We all knew this kid. He was bigger and stronger than his peers, a bit hefty around the middle. He brought the wannabe bullies with him, because there’s safety in numbers.
Whenever kids played a game, there came Sluggo & Company. Shoving people around, punching or pushing people smaller than them. Even though he couldn’t play football very well, Sluggo took over the game. When he lost, he insisted on being named the winner because others “cheated,” or the game was “rigged” against him. The other kids knew the truth, but feared retribution if they called him out.
“You’re all liars!” he would scream at them, daring anybody to challenge him.
Then, when everyone was about to abandon the field and search for fun elsewhere, Sluggo would pick his next victim to slap around. On this day however, the smallest boy challenged Sluggo. The one nobody paid attention to, let alone remember his name. Because he was different.
“Hey!” he said in a steady but high-pitched voice. Without a trace of fear, he walked up to Sluggo. “Leave that kid alone. Try me instead.” He stood there in defiance, completely engulfed in Sluggo’s towering shadow.
“You’re the liar,” the kid said. “You cheated on every play, used your bigger body to hurt us, and whined when things didn’t go your way.”
Sluggo laughed in scorn. “Shut up you little punk,” he sneered.
“I won’t,” the kid said. His voice grew louder. “Evidently your mommy spoiled you and nobody has had the balls to say ‘ENOUGH OF YOUR BULLSHIT, SLUGGO!’ You’re a punk and a bully, and we’re ALL sick of you. Go home and eat some more cookies. You lose. Come on, admit it.”
Several of the kids stifled laughter, amazed at this reckless speech. Sluggo glared at the kid who, even though a nearly a foot smaller, blazed in defiance. Sluggo’s voice changed, showing a hint of doubt, but his words became more sinister.
“Look you fucking little darky,” he snarls. “Nigger baby. Welfare punk. Why don’t you go down to the school and ask your janitor daddy to clean up your face, because I’m gonna mess it up.”
Someone gasped at the profane slurs. Yet the small fellow didn’t flinch or blink. Instead, his arms hung loosely at his side. Taking a step closer to the hulking, angry bully, he stared daggers at Sluggo’s dilating pupils. He prepared for the inevitable strike. Sluggo’s gang backed up a step. Sluggo turned and smirked at his cronies, who shrugged as if they knew what the outcome would be. Those who had endured Sluggo’s cruelty began to cheer their new hero.
“Actually,” the little guy said, “my name is David. And you’re about to get your ass beat, Sluggina.”
A snort of contempt erupted from the bully’s “second,” standing just to his left. Barky had never seen Sluggo actually fight, and he smiled in anticipation of his friend’s certain victory.
Sluggo struck at his tormentor. David nimbly stepped aside and slapped Sluggo hard across the face. A red welt appeared, and Sluggo briefly rubbed it in surprise. Lunging at David, he grabbed his arm and tried to fling him to the ground.
David twisted, freed his captive arm and pivoted, leaving Sluggo with nothing but a handful of ripped shirt. In a blink, David rushed in low, grabbed Sluggo by the wrist and thigh, nimbly flipping the snarling beast over his shoulder onto the ground. Jumping on Sluggo’s chest, David shattered Sluggo’s nose with a quick jab. Then he shoved the vanquished beast’s head into the mud puddle and jumped away.
In the span of five seconds, the giant has been defeated. David stood victorious over the prone Sluggo. He stepped back, glaring at Barky, who didn’t accept the challenge. Instead, Barky bent down to help Sluggo regain his feet, but was waved away. Facing David, Barky glared at the fierce little warrior.
“This isn’t over, punk,” Barky said. “He woulda won if you hadn’t cheated. Next time, we’ll both kick your ass.”
“I’m always available,” David replied. “Want my phone number? That way you can make an appointment.” This brought nervous laughter from the stunned crowd. They moved to David’s side, emboldened by his unexpected victory. A few reached out to pat him on the shoulder, but he brushed them away.
