Three Bullies and a Bathroom

Out there it was life. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to jostle and jockey and flirt and meet and talk and laugh and smile. I wanted to live the life of a 6th grader. But, like every other morning, I was in my homeroom counting the seconds until the bell signaled the beginning of the school day. Because, out there, in the halls lurked Paul, Richard and Jeff.

My life was structured around avoiding them. If they were having a bad day, then I was going to have a bad day. Any time I stood out, I could expect a finger in my face and a warning to shut up or get a beat down. If my locker closed too loudly, I would become the recipient of a threat expelled with a dose of halitosis.

One of my many survival techniques included holding it. Yes, holding it. Every morning, I would sit at my desk and hold. I would watch the clock and hold. The bell would ring and I would hold. It was only after my classmates found their seats that I would ask to use the restroom.

With permission secured I would dart off down the hall, place both hands on the bathroom door, and hold. The following steps were crucial and had to be taken in order:

  • Step 1: Open the door slowly.
  • Step 2: Listen for voices. Are there any?

If “no”, then proceed to Step 3

If “yes”, is it one of the three?

If “yes”, run to homeroom and hold.

If “no”, proceed to Step 3

  • Step 3: Look to see if the bathroom is occupied?

If “no”, then proceed to Step 4

If “yes”, is it one of the three?

If “yes”, run to homeroom and hold.

If “no”, proceed to Step 4

  • Step 4: Is a stall available?

If “yes” proceed to Step 5

If “no”, return to homeroom and hold (a urinal leaves you too exposed)

  • Step 5: Number 1 or number 2?

If number 1, proceed

If number 2, return to homeroom and hold (You never do number 2 at school, period.)

This system worked well…until it didn’t.

I was in the library when nature called. Most of the time, I could ignore it. Not this time. I began to scrutinize my options. I had all the bathrooms ranked in terms of their level of potential danger. The safest one was too far away. The nearest one was by the gymnasium.  However, it was also near a bank of glass double doors leading to the outside. This provided an easy escape for those in the bathroom doing no-good. Necessarily, it was ranked as one of the more dangerous ones. Normally, I would avoid this one. Not this time.

I began walking briskly to the gymnasium. With a pang of pain, I picked up my pace. With another pang of pain, I swung the door open ignoring Steps 1 and 2. A partition obscured my view so I had no choice other than to bypass Step 3…right into Paul, Richard, and Jeff.

The fear took my breath away. I retreated into the space between the partition and a urinal as they encircled me. Paul pulled out a bag of pills, looked at the other two and announced “You know, maybe Shawn can help us out.” Turning his attention to me, he asked “How about you hold onto this bag for us until the end of school day?” “Well…um…sure Paul” I replied.  I slowly extended my hand to take possession of the bag when the bathroom door opened and he appeared.

Another 6th grader…Ted Shaw.

In a series of effortless movements, Ted grabbed the bag of pills and gave Paul a massive shove. “What the hell is going on?” Ted bellowed. Richard and Jeff backed up. Ted looked at me and in a reassuring voice said “Shawn, go on, get out of here.” I slid along the partition until I reached the other side, opened the door, and ran.

Ted cleared path for me to follow that day.

For a time, I was one of the weakest members of my social system and it took its toll on me. I stayed in my place. I never vocalized dissent. I watched my tone. If I ever spoke, I whispered. My shoulders were always at a tilt. My head was always down. My eyes were always averted. My stance was always cowered. My walk was not a walk it was a tip toe.

Yet, I was not the weakest. I shared a number of traits with the dominant culture. I was white. I was a Christian. I was a boy. I liked girls. I was not disabled. I was poor but not the poorest.

There were others in need of a Ted.

Over the years, the testosterone kicked in, muscles grew, and facial hair sprouted. I straightened my shoulders. I lifted my head. I lengthened my back. I focused my eyes straight ahead. I squared up my stance. I began to walk with a purpose. And, as my social authority grew, I started injecting myself into conflicts, intervening to balance things out, and stepping forward to correct what I considered unjust. One of my own had done it on for me and I was going to do the same.

I have not always been true to this path. I have at times meandered off course. I have at other times intentionally walked in another direction. For a long time, my mistaken understanding of success concealed the path from my view. Yet, over the past few years, in my quest to understand why I do what I find myself doing, I kept returning to the time when Ted arrived.

Today, the path ahead is clear. It is the path of social justice.

I’m grabbing my hiking stick. You get the canteen.

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)

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