The kids who walked to my high school from my neighborhood were mostly ninth-graders. They had gone to a different middle school than me so I didn’t know any of them. We moved to our neighborhood last summer after my parents finally saved enough money to buy a bigger house. So, I was the new kid on the block. Two boys named Timmy Brandon and Jesse Williams had been friendly to me when we first moved in. They were my age and had come around on their bikes. They asked me to play pick-up basketball, ride skateboards, swim in Timmy’s pool, and play video games. We had started walking to school together after the summer vacation but once the bullying started, they both got weird and began avoiding me. I knew why they backed off. It wasn’t safe to be seen with me.
There was one day though, back in the fall, when Jesse tried to help me. A day I’m just not ready to share with Dr. Evans. I don’t even like to remember it myself. I’ve tried hard to erase it from my memory and pretend it never happened. But it’s not easy, I’m reminded of it whenever I see Jesse at school or in my neighborhood.
The bullying had been going on for about a month. And on this day, for whatever reason, Jesse tried to stick up for me. Jesse was also on the small side, but not as small as me. He’s a tough kid and no one seemed to mess with him. I was walking home from school by myself when Brian and Patrick plus another ninth-grade bully named Chris Hall, started to follow me. They made jokes and laughed at me while trailing behind. Then Chris Hall ran up and pushed me to the ground and grabbed my backpack. I got back up but stood frozen as the boys dumped my books and papers all over the road.
Jesse was watching from across the street. He saw me cower as the boys finished decorating the street with the contents of my backpack and then moved in on me. Jesse picked up a rock and threw it at the bullies. It hit Patrick Reilly in the back pretty hard. The boys quickly turned around, saw Jesse, yelled out what sounded like a battle cry, and immediately chased Jesse down the road at top speed.
I remained cemented in my spot, watching in disbelief. I was finally jolted out of my trance of fear by a strange sensation. I looked down and saw a giant wet spot on my pants. Not wanting anyone else to see that I had peed myself, I frantically gathered up my books and notebooks and what papers I could find, stuffed them in my backpack, and ran home as fast as I could. An hour later, my guilt forced me to knock on Jesse’s door.
Jesse’s mother answered. She was a big woman with a booming voice and immediately started yelling at me.
“What is wrong with you, son! Why didn’t you go after my boy and help him? He was trying to protect you from those bullies!”
I dared to glance past Mrs. Williams and saw that Jesse was sitting on a stool at their kitchen island. He was holding an ice pack to his swollen right eye. I could see that his top lip had been split open and that there was some dried blood around one of his ears. His t-shirt had been torn. I looked back up at Mrs. Williams and gulped.
“Hello, Mrs. Williams. May I please come in and apologize to Jesse?”
Jesse’s mom looked me up and down. She towered over me and stood with her hands on her hips. “Alright,” she said, sighing. “You’ve always had perfect manners, so I know your parents are trying to raise you proper. But you need to stand up for yourself, you hear me? And stand with the other boys who are trying to defend you. Now I’m going to see the principal tomorrow, those boys need to learn to pick on someone their own size. My Jesse’s small but he’s quick and his daddy taught him to throw a punch. Still, he was outnumbered today. Come on in. And wipe your feet.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Williams.” I wiped my feet while Jesse’s mom turned and headed into the living room where she had been folding laundry and watching TV. Then I slowly walked over to Jesse. I stood there awkwardly for a minute.
“You okay?” I finally asked.
Jesse wouldn’t look at me but said sarcastically, “Do I look okay, Jonah?”
“No. I just wanted to…to tell you how sorry I am.”
“Man, that’s the last time I stick my neck out for you.”
“Actually, that was the first time you stuck your neck out for me. The first time anybody stuck their neck out for me.”
“Shut up, Jonah! You know what I mean. I was trying to help you by distracting those fools so you could get away. I thought we could both out run them. But you just stood there and let them beat on me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. No one has ever tried to help me. I just…froze.” I tried to explain. Jesse still wouldn’t look at me. I tried again. “Jesse…I don’t know how to fight. I’ve never fought anyone. Even if I had run after you, what could I do? They would have just beat me up too. But you’re right, I should have tried to help.”
Jesse said nothing. He just touched his ear and then examined the flakes of dried blood on his fingertips.
I didn’t know what else to say. And then I just blurted out, “They’re always there, wherever I go. They never let up. I’m sorry, Jesse. I’m really sorry. I don’t want them to ever lay a hand on you again, so I’ll tell them to leave you alone. I’ll tell them tomorrow.”
“No!” Jesse snapped. “Then they will come after me. Don’t say anything to them about me. I’m gonna stay far away from you and you’re gonna stay far away from me. You got that?”
I whispered, “Alright.”
Jesse finally turned to face me directly. “Look, I’m gonna tell you this once and then you gotta leave. Those guys aren’t gonna beat you up. They might shove you around and be dickheads, but they won’t do this.” He pointed to his puffy eye. “They’re just messing with you. They just want to scare you, they won’t pound on you.”