“Don’t touch me,” David growled. He turned to face the onlookers. “All my life you’ve ignored me or called me names because my skin is different than yours. You’re all a bunch of cowards. In all my 10 years of life here in this town, you all looked down at me. Any of you could have kicked this creep’s butt, but you just let him walk all over you. Don’t you dare think you’re my friends now.”
David stepped away and spit on the ground. Tears began to drip down his face; he was shocked at what he’d done. He had snapped, unable to take the abuse any longer. Now he’d have hell to pay because of it. After studying martial arts for three years, he had allowed his anger to rule over restraint. Those kids still wouldn’t like him, so why had he exploded? As he walked away and the adrenalin began to fade however, he began to feel proud and justified. Easily the smallest kid in his class, he had stood up to the bully. Even though his father’s punishment was imminent, he felt a sense of accomplishment.
The next day at school, a crowd of kids silently awaited his arrival. Barky stood at the front, but Sluggo was nowhere to be seen. This new “leader” sported a football jersey several sizes too big. David walked directly up to him. There was nowhere else to go because of all the kids, and he no longer feared the gang of bullies.
Barky put his hand out as David reached him, offering a handshake. David was surprised.
“You lost,” Barky says in a soft voice, as if begging concession. “Come on, no hard feelings.” He looked around at the other kids clustered around as if to silence them. David sighed. He didn’t raise his hand.
“Everyone there saw it. But we like how you fought,” Barky said, in a less confident tone.
David stopped, slowly raising his head. He still refused the offered hand. Looking Barky in the eyes, he shook his head. He recalled his father’s words of the night before: “Pride is dangerous, for it makes you weaker, even in victory.”
Changing his mind, David firmly grasped Barky’s hand but said “I accept your apology.”
Astonished, Barky pulled his hand away.
“I SAID YOU LOST, KID!” he screamed.
David’s face remained blank. “You spoke, but not the truth,” he replied quietly enough so that only Barky could hear. David walked around Barky as the bell rang. The crowd parted to let him through, but their collective gasp alerted him of what he already expected.
Just before Barky’s hand struck from behind, David dodged and quickly pivoted, jabbing Barky hard in the solar plexus. Barky stumbled to his knees, gasping for air.
Shaking his head, David walked into his classroom to find his teacher and the principal waiting. His classmates filed in behind him. Ignoring them all, he walked to his desk and sat.
“Young man,” his teacher said. “The principal will speak with you. Outside.”
David sighed, picking up his backpack. He walked toward the door, head down, dreading what awaited.
* * *
After enduring a harsh and lengthy lecture from the furious principal, David remained silent. He looked up to see his father standing in the doorway, staring daggers at the man behind the desk.
“I’m Walter Kath, David’s father.”
“Yes,” the principal said, “I know. I’m Percy Kimdle. Come in and have a seat, Walter.”
“No thank you,” Walter replied, “I’ll stand. David, please stand with me.” David walked in front of his father, who placed both hands on his shoulders to calm him.
This defiance gave the principal pause, but after a moment he resumed his tirade. Having heard this tripe already, David rolled his eyes and turned his head, tears beginning to well. His father’s hands gently clutched David’s face, turning it back to meet his accuser’s eyes.
After a minute, Walter interrupted in a fury. “Lies, all lies,” he said. “You say you have witnesses, but my son has never lied to me. Even when it meant he would get in trouble, he’s always told the truth. He says he was attacked by a bully, and he defeated his attacker. A crowd of about 30 kids saw it happen, but you say it was 100. You say he cursed and kicked the kid when he was down. I have every reason to believe him, yet no evidence supports your claim.”
The principal reddened. He wasn’t accustomed to having his authority challenged. “Walter, I said I have witnesses!” he shouted. “Hundreds of them! I ain’t gonna believe no alternative facts.”
“Then produce your witnesses Mr. Kimdle,” Walter said. “Otherwise, it’s a proven lie. Also, as an educator, I’d prefer if you use proper English in front of my son. And you may address me as Mr. Kath.”
