There was a boy in my scout group who I went to school with. He was skinny, and his head was shaped like an avocado. His name was Simon.
Sometimes Simon would pick his nose, and he wouldn’t pretend like he was doing anything else. He’d just dig around for a while looking for gold.
That’s what psychologists call honesty.
I tried to write a story about a boy, who was very much like Simon, and who learns to be a man by losing a school yard fight. He chips his tooth on a bully’s fist, and the boy’s father, who you know is a man because of his hairy toes, says this to his son: ‘You probably messed the other guy’s hand up pretty bad.’
That was the end of the story. The boy learns that being a man isn’t about violence, it is about resilience, and the world is a wonderful place full of kittens that wear galoshes.
The trouble with the story, of course, is that resilience isn’t masculine trait.
It is a human one.
And so I tried to write a better story, about a boy who does not learn to be a man, and instead learns to be a human being. It was called Big Shot.
When the boy in Big Shot is about to fight, and there are children scattered around him in an expectant halo, he says this to his bully: ‘You can hurt me. You can mash my face up and kick me in the ribs. You’ve got big arms and nothing better to do with them. You’re a seesaw. A windmill. A big dumb motherfucker.’
When you are a learning to be a human being it is important to have a solid vocabulary.
In Scouts, once you have learned to lash a table together and to set something on fire and keep it that way, they let you go on camping trips. You have to build your own tent from giant canvas rectangles, and poles that you to tie together. Everything is held in place with guide ropes, attached to long metal rods you bash into the ground. The tents are quite high, about two meters, and the design means there is a pole bisecting each entry point.
My friends and I, boys and girls in blue or brown uniforms, we tied the avocado headed boy named Simon to one of those poles with the same lashings we used to build our tent. We left him there while we sat at our table and talked about movies and fighting tips.
Simon did not put up a fight, and we were gentle with our knots, but he said they chafed his wrists.
If reincarnation is what happens when our hearts stop pumping goo around, and our brains stop sending electricity all over the place, I think I would like to come back as a jackrabbit.
It would be easy to write a story about a young jackrabbit learning to be a grown up one.
Be fast, the story would say. And eat well. Get a decent amount of sleep, and fuck sometimes.
I am not honest like Simon was. I pick my nose in secret.
And here is a secret for you now that has nothing to do with noses or the gold you might find in them: I do not think I was a human being when I helped tie an avocado headed boy to a tent pole.
In Big Shot, when the boy asks his father how to fight, his father instead teaches him how to take a punch. The boy tells it like this:
‘My dad made me stand in front of him, in the backyard, under a small circle of light coming from the bulb above the backdoor. The grass was cold under my feet. He took slow swings at me, showed me how to move with a punch, how to roll away if I got knocked down.
‘“If all else fails,” he said, “try to get hit in the head.”
‘He told me there’s a lot of blood up there, a lot of pressure pushing it around.
‘“People tend to stop hitting you when you bleed on them,” he said.’
After ten minutes of being tied like that, Simon slid his bound wrists toward the ground, and sat, spread-eagled with the pole between his legs, watching us.
We had moved from the table, and were resting tent pegs in campfire coals, heating them so we could bend them into shapes that were not straight, and would not help hold a tent together.
‘Will you let me go?’ he asked.
‘Nope,’ someone said.
‘Soon,’ I said.
We bent a peg into the shape of a squiggle.
My childhood bully was a thug by the name of Ryan. He had no tent poles, no uniform, and no organisation to award him badges for achieving things in the community.
He punched me only once, and my mouth bled.
Perhaps, somewhere, there is jackrabbit who is quick, and who wears Wu-Tang Clan t-shirts, because my bully hanged himself when I was fifteen.
It had nothing to do with me, and I did not ask my father to teach me how to fight.
The bully in Big Shot does not have a name. He’s an older kid, and in the story, he wants to fight the boy who was a lot like Simon, simply because the boy asked the bully’s sister out.
I have been a high school teacher, and witnessed fights like this, stood between teenagers wanting to break bones and crack teeth.
There is no real method to it.
An argument escalates, a debt of some kind needs to be met in fingers curled into fists. Sometimes a window will break, or a shoe will come off.
I am talking about the blunt kind of violence, physical and loud.
We let Simon go at afternoon tea. Untied his wrists, and helped him up. We had sandwiches to eat that we’d brought from home and stored in a large esky.
Simon sat with us. The only thing on his sandwich was a thin slice of cheese. His teeth held onto some of his food, wouldn’t let go, and so when he spoke, there was texture to it.
‘Don’t do that again,’ he said.
I tell you, some of us laughed at that.
I laughed at that.
We did not tie Simon up again. We didn’t even really talk about it again.
Simon’s rope burns were raw.
Some adults might have called that hijinks.
The boy from Big Shot, the hero of the story, he threw up after the fight, after his tooth was chipped. He evacuated his stomach until there was only dryness to heave, which he did. When he got home, his jaw was swollen. In his words, and I show them exactly:
‘Dad was watching TV. This was in the living room. He was barefoot. His shoes, brown leather and fat laces, were on the floor. He’d kicked them off when he sat in his chair, and draped his socks over them.
‘“I didn’t bleed enough,” I said.
‘He muted the TV when he saw me, stood up to look at my face better. “It’s ok,” he said. “You probably messed the other guy’s hand up pretty bad.”’
The boy was resilient, see, but he had not learned to be a human being. And that is my fault. If there is a seesaw, it is me. If there is a windmill, I am it. Instead of learning to be a human being, I learned to be a big dumb mother fucker.
I saw Simon at school the next week. His rope burns had faded to thin crusts of scabbing. His teeth were holding on to something, parts of an apple maybe.
He was pointing at a younger kid, a smaller one, whose socks were high and whose hat was bent.
‘Faggot,’ Simon said, and there was that texture again.
And the kid, he didn’t say anything. He took it. He was resilient.
The good news is I think you can be a human being. Not like me. Not like Simon. Not like the boy from Big Shot. And here is how you do it:
Pick your nose.
And then do away with the need to be resilient at all.
And if jackrabbits is what’s next for us all, do not be a resilient one. Be quick. Eat well. Get the right amount of sleep, and fuck sometimes.
You can do no more.