As Federal Way students prepare for a new school year, I am reminded of the trials and tribulations of adolescence.
On my first day of middle school, one of the classrooms sported a classic message: “Hey teenagers, are you tired of being harassed by your stupid parents? Act now! Move out, get a job and pay your own bills while you still know everything!”
As a teenager, the joke flew over my head. If only we knew then what we know now — which brings me to another experience from middle school.
One day, a fellow seventh-grader decided that he didn’t like me. He was scrappy, with both ears pierced and zig-zags shaved into his red hair. He chewed tobacco and cussed like a sailor. We also liked the same girl.
For the first time, I dreaded going to school. He finally challenged me to a fight after school. The buildup was agonizing. Each passing minute brought me one minute closer to social demise. I was not a fighter, and I was afraid.
I approached the field at a nearby elementary school where a herd of peers waited. My opponent took off his jacket and tossed it aside as he prepared to attack. He tried to kick me between the legs, then got me in a headlock. The underside of his fist pounded my skull as I struggled to stay balanced. The punches didn’t really hurt. But when I rolled to the ground, his black Nike high-top shoe pelted my face. He spit on me, strutted and boasted, then left.
As the crowd cleared, a hand reached down, helping me to my feet. That hand belonged to an acquaintance in my grade. He now works as a church pastor.
The fighter and I were both suspended for three days, and there was never another confrontation, aside from a few taunts on his end. I learned that his parents had recently divorced, just like mine. We had more in common than we thought: Low self-esteem, broken homes, absent fathers and something to prove. We simply saw it from different points of view; I became withdrawn while he turned aggressive.
Let’s get back to the boy who extended a hand when I needed one the most. He and some neighborhood kids were attending a sports memorabilia conference that evening at the local community center, and he invited me along. I don’t remember much about the event itself, aside from buying a pack of football cards. But I remember that I had nothing to lose. I had a hunch the humiliation from the fight would eventually fade — and it did.
That night, with a bruised face and swollen nose, I broke free from a self-imposed shell. It marked the beginning of a slow journey toward regaining the confidence that vanished alongside my parents’ marriage. From that day forward, I wanted to win what I called “the confidence game.” Kids and adults alike play this game. To win, you must defeat your own self-defeating notions, push up your sleeves and carry on when your world suddenly stops.
Middle school is a tough stretch for most teens already stuck in that “in between” phase. Almost 20 years later, that fight in middle school seems so trivial, yet at that moment, I learned to question whether such experiences would even matter in 20 years.
The wisdom and cynicism of adulthood gradually replace the innocence and vigor of youth, for better or worse. Today, I can see a little farther up the road, but only because there’s so much more road behind me.