones lazily, as if they were skipping rocks down at the pond.
As I watched them, my heart pounded so loudly I was sure they could hear it. I glanced to my left, towards the back yards, to see if I could spot my own house. Even if I could have seen it, there was no clear way to get through the brush, and I was leery of giving up the relative safety of the woodpile for an exposed retreat through unfamiliar territory. I was trapped.
Suddenly, there was a sharp sting on my cheek, just beside my nose. It startled me more than it hurt, but I put my hand up to where I had felt the pain. My fingers came away bloody. I shrieked, mostly out of surprise. The rocks stopped coming.
I stepped out from behind the woodpile. There were the three boys, each one holding a little stone. My hand was up to my face as I came out. I walked towards them, lowering my hand as I did. Blood gushed from my nose and dripped onto the ground. The boys dropped their rocks, and stared at me in shock. Later, I wondered if they thought I had run away long before.
Clenching my teeth to keep from crying, I walked past the three of them. None of us said a word, and I looked hard at each of them as I went past. Finally, when I reached the edge of Mr. Geisinger’s house, my self-control gave out, and I ran the rest of the way home as fast as I could. Once inside, with the door locked behind me, I tore up the stairs to my bedroom and finally let mysef cry.