It was his sixth grade year and the boy was not only in a new school, but he was in a new city and a new state as well. Every aspect of the life he once knew had been uprooted and planted firmly in the middle of the state of North Carolina in a small town called Wake Forest.
Mere months before the boy had been enjoying his childhood in the mountains of West Virginia. Snow was a thing. Having four seasons was a thing. All of his friends were there. The school he had only one more year left in was there. His church was there. The things and people and places he loved were all in West Virginia, not in North Carolina.
But now his parents decided it was time to make a change in it all. So they held a yard sale, packed what was left, and moved the family to Wake Forest, North Carolina.
His father had just started attending Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary there in Wake Forest after having already spent 10 years in the ministry as a youth pastor and a senior pastor across Virginia, Tennessee and West Virginia.
His mother had just become a secretary to the president of that seminary after having spent the years prior supporting her husband in ministry and raising three children.
It was all so new.
It was all so scary.
But the boy didn’t let that bother him. He was outgoing, after all, and knew he could make a lot of friends. Though, he did miss his friends back in West Virginia…a lot.
As he walked through the doors of the new middle school he was to attend, it became quickly apparent that he kind of stuck out like a sore thumb. He wasn’t a rich kid. Never had been. He didn’t dress in name brand clothes or wear name brand shoes. Not that every kid at this school was Zach Morris or anything.
Shoot…his mom cut his hair and he wore huge plastic Urkel glasses. To make matters worse, he had just started learning the trumpet the year before and was walking through the doors of a new school in a new city and a new state immediately branded as a band nerd.
No one sniffs out the weak and scared quite as quickly as a bully does, and the boy soon became an unwitting target.
His trumpet was stolen and put in someone else’s locker.
His book bag had been ripped out of his arms and his books thrown down the hall.
Threats of getting beat up were made constantly.
The boy was truly terrified and had no idea where to go or what to do. Up until this point he was kind of excited about being in a new place, though understandably nervous, but this…this was becoming too much for him to handle.
Maybe it was just the kids in North Carolina. Maybe they were just meaner than the kids in West Virginia. Maybe not. Probably not. Who knows.
The boy sure didn’t know.
The boy sure didn’t care.
That boy…was me.
I had always been an outgoing kid. I never had issues making friends. My earliest memories consisted of my years in Oak Hill, WV and Bluefield, WV that encompassed kindergarten through fifth grade where I had made friends that, even to this day, I still talk to. Many of them were even in my wedding!
That was until Wake Forest Middle School.
This new situation had me terrified.
I had never faced anything quite like this before. Bullies? People threatening to beat me up, take my trumpet, and take my school books?
What does one do in this situation? I’ll tell you what I did!! I did what any smart terrified kid would do…I started faking I was sick so I didn’t have to go to school. Of course, that only lasted so long.
Eventually the school counselor was brought in, or rather I was brought into their office. I was promised that I would be watched over and taken care of. Nothing quite like being the new kid in town and having the teachers promise to watch over you. Could I get any more nerdy?
I spent the rest of my sixth grade year scared and constantly looking over my shoulder.
It was a miserable existence.
Sometime during and after my sixth grade year from hell, I finally made a friend in the neighborhood. He was one year behind me in school, which meant he would be moving up to my school at the start of my seventh grade year which, in my mind, was a good thing because this kid wasn’t afraid of anything, and I felt like I needed that in my life.
I needed someone I felt I could connect with in the hallways that wasn’t a teacher. I needed someone I felt like was on my side, who understood the struggles of an awkward middle school kid, and who would have my back and I could have their back.
For the sake of keeping real names out of the story we will just call this kid Billy. And Billy very literally became one of my best friends. Back in 1994 we started a relationship that would last all the way up to when I got married as he was actually in my wedding. In the early 90’s we spent those middle school years stuck to one another at the hip. We were a dynamic duo. No one at Wake Forest Middle School messed with us. And if they did, well, Billy would mess them up. At least that’s what I would tell myself would happen (whether or not it actually did happen).
Billy had a short fuse at the time, if I’m going to be fully transparent. And I’m sure if he was talking to you today, he would have to agree. He got into fights both at school and back home in our neighborhood which was seminary housing for students with families. I remember one fight that broke out at the bus stop before we even boarded the bus to go to school. I am pretty sure that neither Billy or the kid he fought actually made it to school that day.
