It took me until my Junior year in high school before I started to actually enter some sort of growth spurt. Up until that point I was about 5 foot 2, which is to summarize, incredibly short amongst my peers. If you think, in a school of a couple thousand, this doesn’t translate into hanging off the bottom rungs of the ladder of hierarchy, you are sorely mistaken. Add to my small stature an interest in the fringe cultures of punk rock music, skateboarding, and the fashion peculiarities that went along with both, and you have a recipe for constant ridicule, physical harassment and the confidence crushing demoralization that comes with it all.
I was verbally assaulted with the usual, “Skater fag!”, of which I could shrug off quite easily, but it was the physical assaults that took a much greater toll on my confidence and sense of self-worth. There was a particular stretch of my high school career that involved a string of efforts to try and stuff me in a trash can (that I successfully fought off, but dreaded having to do every day), an effective campaign to intimidate me into giving away the meager lunch money I had, a neighborhood of older kids that would toss me around like a rag doll as they exploited their size in trying out the latest wrestling moves they saw on TV, and low-level, but repeated physical assualts in the back of the bus that had me sunk down and fighting off tears that surely would have only escalated the abuse.
There was nothing I could do. I was small. So small that I simply couldn’t fight off the physical demoralization I was faced with every day, even under the pretense of just “joking around”, which actually made it quite worse. A full on attack would have been episodic, but joking around is repetitive, consistent, and harder to convince others to intervene and act on your behalf.
So for most of my growing years I dealt with being in this position on the bottom of the bullying hierarchy. My only solace was having a best friend who would sometimes bear the brunt of the bullying along with me…and the occasional ability to run away from the bullies. It wasn’t anything I could rely upon, but every once in awhile I could escape the physical grip of certain situations and take the hell off, of which I simply couldn’t be caught by the time I reached the safety of my own front door. But running doesn’t fix the effects of bullying. Running just gets you into a physically safe position, while the internal dialogue of frustration, fear and anger continues on unabated.
Then there was the supposed safety net of adult intervention that often came up short, only adding to the sense of isolation and lack of self-worth. The bus driver couldn’t be bothered to stop the bus and deal with the purposefully hidden abuse or even go as far as changing my seat in the order. My mom did her best to appeal to the school authorities for help in certain situations, which resulted in a one-day suspension of a particularly adamant bully, but only served to create an escalated backlash. That safety net of adult intervention seemed to have way too many holes to be anything reliable to fall into for my liking, again, leaving me feeling powerless and alone.
I can really only look to the saving grace of an older, protective sister….or at least the appeal she made to her friends to help ease the onslaught of bullying I seemed to be dealing with. My sister had friends….big friends. Big friends who listened to the same punk rock I did, wore danzig shirts and pulled their hair into devil locks that divided their mascara lined eyes. They were intimidating in every sense of the word and, fortunately, they were on my side. They made a very direct, and apparently convincing, demand of one specific bully in question who was taking advantage of my small stature, and although I remember him dismissing the threats of my sister’s friends, giving me quite an internal worry in the process….he stopped. Immediately.
But that was just one battle overcome. There were others as I worked my way through high school, navigating the difficult terrain of social development with a now fully compromised sense of self-worth, trying desperately to develop the confidence to stand up for myself and be comfortable with who I was.
My junior year rolled around and I gained a few physical inches, and although I don’t remember the specifics, I went out for the cross country team, which simply meant running a mile time trial and then showing up for practices. I, however, ended up as one of the top seven runners, quickly earning my position as a top fiver and affording me the privilege of earning points for the team as we went undefeated in the regular season meets, then winning Sectionals, Regionals and making a go at State.
Maybe more importantly in this process, I had developed that position of value on the team, which inadvertently gave me a sense of value within myself. I had something I could directly reference, even if only to myself, and say, “There. I can do that. I have an ability others don’t. You can’t beat that.”
And that ability ended up affording me a sense of respect, that initially took me by great surprise. Our cross country team basically had enough kids to make a complete team, with not many more to spare, but when we made it all the way to State for the first time in a LONG time, the rest of the school was forced to pay attention to us. And me. That short, “skater fag”, who came from a tiny Catholic school, that offered little of value to others, was now some sort of representative of the school community. I could run, and it had to be recognized. After making it through Semi-state the school acknowledged our success publicly and the student body did as well, gaining me a sense of POSITIVE attention I was NOT used to. But it was there and that sense of value I achieved through running gave me a confidence that I carry with me to this day as an adult.
There was even a more specific and direct occurrence of validation that came with my running. One of the previous bully’s who delivered some of that low-level, but consistent ridicule and physical abuse was actually on the team, however, I was faster than him. Being able to outrun him on the course and the inherent bonds we had to form as teammates generated a respect and appreciation that overcame any impetus he had to intimidate and bully me. My running ability put him on a ladder rung, in that arena anyways, below me.
Ultimately, running was my escape from intimidation and path towards the confidence I needed to generate to tackle the rest of my life from that point on. I attribute that initial discovery of my own confidence and subsequent growing to my ability to handle most every obstacle that has met me through life, from getting jobs, to navigating relationships, to overcoming adversity of all kinds. There were a number of factors that gave me such an ability, of course, but none that had the lasting power of my running abilities.
As a father, one of the most important traits I want to instill in my son is a strength of confidence. I truly believe confidence becomes more important than any skill or body of knowledge one acquires in traditional schooling, and will carry you further in life than a degree or social standing. This confidence, of course, doesn’t have to come through running. I was simply fortunate enough to discover mine through the act of running and it’s surpassing of the bullying I had to endure. It is simply more important that one discovers their own confidence, wherever it may lie within them.
I have been especially fortunate to rediscover this confidence and develop it even further as an adult, again through my running.
I wish the same for everyone else.