the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Fight or Flight?

My junior high school was an anonymous brown brick school, built in the 1960’s just when Queens was growing as a borough. The schoolyard was enclosed by a metal fence, like a prison, and considering that that 1/4 of the students at the time were dealing in some sort of illegal drugs, the yard was symbolic of where many of these youngsters would eventually find a permanent home.

At 3PM, we would play basketball in the school yard — four Jewish kids, one Italian kid, and one black kid. We were all in the “gifted program” class, which was a desperate attempt for this particular New York City public school to plug the leaky hole caused by fearful parents and their kids pouring out of the city school and into the safer private religious schools. Without some action on the school’s part to keep the brainier kids, the neighborhood junior high would be known as a place where students were more likely to get stabbed than learn algebra.

There were three basketball courts in this schoolyard. We played on the half court the furthest away from the crowds, near the water fountain. All six of us were shitty players. I was tall, so I was good at blocking the ball. Unfortunately, I couldn’t dribble or shoot. I stood around with my hands up, trying to block the shots. Luckily, no one else could shoot the ball either.

Depending on the day of the week, between fifteen minutes to an hour into our game, it would always happen. Six tough-looking dudes would show up, the tallest doing tricks with his ball, and tell us to leave. He was not a polite guy. If I remember correctly, he tended to use the term “fucking white faggots,” at five of us, and then torment the one black guy in our group for being an “oreo.”

This might seem quite dramatic to you, even traumatic, but at the time, it didn’t seem so, even when we physically chased off the court, shown a knife, or forced to give them money. We would run away and make fun of these idiots, laughing at our crazy adventure that we would never dare tell our parents.

I’ve hardly thought about these incidents in years. It was the power politics of the schoolyard. During the day, we were safely roped off in our “gifted program.” What else was there to do?

But how has this affected me today? Or has it? I still tend to cave in during a conflict, although I have gotten much better about standing my own ground. I am the antithesis of the Israeli army and Hamas in the schoolyard of the Middle East, or the U.S. and Soviet Union of the cold war years, where neither gives an inch because that would convey weakness, and enemies always take advantages of weaknesses.   Sadly, history does not have many examples of the weak writing the history books!

We all know the movie/TV version of this schoolyard story. There would be a moment of transformation. At some point, I would have had enough with being pushed around, and I would become a leader.

“We need to stop those bullies. We need to keep our ground,” I would tell my friends.

Of course, just as the bullies arrive, telling us to leave the court, all my friends would wimp out, running off, leaving me alone, having to face the six toughs alone. I would nervously “put up my dukes,” like in some John Wayne Western, and promptly get the shit beaten out of me.

Yet, and this is a BIG yet — the bullies would have learned to respect me. I took it like a man. We would negotiate. We would compromise, taking turns using the court. We would even learn to play together, in mixed teams. The guy who did tricks with the basketball like a Harlem Globetrotter would show me how to play ball like a pro. I would teach him algebra. I would grow up and play center for the New York Knicks. He would become a Harvard Professor, a Nobel Prize winner in Mathematics.

I love Hollywood. Maybe the weak can’t write the history books, but they can rewrite history in screenplays!

OK, you’re a parent. Your son comes to you and tells you what is going on at the schoolyard. What do you tell him to do? Fight or flight?

28 Comments

  1. Twenty Four At Heart

    Oooh! I have a lot to say on this one. Remind me and lets talk about it at lunch. I can’t wait to get caught up! Will Sophia be joining us?

  2. Jack

    If it is possible to work it out without fists than that is what you do. But if you need to defend yourself you take the other guy down hard.

  3. Blaiser

    I’m with Jack. Standing up to bullies is something I didn’t learn to do until later in life. But flight in the face of actual weaponry is probably wise, too.

  4. Voix

    As a teacher, I recommend finding an adult for some intervention.

    As a human being, I always went for the “public humiliation of the bully in the most embarrassing way possible” retaliation. Cutting remarks instead of box cutters, and I’m always praised for my wit.

  5. SciFi Dad

    Violence is a last resort, but is always an option.

    “Some men, you just can’t reach.”

  6. Finn

    Keeping weapons out of it:

    Ideally: Stand up for yourself. Most bullies will back down if confronted. Use your brain first, then your brawn if necessary.

    Realistically: You can get in trouble for fighting. Tell an adult. This, however, will not stop the bully outside of school.

  7. Heather of the EO

    I’m generally a peaceful person-hate violence. But when I think of my boys on a school yard, faced with fights and being mistreated…I think I’m going to tell them to fight back. To protect themselves and stick up for each other. I want them to always know they have a voice, that they have some control even when they don’t feel like they do. I don’t know if that’s right, it’s just what my gut tells me.

    Great post, Neil.

  8. Di

    Currently in the midst of writing a post about old school days. Not the great style of writing you use, bit I do try.

    P.S. I’d tell my child to stomp the crap out of the other kid… Take your best shot.

    • Neil

      Di — in this case, you would also be telling your kid to get the shit beaten out of him. I had no best shot.

  9. Titanium

    I guess I would do what I have already had to do with my ten year old daughter- wade into the middle of it myself, and when that fails (and it will) take the kid to a better school. Immediately.

    There’s nothing to be gained from forcing a child to remain in that type of environment. Oh, yeah, and then enroll kiddo in mixed martial arts.

    Because, yeah. So far, it’s working.

  10. Tuck

    Make love, not war. But, if that fails, fight to win.

