I noticed two things right away: first, the bad mood, then the bruises.
I can spot the kid who smokes weed on the internet for attention, the one who revels in his shameless exhibition of wasted potential. I can point out to you the misfit who eats lunch facing the wall everyday. His days are long and lonely, I bet. I know all about the promiscuous ones, the boys and the girls, who are both oversexed and way under-supervised. Their parents would never believe the number of nudes their child has sent and received over Snapchat. I watch the rich kids with the expensive cars unintentionally look down their noses at the others around them. They don’t mean to be snobs but they have real goals and they know they’re going places. And I know who the Fighters are. The Fighters are my favorite. They’re the ones who always look like they had a really long night. They’re kind of special but no one thinks about them much. They keep a low profile.
Jacob showed up to 6th period bleeding from his cheek and winked at me when I assured him I knew he didn’t run into a locker. I saw his fight later that night on YouTube. He did it to win $20 and it wasn’t the first time. He called me from jail a few years later. It was Christmas Eve and he didn’t have any family so he wished me and my husband a Merry Christmas from a pay phone at a correctional facility in South Florida. He was serving time for battery on a police officer.
I passed an Administrator in the hall a few years back and he was marching a kid up to the office to suspend him for having his hair dyed in black and white stripes, stripes that didn’t conform to the school dress code. The Administrator was aghast at the kid’s defiance, saying “Would you look at his hair!? You’d think he would know better than to come to school like this!” I knew the boy. Fighting was his job. He was training to be an MMA fighter and the hair was part of his character. No one in the Dean’s office ever asked him a single question as to why his hair was colored because if they had, he would willingly have explained that he was just trying to earn enough money to put gas in his motorcycle and buy food for a few days…unlike the other varieties of teenagers who usually don’t have those same kinds of burdens.
At a bonfire one night I watched the crowd lurch to the perimeter, a telltale sign that a fight was breaking out. In the middle of the milieu I saw the familiar face of another one of my Fighters and I wondered what he must’ve witnessed that caused him to snap. Sure enough, he didn’t know the girl and he didn’t know her boyfriend but he told me he saw something he didn’t like being exchanged between the two of them, something that had nothing to do with him, and he went in to defend her honor anyway. Mason got three days’ suspension for his trouble but said he had no regrets.
John came to school many days with black eyes his own father gave him. They fought in their front yard one morning because John told me Dad didn’t pay the power bill and no one could get ready for school. Another day, John was sitting in class minding his own business like Fighters often do and he overheard a conversation behind him. A boy in a wheelchair named Tommy was being picked on by a bully in the cafeteria. John swiveled around in his desk so he could hear a little better, so he could get the whole story. Then he asked Tommy, “Who is he? Point him out to me today.” The other teacher who was there knew, like I knew, that John was going to beat the hell out of that kid at lunch. And a part of me wished we had a school full of Johns.
The Fighters are not punks or thugs.
You don’t feel so comfortable inside of regular violence unless you grow up around regular violence. There’s a different variety of wiring inside the mind of a Fighter. It sets him apart from a base dirtbag or a textbook schoolyard bully, the kinds of people who exist only to hurt others. A Fighter uses his violence to help others; it’s a tool he wields as a means of setting right the wrongs he sees all around him, things that violate his moral code.
I have a Fighter in class with me now. My mothering instincts suspect there weren’t enough Kleenex-wiped tears in that kid’s life and bandaids were probably in short supply, too. I’m pretty certain there were more warnings to “Suck it up” and “Quit your crying” than there were hugs or words of encouragement in his home. I don’t know, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe he grew up with all the things he needed but he’s sure got a titanium exterior and tall, fortified walls. I worry about him and I wish he didn’t have to battle so much. But I know this: he is trustworthy and honorable and I think he will be a strong man one day.
I think the Fighters would explain their scrappy personalities by saying it’s not that they love to fight, they just know what the world would be like if they didn’t. They’re trying to bring justice to the universe, not suffering. They want to inflict a lesson on the Bad Guy, not an injury. It’s a man’s kind of reconciliation, in a man’s world. In this soft-gloves society we live in, one that’s saturated with arbitrators and ‘safe spaces,’ the Fighter is just one guy trying to set the world straight in his very old-fashioned, vigilante kind of way. I like it.
So I asked my Fighter about the bruises on his neck and why he was so grumpy. His instinct is to hide what happened because judgement is often swift in his world and Fighters get punished, suspended and jailed for what they do. He wouldn’t give me any details, it’s one of the many codes they have. Then he followed up with “I promise, I’m fine,” and the next day, he was. (That’s also something a Fighter always says.) They never seem to get hurt and they wouldn’t admit it even if they did. Fighters don’t think about it in those terms and anyway, he doesn’t want anyone to worry about him. He’d just tell you it’s the world he lives in. He will make a good husband one day and I hope he will raise respectable sons. I like to think this breed of men won’t repeat the abusive relationships that might have contributed to their edge but I can’t know that for sure. All I can do is be thankful the Fighters are out there, instinctively choosing right over wrong, adhering to an edict of honor and a sense of justice that is seriously lacking in the world.
For you, MW