As Long as You Didn’t Start It

He is in sixth grade now. Few things have changed for him at Sanders Elementary. He still wears corduroy pants and khaki button-down shirts. On one arm, he has two bracelets, names of men missing in action from Vietnam. On the other arm, he has one bracelet with the name of a man missing in Vietnam. He has posters up in his bedroom of naval aircraft carriers, F-14s, F-18s, and F-16s. He also has a flight jacket with patches on it of fighter planes. He rarely wears it because he lives in Corpus Christi, and it is rarely cold. He is still one of the smallest in the class, and Ben and Aaron still pick on him and call him a member of the Nerd Herd.

One December day, it is brisk enough for him to wear a jacket, so he wears the flight jacket. As he rides the bus home, he notices Brandon in the back making faces at him. Brandon is in fifth grade, but is a husky kid. They have never had problems. When Brandon sees the boy look at him, he says, “What’s up, dude? Catching a flight today?”

The boy just turns around without a word. He doesn’t want the attention; he wants even less to fight about it.

The boy is one of the first off the bus. He crosses the street and is three houses away from his home. As he is getting to the second house, he hears Brandon call, “It’s a really, really nice jacket. But don’t shoot Snoopy down, okay?”

He has endured a year and a half of this, and he is not afraid of a fifth grader. So he yells, “Come on, punk!” This is not an invitation to fight. It is him saying to knock it off.

Now, a different voice answers. It’s Sean, a black kid who lives two houses away from Brandon at the end of the block. Also a fifth grader. He’s coming across the street toward him and yells, “You wanna fuck with him, you gonna fuck with me!”

The boy does not know Sean, but he drops his bag and goes to Sean in the middle of the street. Sean bumps up against him chest to chest. The boy pushes him. Sean bumps him again. The boy pushes him again. Sean takes a step toward him, and the boy pushes Sean again. Sean takes a step forward, punches the boy in his left cheek, then tries to run.

The boy grabs him with his left hand, pulls him back, spins him around, and throws an uppercut. Sean is stunned. The boy uppercuts again. Sean reels. The boy uppercuts again. Sean staggers back, and the boy lets him go. Sean continues up the street with Brandon and a couple of other boys.

The boy’s adrenaline courses hot through his body. He is trembling. He stifles the urge to cry. He picks up his bag and walks inside. He drops it near the kitchen table. He can hear his mother’s sewing machine going upstairs, so he heads upstairs. He settles on the carpet near her, his hands trembling.

“Mom?”

“Yes, honey? How was school?”

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“I was in a fight.”

“At school?”

“No. Just now. In front of the house.”

“Ok. With who?”

“A kid I don’t really even know.”

“What happened?”

“One kid made fun of my jacket. I told him to stop. The other kid said he wanted to fight me for messing with his friend.”

“Did you start it?”

“No. They were making fun of me.”

“And you stood up for yourself.”

“I guess so.”

His mom shrugs. “Ok. As long as you didn’t start it, it’s fine to defend yourself.”

That night, he lies in bed hoping that no one will know about the fight. He isn’t sure if he won. He isn’t sure if other people will want to fight him. He isn’t even sure he was defending himself. After all, he pushed Sean first, right?

The next morning, his mother drops him at school. No one talks to him, so no one mentions the fight. Maybe Sean forgot about it and no one else talked?

He walks into the back of his classroom. As he does, Jessica Bates wheels around in her chair: “Gordon, is it true that you kicked Sean’s ass?”

He stops dead in his tracks and looks at her. “Uh, yeah. I guess so.”

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