  11. sizzle

    I think we should teach our children confidence and conflict resolution…and a good right hook JUST IN CASE.

  12. MQ

    it’s so easy to tell other people to fight…

  13. teahouseblossom

    Hmm..you pose an interesting question. No idea what I’d do. Maybe fight but with the kids’ minds, not their fists. I will need a few days to work out the logistics, though.

  14. bookfraud

    actually, this happened to me several times with some jew-baiting tools in 7th and 8th grades.

    at first, it was flight, but given my temper, i could only take so much of it. so inevitably i would get into a fight, and either i would get my ass kicked or i would at least fought to a draw. in either case, the bullies would leave me alone after that.

    doesn’t matter in the end. some of them are dead, drug addicts, or working as garbagemen. i feel sorry for them, actually.

  15. Juli Ryan

    As a parent, at least for me, I think the difficult part will be the letting go. Letting my son choose whether to fight or flee, what kind of man he wants to be.

    Oh, that I could always keep him safe, away from all the world’s bullies.

  16. Megan Zuniga

    I’m always shocked, surprised and appalled about stories about bullies. I’ve also recently read about bullying among girls. I guess I’m lucky I grew up in a place without bullies (we had bullies in form of peer pressure but that’s about it). So, I know I’m not expert but I don’t think there is a wrong choice in the matter. If you can’t fight, there is no shame in flight. When I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she said a line that if your gut tells you to flee then flee. Flee until you’ve found a more advantageous place to attack (I’m paraphrasing but that’s the gist). If you had stayed, what point would there be to be a punching bag to a bunch of thugs? And if you learn how to stand up to them later in life, then isn’t that better than not learning at all?
    I don’t have children yet I am scared about the state of our world today and how I’m going to raise up my children to be good strong kids.

  17. caron

    The elementary school I work at had a program about bullying last fall where the children were reminded that someone who is bullying is actually looking to find some way to feel better about themselves. If they can remember that, and safely find a way to compliment the bully – “that’s a great shirt, you look really good in red” – it throws the bully off his game, and gives a tiny little thing to feel good about. But mostly throws them off long enough to make a safe exit.

  18. tony

    wow tough neighborhood…spit your gum on the court and run like hell.

  19. The Mom(aka Amy)

    I think when weapons are involved things are a little beyond bullying.

    If someone is “just” verbally harrassing you it is prudent to stand your ground, but when they pull out a weapon then duck and cover.

  20. anymommy

    I have no idea. I’d probably be furious and ineffective. That’s most likely why my parents knew little about my school life. So, now are you going to write the next post? About how it did shape you?

  21. ca

    run baby run.

  22. Bon

    i know plenty about bullies but not about fighting, so i’ve never figured it out.

    maybe the point you make about respect is the best i got: i’d tell him to do what he needs to respect himself.

    cause i’m sure a 4 yr old’s gonna grasp that. oy.

  23. amanda

    Shit, knee-jerk honesty—tell him to get the hell off the court. It’s why I tell my husband to can it when he gets pissed on the road. Times have changed and bad decisions are all too often final rather than just regrettable.
    Cowardly? Maybe, but alive, right?

  24. sarah

    exactly what Juli Ryan said. The hardest part of being a parent is letting them decide for themselves. But the thought of it makes my heart ache, either way.

  25. Loukia

    I was beat up a few times in grade 7 by this bully of a girl, Melva. It was just awful. But once she was confronted by the principle and a cop – she wanted to become my friend. I was just happy I didn’t have to have my head slammed in the locker anymore!
    Now, as a mom of two boys – my big worry is what will happen to my boys when they’re in school full-time, if they encounter this type of ‘bullying’ behaviour from other older kids. I’m pretty sure my 2 year old would take on (and kick ass!) any child who dares lay a finger on him – he’s got no fear. My oldest son, though, my thinker, he likes to avoid conflict at all costs. I DO know if anyone hurts my child I WILL go talk to that child. Maybe that is not right… but I will SO go to their school the next day and tell whoever hurt my child to NEVER do that again. And maybe a call to their parents. And I don’t care if I’m not doing the right thing, like ‘let them figure it out themselves…’ I just… want to help and protect them forever. Sometimes parents should get involved. But I get it, like what if they are in high school… man… I just don’t know… If I could put my kids in a bubble ball, I probably would!

  26. Megan

    I’ve been dealing with my 10 year old son being bullied all year. He got beat up by a couple of girls after school earlier this year. He used a minimum of force – just enough to get them off of him, so he could get away and then told me about it. I went into the school the next day and got both girls suspended. It was a no win situation for my son. If he had really fought back, if he had been seen as hitting those girls, he would have been suspended regardless of who started it. He felt horrible about it because he felt like he got beat up by girls. It took both his father and his martial arts master explaining it was a no-win situation to him and that he did the right thing despite the non-Hollywood ending to make him feel OK about it.

    In your situation, if you were my kid and I knew about it, if there were weapons involved, I’d be waiting by that court with a bunch of cops. A bunch of bigger kids with a knife is a no win situation with a potentially very bad ending – fighting when you can’t win isn’t brave, it’s stupid.

  27. Neil

    I think times have changed for the better, and in the 70s and 80s, there wasn’t as much attention paid to bullying. It was something that just always happened in school, and unless something really serious happened, you usually didn’t tell anyone — the parents or the teachers, because the consequences would just be worse for you. I think it is good that people are more open to talking about this stuff nowadays.

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