The Art of Retaliation

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When I was in elementary school, I got picked on by a kid one grade below me. This happened on the playground, more than once, threatening to become a pattern. I was a shy child, and obedient and nice—all things that don’t mix well together when one has to stand up to being bullied. I am guessing my parents coached me on how to speak back to this kid, but I can’t remember what I tried to say or managed to do, only that it didn’t work. The picking continued.

If you could see a photo of my family at the time—the 1970s—my father would be wearing a long-sleeved navy blue shirt with embroidery stitched on the front. He’d have a thick mustache and hair that wasn’t technically long but long enough to be considered shaggy. If you could smell this photo, you might catch a whiff of the incense he started burning that decade, the same decade in which he began meditating, a practice that calmed everything about him. In the photo, he definitely has the air of peace and love to his attire and look. And that was him. He was and still is a man who believes in kindness toward all, equality for every man and woman, and justice. The justice part was probably why he made the decision he did, with regard to my being picked on. That, and the fact that he loved his two daughters more than he loved a lot of other things in life. And the fact that he’d probably plain and simple had enough.

He taught me to curl my hand into a fist. Then he taught me to strike back. He did this by letting me practice hitting him. I can’t imagine that I was strong enough—being a shy and soft six- or seven-year-old—to really hurt him, but he took the risk that I might just get good at it. Obviously, we practiced in his free time. My father worked a decent number of hours, and I’m sure he was tired and that teaching his daughter to punch wasn’t high on the list of his leisurely activities. But he did it anyway.

I suppose my father has spent a good portion of his parenting on teaching me how to defend myself—against disappointment, disrespect, heartbreak, and sadness. It’s a bit harder to teach someone how to change one’s thinking, how to calm the mind, how to trust the gut, but my father has helped me with all those things, though I am not a quick learner, and I am stubborn, just as he is. Sometimes I think how much easier it probably was for him to just teach me how to punch. One good jab and it can change everything. It did for me on that playground. I don’t remember actually hitting the kid the next time he picked on me, only that I did, and that he left me alone for the rest of that school year and the ones that followed. I stopped being scared of recess. 

For the record, I never did get good at it (that was my one and only jab), but I didn’t need to be good: I only needed to prove to that kid, and myself, that I was capable of striking back.

I can thank my dad for that.

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