When I was in first grade Jeremy F——— told all the kids at our lunch table at our small, community catholic school that he was going to punch me in the face. I said, Okay. Or maybe I said, no you won’t. Jeremy F. stood up from his lunch, walked around the table and I stood up and faced him. I didn’t even raise my arms while he balled his fist, reared back and punched me, dead in the face. I’ve come to understand that some people have faces that other people just need to hit.
My time in Catholic school was just god awful but it was more than balanced out when my parents allowed me to make the leap to public school a year or two earlier than anyone else in my family. For the six years I was there I was punched so often that it started to seem that it was a rite of passage for the other boys. I was the kid whose mom spoke to the teacher about the teasing I was receiving and she was the teacher who then sat us all down and told the whole class what my mother had said and insisted that the other 8 year olds stop picking on me. Any of you that are familiar with 8 year olds may be able to guess this, but it didn’t go well.
I showed up in fifth grade and was instantly seen as cool, cute, smart and funny. I was instantly popular and it stuck to me through high school. At my old school I got a reputation as a kid you beat up, who would cry uncontrollably. In my new school, my first and best friend was Kenny, who was a smart and sensitive little wise ass/bad ass who took me under his wing and never let anyone ef with me. At my old school I was the kid who dropped out of kindergarten the first time around. At my new school I was simply popular, a thing my parents had more to do with then me as it was entirely due to genetics. Fifth grade girls are surprisingly aware of boys and I was deemed handsome.
I simply do not exude humility. I am perceived as confident if not arrogant. A confounding dichotomy as my inner life experience has left me with a penchant for self-loathing. Perhaps this is it! Is it possible that the feelings I have had toward myself, feelings where I wanted to punch me in the face, were evident to the world? Have I simply projected a punch-me-in-the-face vibe?
I have a number of native attributes that might attract people that are predisposed to face punching. I am stand offish and reserved. Except for when I’m ridiculously manic and over the top, which happens less frequently but is certainly more annoying. I’m also judgmental. I’m also annoyingly smart. NOT overly smart, just annoyingly so. The kind of smart that acts like it doesn’t care what you think but also wants you to see it. I’m quick to smirk at ideas that are stupid. This is hardly my fault. I can hardly be blamed for holding the correct opinion. To summarize I am superior, arrogant, dismissive, judgmental and correct. Did I mention ‘stubborn’?
If you are a person that has punched me in the face, or if you’re a person that has simply wished to do so but are not the type of person to follow through on the act, I can certainly understand the inclination. Actually, for a good ten years in my adolescence I myself would get so frustrated with me that I would punch myself in the head.
I am punchable. This has had permanent effect on my personality and it has in many ways shaped me. This brings me to my larger point. ‘Everyone you meet is fighting a battle that no one knows about. Be nice.’ I learned this on Facebook. When I was young I had to learn first to have empathy for myself. It’s the hardest empathy to learn. Being punched early and often actually made it harder. It made me internalize those feelings of disgust I perceived in others and my act of confidence and superiority was only a mask to hide from myself my own loathsomeness and feelings of despair. My lack of understanding and compassion for myself made me stupid. It lead me to make a thousand mistakes that prevented me from growing. It also forced me to confront my negative feelings toward myself before I could ever move on and be who I was meant to be. So what appeared to me and surely to others as stagnation in my development was really just the rapid compiling of negativity to either hasten my demise or hasten my own salvation.
When I emerged from youth into adulthood I was bitter, drunk, sarcastic and unsuccessful. I guess you could say this was my personal style. Make no mistake, I took no real hits. I’m an educated, middle-class American who is both white and male. The world tilts towards me to be sure. Whatever battles I was fighting were ones in which I needed no allies. They were my fights alone and ones that were largely my own making. I never liked school because you could fail, so I never worked at it. I loved basketball until the competition met me and then I gave up. I’ve consistently put myself in positions where my responsibilities fell far short of my capacity. This kept me safe and secure in my feelings of superiority and protected from having to challenge myself to grow. Life has ways of finding you, however.
At some point while we were discussing starting a family it occurred to us that we’d be doing ourselves a huge disservice to not at least make a passive effort at having a kid. It’s impossible to think now about how sincere our thoughts and concerns were. It’s hard to remember what was important to us at that time. It was mostly lifestyle stuff. I shudder now to think how seriously we considered NOT having kids. The idea of not having Charlie and Teddy is vomit inducing! The argument that took the day for us was that we had a brief time left to avail ourselves of one of the truly essential experiences that life has to offer.
So now we are on the wild ride, extreme-sport that is parenting toddlers in your 40’s. It is absurd, delightful, devastating and all-consuming and there’s no way either of us could EVER imagine that our old lives would ever do anymore. By taking this leap we have truly put ourselves in a situation where we cannot avoid failure. We fail our kids, we fail ourselves and we fail each other. All the time.
Our lives mirror the lives our children. Extraordinary highs and crushing lows, all in a bubble, on view to the world. Each day is filled with life altering mistakes and life recovering amendments that fix those mistakes. It’s remarkable that I have any wisdom at all the way I had insulated myself from failure. You see, failing is the most important thing you can do. Each day my kids see me fail and recover and each day I see them fail and recover. In each case, everyone is learning lessons and we’re all reinforcing for each other that failure is never the end.
I used to run summer camps and work with staff that were between seventeen and twenty-four years old or so. I did this for about half of my total life and the entirety of my adult professional life. Twenty years of Helping kids learn how best to work together to accomplish awesome and amazing things. One thought I liked to come out with whenever they ran into a situation that seemed to be hopeless and devastating was that it’s like walking in the dark… all you can do is put your hands out in front of you and keep your feet moving. It certainly feels like your lost in a cave, but if you keep moving forward, you’ll either find the wall or discover it was a tunnel the whole time, and you made it to the other side.
When it feels like you have arrived at failure the most important thing to do is to keep moving. You may never fix the mistakes you made and you may feel entirely deserving of the punches you take. You may even waste years punching yourself. You don’t have to look too hard to see people that stopped right at the moment that life smacked them and refused to move from that moment of disappointment. The decision to stay in that moment can be tragic. But if you keep moving and keep learning you will get further and further from those moments. The further you get from bad decisions and bad behavior and bad judgment and petty arrogance and truly regrettable choices and cruel misfortunes that were not your making the more they start to like the map that guided you to where you were headed. In hindsight these errors and accidents often change and become turning points that led you to this place where you’ve learned to make mistakes often and to learn from them and to put them down once they’ve taught you what they can. Each mistake now is a blessing as its one more chance to teach your kids not to fear failure, but to embrace it as it’s the most effective expedient to learning.
I no longer pity myself for being punched in the face all those times. Turns out having a punchable face is one of the greatest gifts I ever got.