First of all, it took courage to do what I did although I will be judged cruel for doing it. I was protecting others, and things do not always appear to be what you think they are. I didn’t become famous for what I did; no one knew, probably no one cared. Mom told me to look after my sister at school and I took this request seriously because I loved Susan and felt important looking out for her. Sometimes though, my sister bugged me, she interrupted my games or butted into secrets, sometimes she got in my way.
This is not a story about that, its a story about me standing up for myself and every other kid on our school bus, which included the French kids that went to Ste. Croix, as well as all the little kids that went to the morning session of kindergarten. I can’t remember the ringleader’s name, but I can still see him in my mind; I can see the whole thing clearly untainted by remorse or regret.
The bully always sat in the back of the bus with the older boys and got to his seat before the school bus reached our stop. Three stops later, the bus stopped for the bully’s goons. The orange headed C____ brothers bounded on the bus, running down the aisle with idiot grins to sit with their leader. This happened everyday of the 173 required school days scheduled by the state of Maine during the 1960s. The boys were never sick because their old man wouldn’t let them cut school for any reason. One brother was in my grade, the other was older – a fifth grader, or possibly sixth.
The C____ brothers were mean and stupid; they provided the brute muscle needed to carry out the ringleader’s demands. This fall the bully demanded lunch money from all the little kids and the goons collected the quarters, making threats to hush the kids up. Collection of seat money went on for a couple weeks – not everyday, just when their funds got low – until I realized I had to put a stop the bully’s enterprise. It didn’t look like anyone else was interested in the bully clean up project.
I wasn’t a tomboy and I didn’t know how to fight, I wasn’t tough but I was tall, taller than the C____ goon in my class. I was also smarter than both brothers put together which looking back, wasn’t exactly boasting, the older brother stayed back and the younger one couldn’t think for himself in the classroom. I made a plan. I watched the goons go up and down the aisle making kids cried as they handed over their money. I glared at them as they snatched the milk money from my sister’s sweaty palm. I didn’t share my plan with my sister because she might give the whole thing away or worse, tell Mom and I didn’t want any adult to know what I was going to do.
After the bus pulled into the school bus drop-off and stopped, the C____ brothers pushed their way off the bus, stepping on toes, shoving kids into one another, and causing some of the little kids to cry all over again. They just had to be the first ones out of the folding bus door and as they bounded onto the play yard the other kids carefully filed off the bus. The school buses back then (I think they were the Bluebird line) were not outfitted with the mirrors and safety devices that today’s buses have. The bus drive could even smoke while he drove the bus. All he had was a huge rear-view mirror to check on us kids to make sure we were behaving.
I got off the bus when the line allowed me to cut in, Susan went first down the steep steps, then me. Susan ran to meet her friends without a backward glance and I turned sharply and pressed my body stealth-like against the cold steel bus to wait for the older boys to depart in their slow cool way. The ringleader always got off last and I think that he was the only kid that actually talked to the driver – maybe they were related.
As the ringleader cleared the last step I grabbed him and swung him up against the bus. Startled, he began to holler for the C____ brothers but they were causing other kids misery and couldn’t hear his bleating for help. I think the bully was scared a little, he didn’t know what I was capable of so he tried to talk his way away from the bus. I wouldn’t let him move, I knew that I had only a few minutes to set him straight before the bus moved or the brothers came looking for their leader. I whacked the bully around his head, punched him in the chest and made him cry; I told him that he wouldn’t be taking any more lunch money during our morning bus ride. I was shutting down his business for good; he blubbered like a girl. I grabbed his jacket lapels in a knot under his chin, or in his case since he was wearing a light gray barracuda, his front flaps, to balance myself as I kicked him in the shins. Then I let go of him and watched him lurch through the schoolyard gates.
I patted down my skirt and readjusted my knee socks, and after everything felt normal and right inside, I picked up my school bag, metal lunch box, and walked toward the schoolyard to find my best friend Hilary. I felt pretty good about myself during the short walk, like I had changed something for good, like good cowboys on Roy Rogers felt after they saved a farmer’s wife from ruin. I felt powerful. This feeling lasted well past the beating I faced when I saw the C____ brothers race up to their snot-nosed buddy, saw them look in my direction and steal myself as they ran toward me. I didn’t cry out when they grabbed my braids and spun me around and around. I focused on staying upright, on keeping my bag and lunchbox from flying away from me, on keeping my skirt down and my courage up.
No one came to my aide, no teacher blew her whistle or hollered for the boys to leave me alone. The buzzer didn’t ring to save me. The only thing that I remember besides the whirling sky was my lunchbox suddenly opening and my waxed paper sandwich, apple and cookies fly out slow motion-like (oh no!), my plaid thermos coming loose, flying in an arch toward the clouds. This was the only damage that concerned me, the only consequence that I cared about as I heard the crunch on impact, and tinkle of broken glass as it hit the asphalt of the yard, a sound that I knew so well. I shouted, “Noooooo!” I broke loose from the goons to scoop up my lunch. My ruined thermos! My mother had warned me that if I broke one more thermos I wouldn’t be getting another one and this was my last thermos. This is the reason I started sniffling and feeling sorry for myself, as I stuffed my lunch into my lunchbox.
When I looked around to see if anyone noticed me I found that my beating had remarkably not disturbed anyone and that the boys had run back to their master like good dogs. The day would go on like all the others except for one thing – the goons hadn’t really hurt me and the ringleader had lost face to a girl. Maybe no one witnessed the event, maybe the goon brothers ruffed me up as ordered but I had gotten to the ringleader and now he was weaker, less powerful, he became a mere deflated bully.
Now here is the surprising part, the part where I look like a jerk: the ringleader wore braces on his legs, one of his legs, the legs that I kicked, was shorter than the other. He wore a shoe attached to his leg brace with a four-inch heel which made him a crippled kid (disabled, in Special Education terms). But that wasn’t all – he was also hard of hearing and wore a hearing-aide. Back then, a hearing-aide looked like a miniature radio, like a chrome mp3 player, with perforated holes and twisted wire cord ending in a single earpiece.
I had experience with a hard of hearing person (my mother wore her hearing-aide tucked into her slip) and knew more about the hearing-impaired than most anyone in the schoolyard that day – I should have felt bad for slapping around a double-handicapped kid (multiple disabilities) – but I didn’t. He was mean and rotten, and he used his handicap against us kids in such a spiteful way that I felt avenged. Thinking back, I am amazed that he had so much power and that he could command the C____ brothers so completely. No one ever taunted him, no one ever, ever thought of standing up to him and telling him to buzz-off. Except me; equal-opportunity-me. No one asked for lunch money on my bus route again while I was on the bus. And, no one wondered why.