I have to remember something:
My words are like a line in the sand. Once I cross the line—then I’ve crossed the line, and coming back is not always easy.
I have to remember that words said out of anger have sharp teeth. And sharp teeth hurt. They leave bite marks and the marks remain even after the anger subsides.
I need to remember this . . .
Back when I was a kid, I remember the teachers used to say, “You watch your mouth, young man!”
They said this if I used foul language, or if I was being, “Fresh.”
And that one I never understood. I always saw fresh as a good thing to be.
People come out of the shower feeling, “Fresh.”
“Fresh” out of the bag . . .
I thought it was a good thing to be fresh, that is, until I was in Mrs. Rowan’s second grade class. To her, being fresh was a bad thing. Then again, there was nothing “Fresh” about Mrs. Rowan.
She had yellowed teeth and bad breath that smelled from old coffee. She pointed at her students with gnarled, arthritic fingers that looked veiny and bluish from the blood vessels across the top of her pasty white hands.
Mrs. Rowan had a little potbelly; she had a back that bowed forward, eyebrows that pushed down, and an outdated wardrobe and hairstyle. She was mean looking, I say, almost witch-like. She was short with cold, blue eyes. She had a pointed, bony nose and pale skin with horrible veins bubbling at the sides of her head.
No, there was nothing fresh about her. Mrs. Rowan was short in height. She seldom, if ever smiled, and she was quick to yell at the children in her class.
She would say things like, “Take a D,” whenever I misbehaved in the classroom.
Only, I never knew what that meant. We never had D as a grade—at least, not on our report card. We had “S” for satisfactory. We had “N” for needs improvement. And then we had “U” for unsatisfactory.
(For the record, I received a lot of N’s and U’s)
I told old Mrs. Rowen about this D thing. She told me to watch my mouth.
Seated at my desk, Mrs. Rowan humiliated me in front of everyone.
She said I was acting, “Smart,” which also made little sense because I was at school. to become smart
She told me, “Don’t be fresh,” and to, “Take another D!”
I mumbled under my breath as she walked away, “Again, with the fuckin D!”
I must have mumbled a bit too loud.
“What was that, young man?!”
“Nothing,” I answered nervously.
It was too late. She heard what I said.
Everyone did, and the entire class erupted with a chorus of, “Oooooooohs,” which was followed with a symphony of second graders saying, “You’re in trouble.”
To the best of my recollection, this is the first time I ever cursed at anyone in anger.
I expose this childhood story to simplify a more elaborate problem.
Words have weight behind them. Words can also hit harder than any fist. They can cut like a blade, or bite with the sharpest of teeth. We learn about words that do this at a young age. They start small—but as our vocabulary grows, so does our understanding of insults.
We begin to understand how insults are used and how we can defend ourselves simply by insulting someone else. And when angry, I learned that I have the incredible ability to strike first, strike hard, and always hit below the belt.
But there was inventory behind this. Since I was either hurt or angry—I would be sure that whomever I argued with was also hurt and angry. I went low, right away. I hit below the belt. The only problem was after I argued—there were always consequences.
I don’t remember my first black-eye. I can’t remember the first time I ever scraped my knee or fell from a swing set. I am not sure when I earned my first black and blue, but I do remember the first time anyone ever called me stupid. I remember the first time someone called me a loser, and I remember the first time I was ever humiliated by a girl in a classroom.
Her name was Michelle (at least, that’s what I’ll call her in this piece)
She yelled at me in front of my eighth grade social studies class. I had no idea why she yelled at me. I never knew she disliked me—I never thought she had a problem with me. As far as I knew, she was just another girl from school.One day, however, I must have said something wrong before the teacher came and this set Michelle off.
She had dark black hair, which was sprayed up high and the sides were sort of, sprayed out over her ears like the shape of a seashell. Her eye makeup was dark. Her oily, pimpled face was pale and freckled, but it quickly turned red with anger.
I could see her teeth grinding. Her wiry metal braces almost glaring at me. She called me a dirt-bag. “You are disgusting,” she told me. “You have grease gupping off of your head.”
I had no idea why she was yelling at me. I only knew I wanted her to stop.
Everyone was looking.
Everyone heard what she was saying—and I said nothing in return, which in my opinion, made me look pathetic.
There was plenty I could have said. I know there was because after this happened, I spent the next few days reliving what went on and what insults I could have used in return.
First, this girl was not pretty, by any means. She had terrible skin and she always smelled from her grape smelling hairspray. She wore baggy sweaters that always looked the same. She had legs that looked like thin poles; she was flat chested, flat-assed, and the list went on.