“Uppity…” Kimdle stopped, checking himself.
“You were going to use a racial slur there, I believe,” Walter said. “It seems to be a core value in this town.”
David was terrified. He recognized the quiet, controlled tone of his father’s voice as a precursor to bad things about to happen. The office was silent for nearly a minute. David squirmed. He decided to describe it from his point of view.
“I didn’t kick him when he was down, but I did throw him after he swung at me,” David said softly.
“As if I’m supposed to believe a kid your size could do that,” Kimble said, snorting in disgust.
David shrugged, then continued. “Maybe the other kids were talking about my jumping on him after he fell. That’s when I punched him in the nose. I know that was wrong, and I’m sorry. But I didn’t kick him when he was down. He tried to hit me again after I put him on the ground, and that’s why I punched him.
“That’s not what I heard, young man,” Mr. Kimdle said sternly. “I have no choice but to suspend…”
The principal’s sentence was interrupted by the noisy arrival of a group of students marching down the hall. Walter protectively moved between David and the throng of kids, then noticed it wasn’t necessary. At the front stood a bruised Sluggo, with Barky just behind him. Both appeared sullen, but peaceful.
Mr. Kimdle raced around his desk and confronted the silent but steadily-growing crowd. “You kids, back to class. NOW!”
“No sir,” Sluggo said, his eyes downcast. He looked up and saw David. “I have something to say to this kid.”
“David Kath,” he said, “I said some horrible things, then I tried to beat you up.” He stopped and let out a struggled breath. “You whupped me, and I deserved it. I’m sorry I lied, Dad. And David, you’re a pretty tough kid. I’m sorry for what I called you.”
Mr. Kimble rushed to Sluggo, roughly grabbing him by the shoulders. “Shut up, you damned fool! Didn’t I tell you I’d handle this?”
“Looks like he did a better job than you have,” Walter said.
Sixth-grader Sluggo gently removed his father’s hands from his shoulders as David approached.
“I feel bad for calling you a nigger,” Sluggo said. He choked on the last word. David stood a foot away from him, looking up into the tortured face of yesterday’s adversary.
“You should feel bad,” David said quietly. “It’s a terrible thing to say. But I believe you, and I forgive you. I accept your apology.”
The two boys reached out and shook hands.
David looked at the the massive crowd of white faces silently staring at him. A shared shame reflected in their eyes. David nodded at the group before looking back at Sluggo. “Thanks for stepping up. And what’s your real name?”
Bending down to David’s ear, he whispered “Percy, Jr.”.
Without hesitation, David smiled and said “Okay then. But I think we can find a better nickname for you, because you’re not a very good slugger. C’mon Junior, let’s go back to class.” Both of them laughed, and Junior rubbed David’s head. They turned and walked through the crowd, the bigger boy with his arm around the other’s shoulders.
They became close friends, as later did their wives and children. After that meeting between their fathers, they became nearly inseparable. David helped Junior with his studies, and Junior persuaded David to play on the football team. Even though David played hard, it was Junior who won All State honors and was awarded a scholarship at the local university. David earned doctorate degrees in English and Physics, choosing to teach at the same university from which he had studied: the University of Arizona.
After 10 years in the NFL, Junior retired as a two-time Super Bowl MVP and later became a Hall of Fame inductee. In his retirement speech, after thanking his teammates, coaches and family, Junior turned to a distinguished-looking man sitting a few rows back.
“Most of all,” he said, “I’d like to thank the man who taught me at an early age that it’s not what you look like that matters most in life, but how you treat others. He’s also the only person who has ever whupped me. (Laughter.)
“Since we became friends when we were 10 years old, his kindness and dedication to our friendship helped me become a much better person. We may not agree politically or on the superiority of our alma maters’ football programs, but I hope he has even a small percentage of the profound respect I have for him, my best friend for 25 years now. Perhaps most importantly though, he taught me there is no such thing as an ‘alternative fact.’ Truth always trumps falsehood in the hearts of good people. Thank you, Professor Kath.”