By Tyson Davis
In seventh grade I was considered, depending on who you spoke to, a nerd or a dork.
I think at the time the terms were fairly interchangeable, whereas now many people proudly claim nerdship as a valued status in society. But it wasn’t back then (at least for me). I was on the receiving end of ridicule and bullying due to my general lack of physical prowess, my above-average intelligence and willingness to display it, my low socio-economic status, and probably a few other reasons I’m not fully aware of.
Being a nerd or dork at that age was hazardous to your health. Bullies loved us. We were wounded gazelles in the plains of Africa and the bullies were the lion, circling its prey. There was one particular bully and an incident with him that happened 32 years ago, but I remember like it was yesterday.
This particular bully had the physical prowess I lacked (probably mostly due to the fact that he was at least a year and a half older than the rest of us). He seemed to have below-average intelligence, but I have always surmised that that was more for show than him actually not being smart. He shared my low socio-economic status, and he loved to light up a cigarette any time a teacher stepped out of the classroom and he had multiple suspensions to prove it. He was the bully’s bully, Nelson Muntz could very well have been modeled after him.
We’ll call this bully “Larry.” Larry picked on me as much as he did the other nerds in class. However, he didn’t seem to go after me with the glee he did with the other unfortunate kids in class. I’m not sure why. Maybe he realized we weren’t that much different (although I abhorred smoking). If I had been a little bigger, or maybe a little older than everyone else, I could have easily ended up a bully instead of the bullied. Or maybe if he didn’t have the genetics and age difference to make him twice as strong as the rest of us, he could have easily ended up on the receiving end of someone else’s hectoring. But Larry went after me nonetheless.
One day in music class the teacher left the room and that immediately caused us dorks to become tense with fear.
We knew what was about to happen. Larry was about to pick one or two of us to at best, verbally abuse, or at worst, physically menace. Luckily for me his eyes fixated on another diminutive kid in class, who happened to be my friend. Larry was sitting in the row in front of us, directly in front of me. As soon as the door closed behind the teacher, he stood up, licked his finger, and stuck it in my friend’s ear. (Another thing that Larry and I differed on was our fear of germs. If the die had fallen a different way and I had been a bully, I would never have stuck my finger in anyone else’s ear.) My friend ran to the corner of the room, expecting more.
Fortune smiled on him, because the door to the room started to open as the teacher was finishing a conversation in the hallway.
Now, to this day I still don’t know why or how what happened next happened. It’s one of those things that I can’t explain. But as soon as Larry saw the door open he started to sit down, and for some Godforsaken reason I proceeded to pull the chair out from under him as he started his descent. I can still hear the metal of the chair legs scraping across the concrete floor as I pulled it as quickly as I could.
Larry’s descent was faster than would be normal, because he knew if he was caught standing that his forthcoming denial of bullying my friend would be less convincing.
I can still picture the moment when Larry realized the plastic seat was not where it should be and the flailing of his arms as he fell, rather hard, on the concrete floor. I still hear the eruption of laughter from the rest of my classmates as they heard the THUD of Larry’s oversized rear-end hit the ground.
As Larry sat, momentarily stunned and unsure of himself, I, momentarily too, soaked up the approving cheers and for a split-second, saw what it was like to be on the other side of life. But then just as quickly, I realized what I had done and what the effect was going to be on my body as soon as Larry re-oriented himself.
That happened faster than I would have liked.
Larry stood up and gave me “the look.” I braced myself. But instead of the immediate punch I was expecting, Larry grabbed my arm and pulled me over into the opposite corner of the room that my friend was still cowering in. As the teacher was finishing his conversation in the hallway and finally starting to enter the door, Larry said to me, “That was pretty funny what you did. Good job. But, I hope you understand that I still gotta hit you. Everyone expects me to and if I don’t people aren’t gonna look at me the same.”
For some reason, at the time, that made perfect sense to me. Larry had to hit me. And I had to take it.
That’s just how the universe worked. The bully bullies and the nerd takes it. The lion chases the gazelle. We went back to our seats, Larry reached back to deliver his blow, and as he thrust his hand forward into a swing similar to what Ali used against Frazier, I miraculously was able to dodge the brunt of it and it *mostly* glanced off of my shoulder.