I was confused. “But even if you’re right, does that make it okay for them to bully me, as long as I don’t end up in the hospital? That doesn’t make any sense. That’s like saying it’s okay for them to say racist things to you because you’re black, as long as they don’t beat you up.”
“I never said any of this was okay, Jonah! Life isn’t fair, you know? I just meant that you don’t have to be so scared. They won’t take it as far as you think they will.”
I shook my head and looked toward the ceiling, tears welling up in my eyes.
Jesse pushed out his stool and stood up, looking me right in the eyes. “Look, I’m small too. Not as small as you…but the point is, I’m not scared. I got some good punches in today. Kicked that tall kid, the Reilly kid, right in the balls. He was doubled over and crying for his momma.”
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and avoided looking at Jesse. It dawned on me what Jesse was trying to say, and it was hard to accept.
“Don’t stand there looking like you’re gonna cry, I’m the one who got beat up!”
“So this is…it’s not just about me being small…it’s because I’m…” and I wanted to say afraid but Jesse interrupted me.
“A pussy,” he said flatly.
“Right.” I whispered, looking down.
“Jonah, trust me. They get off on messing with you. I know you’re scared, but you’ve got to show some balls. They can smell the fear on you a mile away.” He paused for a second. “What about your dad? Have him show you how to fight back. I mean you can’t win, but you can stand up to them.”
“Oh okay, show some courage and self-respect. Do you think they may back off if I stand up to them?”
Jesse shrugged. “I think it’s better than pissin’ your pants.”
I looked down again and hesitated. “Only problem is…my parents don’t know.”
Jesse now understood the shame I carried. It hung on my face, rising above the deep layer of fear. Kids our age are supposed to go home from school and talk about the part they got in the school play, or the A they got on a quiz, or something funny their teacher did, or the goal they scored playing soccer. Not confess to their parents that they’re being bullied.
Jesse’s tough act softened a bit and he gently pushed on my shoulder. “Hey man, this is some heavy shit you’re going through. You gotta tell someone.” He paused for a few seconds while I avoided looking at him. “Hey, you know that parents always find out anyway. Especially moms. The moms all run their mouths, there’s nothing they don’t find out.”
“Yeah…I guess,” I replied, sniffing. “But my parents will make a big deal about it to the school and these guys will hate me even more. Because I’ll be forced to tell on them.”
“True dat,” Jesse replied.
“And then I’ll be seen as an even bigger pussy.”
“For real,” he added.
“What do I do then?” I asked, finally daring to look Jesse in the eyes.
“I don’t know, bro. Even if you don’t give ’em up, once the adults know, they’re gonna be on a mission to find out who it is. All I know…I can’t be your bodyguard cuz I’ll keep getting my ass kicked and my parents will freak. I think you better just tell your parents. Take your chances.”
I nodded, knowing I couldn’t do that. “Okay,” I answered, pretending to agree. I turned and started to walk to the door.
“Hey.” Jesse called after me and took a few steps closer.
I paused and turned slightly toward him.
Jesse looked at the ceiling as if what he was about to say was too embarrassing to say to someone’s face. “You know how parents are always saying that we can tell them anything? How they will always be there for us? This is one of those times. And I know you’re like some genius, Jonah, and you’re pretty good in sports, it’s not like you can’t learn to handle yourself. But this is too much, bro. Maybe there are some things in life that are just too big to take on by yourself. Talk to your dad. He’ll help you figure it out.”
I nodded. “Thanks, man.”
I walked home a mess. Part of me felt some gratitude that Jesse had taken a beating for me and tried to give me some advice. And part of me hated him for wanting nothing to do with me. But more than anything, I hated myself for being a pants pissing pussy.
A few days after the incident with Jesse, I overheard kids talking at school. Brian, Patrick, and Chris had all received five days of school suspension. Mrs. Williams had apparently made a big scene in the principal’s office. She had threatened to go to the police and report the fight as a hate-crime due to the fact that all three bullies were white, and her son was black. I learned much later in the school year that Jesse had asked his mother to leave my name out of the whole thing. The principal believed it was an attack solely on Jesse and the school administration had taken the incident very seriously. Once the bullies returned to school from their suspension, they didn’t go near Jesse Williams anymore. This was a huge relief to me. But unfortunately, Jesse avoided me as well.
As far as my situation with the bullies, the suspension for part of their gang left the remaining boys without a leader. This gave me a break from the usual abuse. And even after they came back to school, they were all slightly better behaved. They still called me names and tried to trip and shove me, but the more serious attacks had temporarily stopped. I had become a little hopeful that my luck was changing. And then a few weeks later, it all slid backwards, and I found myself at the center of the same torture as before. This was part of my truth that I couldn’t tell my therapist. I was still a pussy.