Humiliation and Recognition are Twins

I had heard about Froshing; the first Friday of high school year where freshmen were hazed as part of an unofficially (but truly officially) school sanctioned initiation. Dread had been seeded as the stories filtered down to middle school and fear had bloomed over the summer. On that day no chance meeting, planned activity, hang out happened without raising the prospect of humiliation, embarrassment and maybe even injury.

Pushing pennies down a 300-foot hallway with your nose, wearing a diaper all day in class, following seniors on hands and knees like a dog seemed like mild expressions of Freshie Day by the time we allowed our imaginations to run wild. “ I heard that one boy was forced to run naked through the girl’s locker room”. “ A friend of a friend’s sister carried her books on her head all day and if she let them fall, they publicly spanked her”. “ Whatever you do – don’t cry. They made this kid stand sobbing at the front of the lunchroom for an hour.” “ You can’t go to teachers for help because they are in on it”.

From Monday to Thursday that first week, the tension mounted. Innuendos, suggestions, and statements of sworn intent swirled every time you passed a senior. “ I have been waiting 4 years for this day. You are going to get everything that I did times four” was scary in its lack of detail. I was spitless and shit less by Friday morning and considered faking sickness ( I could have vomited on cue by pushing my toothbrush down my throat until it triggered a gag reflex). It was the story, epic saga, of the boy who hid at home on Friday and then had his own private Frosh Hell for a week that tipped the scales in favour of getting it over with. “How bad can it really be?” Harvey asked me. I don’t know if he took my silence as an agreement but it was meant as apprehension. “ There is a dance at 7 tonight.” Was the only words I could find and those took ten minutes to discover.

Friday morning came and we trudged our way to school. Two became three and by the front entrance, there were six of us who hadn’t been allies until we faced a common foe.The trip had taken less than fifteen minutes the first four times and this one was more than double that. Five minutes before nine, five minutes before the start bell. I could feel eyes boring into me, glaring ravenously at me scrawny frame. I hope my demeanor was saying “ Not much to eat here.’ The safety of the first period was like a sanctuary where hunting wasn’t allowed but it became obvious that the seniors didn’t need to attend their scheduled classes as they prowled the halls looking for stragglers. They were positioning themselves outside classrooms for a five-minute blitz attack at class change. Should I let it happen to me ( and get it over with)? Will they get braver in their punishment as the day goes on or tire of the hunt?” Can I just stay here for the next class?” “ Can I run?”

The teachers wasted their time doling out their lessons but all attention was focused on the noise in the hallway and our imagination. The drone at the front of the room only served to emphasize the chaos awaiting us once the door opened. I chose a ‘be first’ strategy and had my hand on the door knob as the bell rang. I thrust myself into the abyss startling two grade 12 boys and a girl. “ You, freshie get over here”. I willingly and maybe excitedly obeyed. “ On your hands and knees”. I complied again “ Put your nose on this penny and push it down the hall. Don’t stop until I tell you”. I was quick to react and moved the coin faster than they expected, five feet, ten feet, I was way ahead of them. At fifteen feet there was a shout behind me “ Okay, stop’. They seemed relieved and disappointed. “ Here wear this ribbon to let others know that someone already got you”. A yellow piece of cloth was thrust at me and they were gone looking for another victim. It wasn’t a star or a badge of honor but that tiny piece of cloth saved me from more imaginative and vindictive seniors. Before the next class started I had the ribbon on the front of my shirt without considering similarity to other persecute groups, and felt all the tension evaporate from my stomach and shoulders. The impending headache was gone and decisions seemed clearer. The whole ordeal hadn’t lasted five minutes. I observed the hunt for the rest of the day, no one was hurt and I didn’t see anything that came close to all the hype.

That was the next three years with rare exception; big promises and expectations and small outcomes. Until my senior year it all blurs together; wake, shower; walk, droning teachers, walk, sleep and repeat. Uneventful was the norm. The rare exceptions; first drink, first smoke, first kiss weren’t monumental but just broke the monotony. In the fall of my junior year, I discovered the cross-country team; a group of misfits that couldn’t make the football team mostly because, like me, they still hadn’t had a growth spurt. I found comfort in accepting the misfit moniker and joined the team.

This time I was running towards something; the finish line and a reputation. Racing over a 3-mile course, I was also escaping the sameness of early teens. The distance ate up the aches of loneliness and winning won acceptance from the oddballs and eventually minor notoriety with the general population. Chicken and egg.