Larry was satisfied that he had saved face in front of our classmates. I was satisfied that I had felt a brief moment of stature and was not forced to go to the emergency room, and the teacher immediately sent Larry to the principal’s office for the violence he had witnessed towards me. And I shit you not, as Larry was walking towards the door on the way to the principal, he reached into his pocket, pulled out an already half-smoked cigarette, went to light it and said, “Well, I guess if I’m going to get suspended anyway, I might as well light up.” Still one of the greatest quotes I have ever heard.
Larry, and others like him, are a large part of how and why I ultimately ended up practicing Zen. I didn’t like Larry. I didn’t like any of the other kids in school throughout my elementary and middle school years that made fun of me or bullied me. For a long time those kids held a space in my head and I couldn’t shake them out of it. I’m not sure I really wanted to. I was angry and deep down I liked that anger.
Maybe like is the wrong word, but I was so used to holding onto that anger that I couldn’t let go of it. It was part of “me,” and that part of me had an oversized bearing on the whole “me” I became. It wasn’t always a pretty me. That anger manifested itself in all aspects of my life. Sometimes it was just anger; a lot of times it was fear. And that fear caused me to build walls. Add more fear and anger from other aspects of my childhood and it became tough for me to get out from, over, or through all those walls I had constructed.
Trump would love those walls. They were so big and beautiful. They insulated me and protected me. Wonderful walls.
That’s how I lived the first thirtysomething years of my life. No deep connections with friends, family, or especially significant others. Nobody could get in and I couldn’t get out.
Sure, my reading of Zen books might have allowed some cracks to develop in the barriers I had constructed, but they were tiny cracks, and only temporary. I made sure to repair those cracks fairly quickly. No amount of reading was going to tear them down.
Finally I was so unhappy that I did the unthinkable. I started meditating. I joined a Zen group and sat every day. Finally, slowly, I started to see that the anger I was harboring for Larry and all the other people like him had no substance behind it. There was nothing real there to hold on to. I was clinging to memories that had nothing to do with whatever “me” is currently typing these words.
Those memories were a story and I am more than my story.
I kept meditating and slowly as my anger was dissipating, a concern developed for Larry. Many times I asked myself what was going on in Larry’s life back then that made him feel like being a bully was necessary? After more and more meditation that concern turned into compassion. I feel bad for Larry and I hope that he is okay now. I understand that at that time, he didn’t have any choice in the matter. A lion chases a gazelle. It was just the nature of things. We each had our karma and that karma unfolded.
After years of meditation, those walls have developed numerous cracks. There are now escape tunnels underneath them. The foundations are starting to crumble.
When people ask me what Zen practice has done for me, I tell them it has given me two things: great freedom and the capacity for true intimacy. I’m not sure which came first, although if I had to guess, it would be freedom. As the walls were coming down, I was able to escape from the box I had put myself in. The labels that others had given me, that had weighed me down, started to fall off and I could move about the world more freely. In that freedom of movement I discovered how to be intimate with life.
It was scary at first. I used to brag that I hadn’t cried since fifth grade when our class watched Where The Red Fern Grows. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, to me, it’s a better version of Old Yeller. Regardless, dogs die in it and half of our class was crying with me as it happened (but that was the last time). Even during my grandfather’s funeral in my mid-twenties I held back tears as hard as I could. Sure, one or two may have rolled down my cheek, but it was definitely not what I could call crying.
But now I cry pretty frequently, and most of the time freely, and not always tears of sadness. Many times they are tears of joy. And sometimes it’s just from the momentary closeness I feel to some thing or some one.
That freedom and that intimacy—I can’t explain to you in words how much I value those now. I owe that to Zen practice. And that’s why it’s hard for me not to try to convince everyone I know and their mother to practice Zen too.
Yes, I practice for myself. Definitely. I’m still selfish. But, I also practice for you. And I especially practice for Larry. We don’t have to be the lion and the gazelle anymore.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Tyson Davis is not a Zen teacher. In fact, his main practice is “don’t know.” So don’t take anything he writes as the proverbial gospel (or sutra as the case may be). He studied Buddhism for a decade or so before he began practicing Zen. He’s been practicing meditation and Zen for about 10 years now. He grew up on a farm, retired from farming at age 22 and moved to civilization. He has a wonderful fiancé and a French bulldog named Ombre.
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