Our neighborhood was interestingly nicknamed “Little Baghdad” by some of the kids there. Pretty messed up, huh? A bunch of kids of aspiring pastors, and our little neck of the woods was affectionately referred to as “Little Baghdad”. If I recall, that was a nickname it got long before my family and I had actually moved in. Not entirely sure how it got that nickname either. I suppose pastors kids are everything people think we are after all! (Totally joking my fellow pastors kids! PK’s unite!)
The neighborhood was a large town-home complex with several cul-de-sacs jutting off to the left as you made your way from the entrance at the bottom of the hill to the top of the hill where Billy and I lived.
A hill which, by the way, was excellent for riding large big wheels, roller blades, skateboards, or bicycles down. You could get some serious speed headed down the hill until you were abruptly stopped by the curb at the bottom.
We would spend hours doing this. And then, once you were at the bottom, you could often convince an adult driving back up the hill to give you a tow back up so you didn’t have to walk back up the long hill which, of course, meant more time spent speeding right back down again.
Billy lived at one end of the town-home building and I lived at the other end. We used walkie-talkies to communicate, and had even devised a plan to run a string from one town-home to the other through the adjoining attics and attach them to cans in our rooms so we didn’t have to always buy batteries or keep the walkie-talkies on if we wanted to talk. Unfortunately, we never followed through with this plan.
In a way we were a lot like those kids from that Netflix show, Stranger Things! Minus the demogorgon. And the upside down alternate dimension. And kids with super powers and stuff.
Okay fine, maybe we were nothing like those kids, but this much we did know: this was our block. We knew it and we owned it.
The younger kids feared Billy and I, though it wasn’t because we were going around beating kids up, we just walked tall and proud. The older kids knew not to try and corner us together because that was simply not going to end well for them. We even tried to start a bicycle gang. You know the kind that stuck baseball cards on the wheels with clothespins so it sounded like you had some sort of engine hooked up to your one speed pedal bike. The more cards you had on there, the louder it sounded. The louder it sounded, well, obviously the cooler you were. And we were cool. (Not!)
Our town-homes bumped up against a huge forest which we found ourselves wandering almost daily. We would spend hours back there building forts, riding our bikes off of sweet jumps, playing in the creek, panning for fools gold (though we could’ve sworn it was real gold), swinging from vines, digging pit traps, going exploring for what we were told was the mystical butterfly garden, and yes we even got lost back there one time and my dad was REALLY unhappy with me about that one. Billy’s dad was pretty ticked off too.
Truth be told, the neighborhood really wasn’t that bad.
No one got killed…or robbed.
There were no drugs.
Weapons were not drawn on people (unless you count hockey sticks and wooden swords made from scraps of wood from the dumpster).
But some of the kids in the neighborhood were rough. Including Billy. So was I.
As an aside let me just say that Billy is no longer like this. He has since grown up, gotten married, and had children. After all, this was 1993 through 1996. He has mellowed quite a bit since then, as have I. But at the time, he had a fierce temper.
I don’t know if I necessarily took my anger cues from Billy (though I’m sure our relationship probably had some impact as all relationships do), but I do know that as a result of my sixth grade year I had made a pact with myself that I wasn’t going to get bullied anymore. If I felt cornered or under attack, by golly, people were going to get bit.
As an adult I have since learned that some times we can make these inner vows and not realize what we’re really saying, just how potent they really are, and just how much of an impact it can have on our lives.
Like the pigeon in American Tail once said to Fievel, “Never say never again!”
Why didn’t I listen to that stupid pigeon in American Tail? He was so wise!
Why didn’t Fievel for that matter? Silly mouse.
This was no different. I had said to myself, “I will never get bullied again!” I didn’t care how that became a reality, I just knew that the way I felt in sixth grade; helpless, scared, lost, and constantly looking over my shoulder…that was something I never wanted to feel again.
I soon developed a quick witted tongue that could verbally cut anyone down that had the pleasure of ticking me off or thinking they could handle me in an argument. I never got into a physical fight though. However, I was fully prepared to do so if the need arose.
I wasn’t a mean kid. I wasn’t hateful. I didn’t walk around with a chip on my shoulder just waiting for the next person to look at me wrong so I could stick my fist in their mouth. But I did walk around a lot more cautious and prepared to defend myself than I was when I was in sixth grade.
Honestly, I don’t know what snapped in me because it wasn’t like an overnight transformation. Perhaps it was just the desire to not be someone else’s punching bag. Perhaps there was a bubbling raging version of myself always below the surface that just needed the right environment and experience to draw it out of me.
Either way, the angry beast was out of the cage.
The angry beast had been unleashed.