Uneven ground, twists and turns and elevation changes made cross country more interesting than circling a cinder track counter clockwise. For the meager spectators, there was surprise rather than anticipation because their view was limited to their vantage point. At the start/finish line, they saw the rush of arms and legs hurtling away in a clump and then the thrill of one or two competitors loping towards the end, nothing in between. The real race was meant to be a secret to the competitors. The strategy of leading out, building a lead and holding on was challenged by a steady pace and final burst. On any given day regardless of your tactics, you weren’t sure of how the others were playing. Three to four miles is a long enough distance to come from out of sight and overtake any leader. It is also far enough that a leader can get confidence by adding yards between himself and the competition at each checkpoint. I often charged ahead not considering the consequences of walls or wobbly legs. Most races came down to me or a lanky kid, 6 inches taller than me, from a south end school, in fancy cleats. In the first year I competed we split the 6 events finishing first and second. The City Championships would settle the score.

In late October that year, we had had snow once and temperatures were consistently in the 40,s F. Frozen ground was treacherous but the nip in the air made pounding out the 4.2-mile course seem less strenuous. I had actually trained for the past two weeks, following a regimen outlined by the track coach/math teacher. Sprints, intervals, over distance, and practicing running form. I had been running all my life and didn’t know anything about technique, I had never needed to think about it.
“ Racing is different than running but you need to practice your technique while running so it is good when you are racing” he instructed all of us one afternoon. It took some struggle to understand what he meant and then to follow his urgings about “lead with your knees”, “ keep our body over your feet”, you are striding too long”.

On the Thursday before the Saturday championships, my 4 mile run with better technique felt easy and natural. Friday at school was a blur except for the strange “attaboys” from other kids and teachers after the school announcements that included congratulations to competitors (three of us) who were representing the school on Saturday. I got to bed early and overslept leaving me just enough time to walk the five miles to the park where the race was being held but no time to really prepare physically or mentally. My nemesis was there, with an entourage from his school and family. He was sporting a new warm up suit from Adidas and a gleaming white headband. He looked like the competitors I had seen on TV from Wild World of Sports. My sweat pants and t-shirt seemed insignificant. He looked like a winner. His friends, family, and coach looked at him like a winner. My cheering section was just me. The other two kids from my school were already on the course running in their age group finals and I couldn’t find my coach anywhere.

A parent volunteer shouted, “all competitors in Senior City Final to the start line in five minutes”. Anxiety, panic, terror-linked in rapid succession in a few seconds. “What was I doing here?” “ I am feeling too sick to race.” “ His cleats look fast.” “ I am going to get clobbered in front of all these people, all twenty-five parents, and siblings of other racers.”

The twenty racers, all grade 12s except me, began moving towards the starting line. Some were striding with macho bravado, others timidly trying to find a spot away from the 40 elbows and knees. I always found a spot alone as far to the left as possible. This time Adidas boy broke tradition and sidled over to within a foot of my position. Trash talking without saying a word, he stretched one more time as to remind me that he was taller and faster. I couldn’t retreat any further left so I held my ground and ignored him out of the corner of my eye. No words were exchanged. I heard a somewhat familiar voice “ Bobby, you will be okay, just run your race and stay in form” instructed the coach, wearing a school jacket. I am now sure that he had said the same thing to me before and to the other teammates who were already racing but in the moment it was a voice of encouragement. A voice that I took to heart and a goofy smile swept across my face. Adidas boy saw the insane grin and his eyes panicked for a fleeting second. He regained his composure has he adjusted his headband. No victory for either of us but even though this course was hilly, we were starting on level ground.

Racing at a high pace is as much about your head as your legs and lungs. For me, the first mental wall was within the first 5 minutes, every time. “ I think I felt a twinge in my calf”, “ My ankle is really hurting”, “ This is too hard” scream inside me looking for an excuse to quit. I know the voice and know to expect it but it often is still unsettling. I had never obeyed the urging but there is always a temptation. At the start line, I steeled myself for the fatalist’s voice by imagining a fast break and a charge for the ¼ mile. If I could put distance between me and the others, they would hear their deserter urging them to give up.

“ Runners to the line, On your marks, Get set…” “ Bang” went the pistol that evoked the startle response in me, even though I had heard it dozens of times before.

