Three Fights
Someone said something to me a few months ago that I had to think about for a while because I didn’t know why I disagreed. Essentially, he said that you don’t know who you are until you’ve been in a fight, and you don’t learn as much from a win as you do from a loss.

The first one I argued with because most people, men and women, haven’t been in a fight ever. They seem to know who and what they are as people. Yes, it can tell you some things about yourself but you can learn those things without chucking knuckles. You want to know if you’ll stand your ground or run away? Get pushed around at work and have to put your livelihood on the line. You’ll soon know who you are. The fact that he believed most people didn’t know who they were because they hadn’t been in a fist fight? Nonsense. But it was thought provoking nonsense, as if there’s a truth at the center of it.

The second assertion; that you learn more from losing than from winning gave me pause because it seems more correct. But it didn’t hold up to my personal experiences. Yes, anecdotal does not equate to statistical, I understand that, even still I learned much more from my wins than I did from my losses.

The major part of that was that all my losses added up to the same lesson (don’t get into a fight with a kid who’s a year and a half older than you, who has all the physical advantages you do of being from a long line of people paid to pick up and move heavy things, and who has the same last name). True, fighting an older brother like that probably made me a lot tougher, a better fighter, which means I learned some things but it didn’t teach me anything beyond that.

I fought a lot in school, a year didn’t go by where I didn’t get into two or three major fights. Being one of the smallest, one of the smartest, and the youngest in my grade had something to do with it, but it was mainly because I was on a short leash. Kids knew if they pushed me long enough I’d snap and we’d fight and I’d win, but I’d end up with the majority of the punishment (the guy who slammed my head into a locker in grade four who I then beat up? He got a talking to along the lines of don’t play with the bad kid, whereas I got a reaming, a call to my parents, detention for a week, and threat of suspension).

Eventually that meant I couldn’t fight at all in school. In grade nine I got a look at my file for discipline and there were one and a half binders of write ups. What did I learn from all that? Don’t trust teachers. They knew I was being bullied, picked on, ostracized, rocks thrown at my head, and their solution? Don’t fight back. Take it. Somebody must be the target and its better you than me.

Not good lessons. Not something I thought worth absorbing.

I’m Irish, and I have the gift of blarney, a way of exaggerating stories for humorous and/or dramatic purposes but I’m going to talk about these three fights and what I learned from them as clearly and honestly as I can.

The first one was in grade Nine. The worst year of my life. My friends had moved to another school so I was all alone. I was going through puberty, with the added wrinkle of being the only kid in my classes going through it since they’d got it out of the way the year before. Got picked on a ton, and with the nearly two binders of discipline slips hanging over me I knew I couldn’t get in a fight. As did everyone else so they ramped up the abuse to monumental levels. Before that year everyone was a bit circumspect because I had been in so many fights, and even though they lied to their friends about it, they knew they’d gotten their butts kicked. That year was nuts.

There was a kid who was scared of me. To the extent he would run away when I looked at him sideways. We’d fought years before and he’d lost badly so he’d left me alone since then. But that year he got his courage up because he was sure I couldn’t respond. A torrent of abuse came from him and his best friend (who was also afraid and who I’d also fought) near daily until finally I had enough. It was coming up on spring, the ground was a little muddy, a grey sky, I left school and wandered through the gravel lot beside the gym. He and his friend decided that since we were still on school grounds they could have a little more fun and something inside me just said no. Not anger. Just done with it. Taken too much and couldn’t take any more.

I walked over to him and looked him in the eyes and told him that’s enough. He sneered and tried to say some more insults but I shook my head and pushed him. He was not a small kid, I’d gotten my size but he was close to the same size. Should have been even enough. That push sent him five feet away from me. By this time a sizable crowd had gathered. To his credit he came back at me, throwing all his weight and strength and momentum into his own push. He couldn’t move me and I absorbed his push and then pushed him back again five feet. Once more he threw himself at me, once more I pushed him off as if he was a first grader. That time he fell to the ground and I stood over him and waited for him to get up. That wasn’t chivalry, sure I could’ve jumped on him and beat him up and letting him get up meant he could fight back but even if he tried he really couldn’t fight back. It would make me look good and I’d get the chance to rough him up as much as I wanted to. Punching him while he was down? Not as impressive. What looked like chivalry was actually disguised jerkiness on my part.

So, I waited. He lay on the ground, not hurt, no punches had been thrown, he just lay on the ground. As if he was inviting me to punch him. And I looked in his eyes and I saw the defeat in them. He would rather have gotten beat up than fight any more. He knew he was done, he knew I knew. I could have left it there but I didn’t. I had to take something from him, so I balled up my fists and looked down at him as he flinched and said loud enough for all in the gathered crowd to hear: “You’re not worth it.” Then I turned and walked away.

Big deal, right? Three pushes. How is that a fight? How could I possibly learn anything from that?

I learned about cruelty. How I’d overstepped. Went too far. He was a big kid, but soft. I was a suddenly big kid but hard. Too hard. Those words to him. Too much. How do I know? Because those were the last words either of us uttered to the other in the three years we went to school together after that. He would avoid me in the hall. He’d transfer out of classes if he could if I happened to be in it. Never met my eyes, always kept them on the floor around me. When he had to do an oral presentation his voice would fade away when he’d swing his head to my side of the classroom. It was bad. Every time he’d stumble around me I wanted to go over and put my arm around him and apologize but I couldn’t. It would have been rubbing salt into what was obviously an open wound.

Did his silence make my life slightly better? I guess, but I was used to the abuse. But him? He learned about himself in that stupid little fight and had hated what he’d seen. A mountain of insults wasn’t the equal of that.

Twenty-eight years later and I still regret that fight and what I did.

The other two fights I may have learned less. Or more. Depends on how you look at it.

But those will be told later.