Harry Mark Petrakis: Reflecting on a bully in later years
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My memory of Lazar (short for Lazaros) goes back to my youth and our parish elementary school that adjoined my father’s church. Half our school day was spent in Greek classes and the other half in English classes. An integral part of our curriculum in both languages were the daily beatings we suffered, slaps across the head and whacks with the rod across the legs.
Our companions in misery were the students attending the Roman Catholic parish school across the street from our school. Their beatings were administered by black-cloaked, white-hooded nuns, equally adept at delivering slaps and smacks. I once saw a nun jerk a miscreant boy out of a line and deliver a rocket blow across his head that sent him sprawling. It was a knockout that the then-reigning world heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, would have envied.
There were respites from the attack of teachers when school was at recess, which brought a hundred boys and girls rushing into the schoolyard. Perhaps some of the abusive environment in the school contributed to an unruly recess. There were arguments and physical confrontations not only among the boys but between the girls, as well.
Lazar was the bully of our schoolyard. He had failed the same grade twice so he was two years older, bigger and stronger than the rest of us. He would sit at his desk, sullen and silent, as the teacher reproached him for his density of mind and impaired use of words. In class he lagged behind us all.
But he dominated our recess. He’d skulk around, several toadies in his wake, until he settled on a victim. All of us feared him and hoped fervently not to be singled out for his abuse. But my position as son of the parish priest made me the special focus of Lazar’s bullying.
“You think because your old man is the priest that you are better than the rest of us?” he snarled. “Well you are nothing!” He gave me a shove that sent me stumbling. “You’re a wimp and a rabbit!”
On those rare occasions when I tried to assert myself and stand up to him, he became violent, slapping or knocking me to the ground. My classmates watched in silence and with pity, grateful that while Lazar was bullying me, they were being spared.
I tried several times to get to my feet and each time Lazar would knock me back down. After a while he’d walk away, smirking and triumphant. I got up from the ground with tears of frustration on my cheeks, my classmates whispering their condolences.
For the length of the school year, Lazar tormented me daily. I was grateful when the term ended. During the summer I grew bigger and stronger. I had also begun weightlifting and as I worked out each day I could feel my muscles bulking and hardening. I felt more powerful and looked forward to confronting Lazar in the fall.
But the first day of school, seeing Lazar once again, he also appeared bigger and more muscular. My old terror of him returned and when we gathered in the schoolyard for recess and I saw him walking toward me, my terror intensified.
“Here’s the pussy son of the priest back again,” Lazar sneered. “I bet you spent your summer picking flowers.”
“I worked during the summer” I said, my heartbeat thumping. Conscious of students around us, I made a feeble effort at bravado. “Maybe you were the one picking flowers.”
His face flushed with anger.
He gave me a violent shove that tumbled me to the ground. I considered staying down to avoid further abuse but boys and girls watching silently made me attempt to rise. When I got to my feet, Lazar knocked me down again. My terror of him was replaced by a mounting rage,
The next time he shoved me down I leaped to my feet in a fury and launched myself at him. Our bodies slammed together. Terror churned in me again when I realized my resistance would intensify Lazar’s anger and I’d suffer a terrible beating.
We grappled and strained against one another, and I tried desperately not to lose my footing. As he rocked and hammered against me, I remained standing, withstanding the hardest of his assaults.
Then something happened, no more than a quiver passing from his body to mine, a tremor of his awareness that he wasn’t strong enough to push me down. With that knowledge I gained a fierce surge of confidence and an added strength. I screamed in jubilation and hurled him to the ground.
Like a vengeful fury I fell on him, straddling him, the despair and fear in his face fueling my rage. I held his arms above his head. He struggled and when he realized I was stronger, he went limp.
I held him pinned to the ground with my hand across his throat and with my other hand rocked his head with a punch. The years of fury and resentment fueling me, I kept hitting him, snapping his head back and forth. Blood came from his nose and from his lips. I savored the terror in his face and kept hitting him as hard as I could.
Several classmates finally pulled me off Lazar. He remained sprawled on the ground, tears running down his bloody face. One of his eyelids looked puffed and one ear was swollen. He lay on the ground, beaten and crying.
My fury still seething, I went for him again, kicking him viciously in the side and when he cried out and tried to crawl away, I kicked him in the back and in the butt. I tried to kick him in the head and just missed. In that moment he must have realized I meant to kill him and he whimpered a plea for mercy.
I don’t recall how many more times I kicked him before others finally stopped me. I recall Lazar crawling away on his hands and knees, looking back in terror to see if I were in pursuit.
Seventy-five years have passed since that day in the schoolyard. Most of my classmates who were witness to that beating, must be dead now, the memory buried with them. Lazar may be dead, as well.
From time to time through the intervening years, I would recall that schoolyard retribution with satisfaction, pleased that justice had prevailed and that I had come out on top. At times I would relate the tale to others.
As I became older, more sensitive to the feelings of others, my perspective changed. I remembered my rage and how, if others hadn’t stopped me, I might have kicked and beaten Lazar to death. Becoming aware that such a rage to murder existed in me was disturbing and humbling. I stopped relating that story to others.
I also began considering how that terrible beating and vengeful humiliation before a hundred boys and girls might have impacted Lazar’s life. As he courted his wife and married, did he think of it? If he had children who might have been bullies or the victims of bullies, would they have reminded him of his own youth and the fierce beating he had endured?
I came finally to understand, with sorrow as well as remorse, that what had been a satisfying and triumphant recollection for me might have become for Lazar an anguished memory that seared his heart and spirit each time he recalled that bloody day.
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