I broke fast with Adidas boy on my right shoulder and two others further to my right. 440 yards down the course with just under 1 minute gone, there were just the two of us. I loped the next ½ mile in what I imagined was perfect form and he stayed within a yard of my shoulder. I could hear his cleats on the hard ground and occasionally his breathing matching my rhythm. The first mile was the fastest either of us had started, at just over 5:10 but I didn’t feel winded and the voice hadn’t appeared. Admiration for my competition began to develop as we moved through a treed section as if joined at the hip. I couldn’t tell if he was pacing me or just keeping up. Was this his strategy – to push the pace for as long as I could manage in an effort to spend my legs? Red flags on the left, blue on the right as the course marched forward through the hilliest portion and I remembered that over the next rise was a sharp right turn and then another which was the 2.1-mile turnaround. If I was going to dictate, I needed to make a decision. In retrospect, it was probably way to far from home to be making a second break but I did it. At the top of the second right, I surprised him with the jump and myself with the speed I had found. He definitely heard his defeatist voice in that moment and let a gasp and grunt come out as I was now 5 yards, 6 yards, 10 yards and stretching ahead. I was running toward the line like I was possessed by the wind. I knew my wild stride was terrible form but the freedom reminded me of innocence and naivete that I hadn’t felt for almost 10 years. “Red on left, blue on right” became a mantra rattling in my head. “ eeeh, eeh, eeh, eeh wooo, eeeh, eeh, eeh woo, “ was the tempo of my breathing. I didn’t feel the course beneath my feet or notice when I went through the wooded portion but suddenly heard cheering and looked ahead to see I was within 200 yards of the finish line and an organizer was frantically stringing the tape across the line. I was aware but not appreciative of the clapping hands as my chest broke the tape. I looked back up the course and there was no other competitor in sight. If you can feel elated and sad at the same time, this was it. I had won but somehow felt sorry for Adidas boy (who I learned at the presentation was really named Donald). “ 21:32, 21:32, unbelievable 21:32” as a distant cry from my coach as he raced towards me with his arms both raced in the air. It took ten seconds for it to register that he was telling me my race time – he had never done that before and had never done anything with such enthusiasm. I heard an unknown parent ask “ Is that a city record?” No one seemed to know but it didn’t seem to matter. I was being back patted and head rubbed by people I didn’t know. It felt like a hero’s welcome but by noon it was forgotten. Well not completely – the 10 am school announcements announced my win and record and gave me 15 minutes of additional fame.

To be fair, I did have a light glow around me in track and cross-country seasons for the next year when someone recalled that I had won something and my yearbook picture had a caption referring to the accomplishment. The fickle nature of high school and teenagers meant that the next shiny thing was the next shiny thing and I learned that was okay.

Running Away

At the beginning of grade 7 , in 1966, my class moved to another school, not that far away but a world apart from what we knew. It had a reputation as a tough school with tough kids, ready to fight at a drop of a hat. Why dropping a hat would start a fight was a mystery to me but I didn’t dare ask for fear of starting an all out war. Twenty-five kids joining a new school gave us an awkward comfort. At least we knew each other and could rally together if we didn’t understand the rules de jour. I was sure from the first moment that one of the regular kids was waiting to pounce on one of us (me) with fists flying and feet kicking. It turned out that they were more curious and cautious than cranky and cruel. By mid-September, we were fitting in and I had a couple new east-side friends. We were all north end kids so we had that in common. Instead of twenty-five possible friends, there were now seventy-five candidates and I apparently was good at breaking the ice so I knew the names of about a dozen. The big surprise was that there were really more fish in the sea. For five years Patty had ignored and rejected my overtures and now there were thirty-two potential girlfriends. Early on Marion was the one who caused my heart to beat faster than after running 3 miles. I had never seen or met a redhead before but I managed to be in the same place as her, after watching for four days, at the morning recess. I used the ‘ we know each other but you don’t remember’ approach. Just join in and never let on that she hasn’t been introduced. Turned out she was gracious, kind and popular as well as stunning. She allowed my feigned attempt at nonchalance and it turned out that she did know my name. “ Bobby, what are you doing tonight? It’s Friday, any party plans?” I had never been to what could be described as a party or what I imagined she meant as a party. Boys and girls together, dim light basement rumpus room, music playing and some quiet necking. I wasn’t sure what or how necking happened but I was very interested, especially with Marion or even Patty. “No.” I stuttered. “Too bad.’ she replied letting me off the hook.

