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Once a week, in the evening after my dad took his nap from the long haul at his day job working as an electrician, we would go to Costco to do some grocery shopping. We had an unspoken agreement for these trips: If I would tag along on his grocery spree, I would get to bring back at least one item of my choosing. With all the trips we took, I managed to accumulate numerous trinkets from the various cereals I chose and try almost every imaginable fruit snack, ice cream, and yogurt – I would sometimes even bring home a $20 Xbox or Gameboy Advance game.
On the way home from these trips, we always passed by this mixed martial arts school. From the car window, I would peer into the studio, which showcased several punching bags and practice mats lined across the room, and see it occupied with kids and adults in training. I remember thinking how badass it would be if one day I could sport a black belt to help ward off anyone who teased me. Unfortunately, my father had no inclination of letting me take my role-playing fantasies of harnessing the ninja way for the purpose of trying to beat the crap out of my elementary school bullies.
When I made the transition from elementary school to middle school, I remember feeling excited to start fresh and make an impression on my new classmates. Never again would I ever have to worry about people calling me names or throwing eraser shavings and shooting spitballs at my head.
One of the middle school counselors visited my elementary classroom to give the usual speech about their school’s educational opportunities and the school’s vision. I was excited and convinced that I would have a chance to start fresh and finally leave behind those rotten classmates who relentlessly teased me and marred my elementary school experience.
The first day of seventh grade was the beginning of my fresh start. It would also mark the first time I took a bus to school. Our house happened to be the initial stop on the bus driver’s route, so I had my first pick at seating – the “cool” kids typically sit in the back, I thought – and proceeded to claim a spot at the end of the aisle.
As we reached each stop, I would see some new faces making their way onto the bus and down the aisle. As the bus started to fill up, I recognized some of the students that I knew from elementary school sitting in the front while a bunch of new, unfamiliar faces sat in the back. I seemed to be surrounded by the older eighth graders.
Then, one of the eighth grade boys decided to sit next to me. He looked at his two friends in front, then looked at me and smiled.
I should introduce myself, I reasoned to myself. But before I could, he spoke up.
My head turned immediately in response. Just as I finished turning my head in his direction, he exhaled a long, hot breath in my face. His friends started to laugh as I turned back away to wipe off the residue of his putrid morning breath from my face.
“Sevies sit in the front!” he jeered.
I remained in my seat. I wasn’t going to let some asshole boss me around on the first day of school.
He repeatedly leaned in close and breathed on the side of my face the remainder of the bus ride, trying to get a rise out of me. Some of the girls who watched me sit in defiance let out giggles. But I just sat there standing up to him and trying not to show that I was bothered.
As our bus finally made its way to the drop off zone at school, we all filed in a single line to exit. As I was getting off the bus, I was pushed off the steps. I stumbled toward the ground, but thankfully I was just barely able to regain my balance and avert a fall onto the pavement. I looked back to see who had pushed me, and it was the same group of eighth graders. As they walked away from me laughing, one of them turned around and shouted, “Don’t sit in the back again!”
I was infuriated! Enraged, I clenched my fist and stormed off toward the two as they opened the door to the school’s entrance. As I caught up to them, I thought about pushing one of them down; instead, I took my hand, went behind the shorter person and flicked the back of his head.
They both turned around simultaneously. At that moment, my anger turned to panic as I thought to myself, What did I just do? With great haste, I bolted out the door as they followed in pursuit. I charged through groups of students walking to class without a moment’s pause for an apology. I ran so fast that I ended up tripping over my own feet and fell…
Before I had a chance to get back up, they had caught up with me. One of them lunged onto me, and with his full body weight on my back, he grabbed my hair and tugged on it with such force that I thought he was going to rip it all out. He held my head up so that I could see all the bystanders watching the scene. After what felt like forever, he finally let off me and they walked away.
As I picked myself up, I was humiliated and unnerved. All my hope and excitement for a fresh start and it was even worse than elementary school. I felt like life was unfair to me. People take martial arts for reasons like this, I thought bitterly. I will never forget the tears that streamed down my face as I walked away from the crowd of students that day.
The bullying didn’t stop. Two years later, I transitioned to high school. From what I heard, it wasn’t any different. I was not looking forward to high school, and I had no interest in associating with anyone from school. But I had to do something to avoid being such an easy target.
I found out that my high school offered wrestling in the winter. At first, I was hesitant about the idea of grappling on a mat with a bunch of sweaty guys, but I ended up joining. Perhaps I could be a part of a group to help avoid being bullied or at least learn some skills to defend myself. It ended up being quite the opposite. I was terrible. Having lost all of my matches, I was considered just another lackey on the team.
Even worse, my teammates ganged up on me and managed to fit me in locker room doors and use me as a dummy for practicing suplexes and other moves you would see in WWE, which landed me in a doctor’s office. At the end of the day I would return home hating my very existence. High school was truly a nightmare.
At this point, I was desperate. I believed that if I tried to fit in with any of the group of guys in our school, maybe, just maybe, I would have somebody to back me up. So I got myself mixed into a group I didn’t really like but felt was a necessity. They were immature and would make vulgar remarks toward women, spread rumors about who slept with whom, and all sorts of nonsense you hear in the typical bro culture banter. Even though I knew myself to be a decent guy, I had to try and fit in to feel like I was protected. For me, my idea of school changed from a place of learning to a survival zone.
I managed to outsmart some of the meatheads I spent my lunch break and after school hours with. I was apparently accepted into the group because I could speak their lingo. I had witty remarks to keep them laughing hysterically. Convincingly, I made it possible for them to believe I was one of them, just with a lighter shade. The fact that I was Egyptian and could speak in the African American English vernacular made it possible for them to believe just that. It may have all been a facade, but I was able to avoid being bullied by associating with this group.
Even though I was truly a two-faced person in those years of high school, I finally made it through and put those times behind. I severed the connections I made with those group of guys in order to move forward in life and connect with real people. I dropped my front as a macho man and opted once again to let my sensitive side flourish. I’ve made important decisions to carefully choose who is worth my time, who to lend an ear to and a shoulder to cry on, who to give advice to, and who to share personal stories with. Despite being physically weak, my strength to survive derives from being true to myself; never again shall I abandon my integrity as a man.
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