Lessons learned in the schoolyard

By Brian Doyle | June 26, 2015


One time when I was in eighth grade there was a fight on the playground between a scrawny chippy boy and a stocky arrogant boy. The scrawny boy was made of nothing but piss and wire, but he was furious and he held his own for a while. We crowded around cheering when the fight started, but when the thicker boy began to land actual sickening punches, we went quiet and just watched.

The scrawny boy had hair that went every which way and the other boy had neat hair combed just so. The stocky boy was cool and the girls liked him and his green school tie was always artfully undone. Even when Sister Marie told him to knot it properly and loomed over him as he did so, he deliberately did not do so properly. He was the first person who taught me what the work smirk meant.

He smashed the skinny boy’s ear and the skinny boy went down.

The skinny boy sometimes wore ragged socks of different colors. Also he smelled bad. We crowded closer. The stocky boy paused to catch his breath and then against all rules he kicked the skinny boy in the ribs! One or two boys said, Hey! but no one moved. The skinny boy jumped up incandescently angry and swung at the stocky boy and instantly the skinny boy went down again and this time a boy named Michael stepped out of the crowd. Michael was not cool and not a geek and not an athlete and not a star student. Michael was just Michael. Michael was one of the handful of boys you could not assign to a category. Some boys you can easily assign to a category and some boys belong to several and some just sit in the back and all you know is his name. Michael was one of those boys. Michael’s parents were, no kidding, actual emigrants from Italy who spoke actual Italian in their house according to two boys who had to deliver homework to Michael once when he was sick. Sister Marie made them do it because they lived closest to Michael. One of the boys said there was a goat in the tool shed behind Michael’s house. Michael’s father was in the Nocturnal Adoration Society with my father and my father said that he was a kindly man who was penurious with small talk.

The stocky boy tried to close on the scrawny boy, but Michael put up both his hands, I think to fend off further unrest, to deflect further tumult, but just as he did so Sister Marie arrived in the circle, spitting angry, because she had just the day before repeated for the hundredth time that there was to be absolutely no fighting whatsoever at the school, including the playground and especially including the churchyard and the convent lawn, and had she not made it absolutely inarguably clear that all combatants in any further conflict would pay heavily for the crime, had she not just made this abundantly clear just yesterday?

No one moved. She was so angry that her face was a dusky purplish color. Every single boy who stood here and watched and witnessed this fight and did nothing whatsoever to stop it, said Sister Marie, despite my explicit instructions yesterday, earns two hours of detention today. No excuses. You, she said, pointing to a gangly nervous boy named David, will take this boy to the nurse’s office. Tell the nurse to pay special attention to his ear. And you and you, she said, pointing to the cool boy and to Michael, you will come with me to the principal’s office.

And off we all went, still silent. The scrawny boy was crying now from rage and pain and humiliation and something else. I have spent years now thinking of the hundred reasons he cried so. There’s so much pain and so many layers of pain. I remember that the gangly boy kept the scrawny boy at arm’s length, as if he was sick. We heard later that the stocky boy blamed Michael for starting the fight, and that the principal believed the stocky boy, and that Michael apparently had not testified on his own behalf, but had just stood there silently, not defending his own motives, not telling the truth, not even calling the stocky boy a liar, the stocky boy who had smiled widely as he picked on the scrawny kid about his ragged socks and his bad smell until the scrawny boy had screamed and ran windmilling at his abuser. We heard that Michael was nearly suspended from school and that his parents had to come and listen to the principal for more than an hour. As it was, Michael served detention for an entire week, cleaning every blackboard in the school every afternoon. For the first few days of his detention, no one asked Michael directly about what had happened in the principal’s office and why he let a lie win. On the last day of his detention, Friday afternoon, a few of us stayed in the playground playing basketball until he was released, and a boy named Tom who could talk to anyone asked him why he didn’t insist on what had actually happened, and Michael said there wasn’t much to say, so we chose up sides and played basketball for another hour or so. That night when I told my father about this whole thing, he said quietly There is an admirable young man, a remark I thought about for a long time, and still do, as you see.

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