For the next week, I managed to be where she was for ten recesses. She went home for lunch like the rest of us and I didn’t dare follow as we lived on opposite sides of Broad Street. The weekend became painful as I anticipated 10:15 on Monday morning and our next contact. The first Monday in October something changed, Kevin appeared at our rendezvous. He had made a name for himself. I had heard about him, even before we made the move to the new school. One story was that he had been caught smoking cigarettes, that he had ‘lifted’ from the corner store. He wouldn’t have been caught at all except that smoking in the front entry of a public school still drew a crowd (even on 1966). They had been at a party together on Saturday and hooked up (whatever that meant). I don’t know the definition of hooked up but it was clear they were a couple now. I was devastated but optimistic. “He was sure to be sent back to Juvie.” was my expectation and hope. He wouldn’t be a threat for long and I just needed to stay below his radar.

Remembrance Day came and went; Kevin had stayed out of trouble and was still around Marion all the time, all the damn time. At Thursday afternoon recess, I saw a window open. There she was standing close to the wall on the west side of the school, shivering a bit and looking sad. “ Are you okay?” I tentatively offered. She looked me in the eye and started to cry. I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying between sobs. “ He…pushed .. I said no …love… rough… no … gone”. I pieced a story together that I still don’t know if any of it was accurate, and wrapped my arms around her in a consoling hug. She leaned in and sobbed harder and said “ grmpf …why…bph …snrk … Fankyou”. My imagination was too undeveloped to make a story from that but I didn’t care because here I was at 11 years old with the girl of my dreams in my arms. Life couldn’t get any better. My heart was racing, my brain was racing, I was on cloud nine. Thud. I felt a sharp pain on the right side of my head.” What the fuck are you doing?” rang as I fell to the ground. Pandemonium broke out as Marion tried to explain that we were friends and I was helping. I tried to insert that “ she was sad and crying ..” Kevin kept shouting “ what the fuck? I am going to kick your ass”. “ He pushed Marion away and kicked me in the ribs as he turned away. After two steps he swiveled towards me and said “ After school, you and me. Be there you chickenshit”.

Embarrassed, afraid, and with my ears ringing I spent the rest of the afternoon in panic mode. By four o’clock everyone in the school knew there would be a fight just outside the west gate. I was determined not to flee. I thought I could explain that nothing was going on and that Kevin and his gang would say okay and leave me alone. I didn’t understand that power could come from mindless violence and bravado.

At five after four, most of the grade 7 and eight kids were waiting by the fence. As I approached I couldn’t make out faces, the all blurred into a mass. I saw Kevin and a blob behind him and Marion standing just outside the blob. I had no blob with me. I was walking into this alone. I still fought to believe that I could use words to get out of this. Assuming a subservient posture, head down looking at the ground I started “ Kevin, you don’t understand” Boom he was on top of me, pummeling my shoulders and chest with punches working his way to my head. I wriggled and squirmed and made noises that shouldn’t come out of a boy becoming a man. “ Fight back, kick him, swing, do something” echoed in my head and yet I squirmed and squealed. I squeezed out from under him and in my head started with the explanation again. My brain said “if he comes at you again, kick him in the balls” I heard the blob chant “ fight, fight, fight” and one small voice say “ that’s enough”. My brain and body weren’t working under the same plan because as my brain was saying fight my legs were saying flight and I flew. I flew, like a chicken, west down 4th Avenue towards home with my assailant and two others following. I had a head start because my escape and choice to run had left them surprised. The other kids must have been too humiliated on my behalf to join the chase. I knew with the five-second lead I could out run them to home. No thought of tomorrow or the next day was in my brain just immediate survival. I added distance between us as my legs moved faster than ever before. Down the street, across the field with the three of them in pursuit. I could see the front of my house. There was someone looking out the window as I crossed the last street. I took the three steps to the stoop in one jump and didn’t look back until the door slammed behind me.

“ Get back out there and either fight like a man or take your lumps” shouted my dad. He was spitting his words and was visibly shaken by my retreat. “ But” started to go through my head but his eyes assured me that no logic or plea was going to change his mind. Resigned, I stepped back out into the cold.

I got in one or two punches and received a shiner, a bloody mouth, and bruised ribs and for the next month undying silent ridicule from my classmates, Marion, and my dad. Kevin did go back to juvenile detention and eventually, the vividness of my cowardice faded. I never waited for recess again. For the next two years, I lived in the shadows, alone. I didn’t relive the experience or dream about a different outcome. I went to school, did okay, went home, waited until the next morning and repeated yesterday.