I never wanted to feel that way again. I never wanted to feel like victim or have anyone verbally victimize in front of a crowd. I learned from this and other situations that were just like it. I learned that I needed to thicken my skin and learn how to argue back.
Truthfully, whatever happened that day in social studies class probably had less to do with me and more to do with whatever she was going through at the time. The truth is I never had a real conversation with this girl—but the first time I said something, she tore into me in front of an entire classroom.
I never wanted to feel that pitiful, or vulnerable; I never wanted to feel the victimized or broken, and I certainly never wanted to ever feel that humiliated again. I can assure you, wherever this girl is in life now, she probably has no memory of this.
But I do.
We learn young, which is why as an adult, I will never allow my daughter to hear me insult, berate, or degrade another person.
We learn young, but as we grow, our arguments become more complex. They switched from the basic momma jokes we used on the playground and became more deliberate.
I am a divorced father in a second marriage. I cannot say the downfall of my first marriage was not my fault. I am equally responsible for its failure—and most of its failure was due to unprocessed anger. Most of our troubles were a result of mishandled resentments and poor communication, which in turn, led to a hardened and loveless relationship.
I am not sure if the mother of my child could tell you what I wore on our first date. I am not sure if she could tell you where we went on our first car ride together, or whether I wore anything special or not.
But she can certainly remember the first time I shouted at her. She can remember the first time I cursed at her, and she can remember the first time I said, “I want a divorce!”
I cannot tell you what the mother of my child wore when I first met her. I cannot say where we went the night we met or where we went to dinner for the first time together. But I can tell you the first time she hurt me. I can tell you the times I felt emotionally abandoned or mistreated.
I cannot say all is healed between the mother of my child and me. I cannot say I have healed on my side, and I am not sure if she has healed on hers. I can tell because if we disagree—the old feelings come flushing back in. I can only say we have progressed . . . and that’s a good thing.
I have had to take steps to change who I am and how I handle my anger. I have had to learn that angry misfires of insults do nothing but create damage—and sometimes, that damage is irreparable.
I have to remind myself, “Watch your mouth!” just like Mrs. Rowan would say.
During a visit in Florida, I met a man who asked me for advice about drinking and his failing marriage. He had read some of my prose. He called me Kerouac.
Said, “You got something there and you really should do something with it.”
The man was middle-aged, well-tanned, and he had money to spare. He was in the middle of dissolving his business and trying to find a way so that work was a thing of the passed and drinking on the beach was a thing of the future.
He was staying in one of the hotel rooms beneath mine. He drank mostly. Played guitar throughout the day, and whenever possible, he tried to have his wife visit him, which she eventually did. The man introduced me to his nearly ex-wife and invited me in his room to talk. We began speaking about alcohol and why I have not had a drink in more than two decades..
I asked the woman questions, but she was unsure how to answer. She was attractive—older, and petite. She dressed well and spoke very softly. At first, the man would answer whatever question I would ask her. She seemed shy and almost frightened. He seemed nervous and fidgety.
Suddenly, a light went on in my head.
“Wait a minute . . . did he hit you,” I asked
“Yes,” she told me.
“That’s why he had to leave.”
I looked at the man who I had listened to for two days about how he loved his wife.
“You never told me that,” I said.
The man fumbled to get the words from his mouth.
“Why the hell would you hit her?”
As I approached the man, his hands raised up almost submissively, and he backed up to the wall.
“You hit her?” My teeth began to grind.
“Look at the size of that girl. Look how tiny she is. And you hit her?”
Before the man excused his behavior, I reached out and grabbed him between his legs, cupped, then I squeezed his manhood with all that I had. His cargo shorts crumpled in my hand as he let out a high-pitched scream.
I hated him at that point. I hated his preppy dress code and his wealthy way of speaking. I hated his polo shirt and gold watch. I hated him perfectly because he was a perfect reminder of the bastard I used to be.
With his balls scrunched in my grip, I asked, “Why don’t you hit me?”
I dared him, “Go ahead, hit me.”
“What’s the matter,” I asked.
“What’s the matter? Can’t you defend yourself?”
Pulling down on the man’s balls, I charged, “Neither could she!” and then I let him go.
Immediately after, I went back into my hotel room. I picked up the phone and called my ex-wife and mother of my child to apologize for all the hurtful and hateful things I ever said.
It’s easy to be mean.
It’s easy to shoot first and fire at will when it comes to an argument.
But there is always an aftermath.
So watch your mouth.
It pays off in the long run