Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Tao of David

This will be a long, serious read. Skip if you're not in the mood for such, because I'm about to bring it! As Eminem said: "But tonight, I'm cleaning out my closet."

Last week I read a Yahoo! Sports article on current UFC welterweight champion, Georges St. Pierre, and how he dealt with bullying and the pressures of being the new kid in school when he was growing up. You can read the entire article here if you like.

Reading this got me to thinking on my own rough childhood, where bullying was just the icing on the cake. I realized that, despite how good I have it now, I had to work far too hard to get to where I am. What I'm talking about is this culture of fear that some bullied children live under. Like St. Pierre says himself, just the thought of going to school each day was a cause for fear. And it was like this for me, as well. It's why to this day I always hated school. From elementary on up through high school, going to school felt like going to prison. And when you grow up in the South Bronx like I did, prison is in fact an apt analogy for the public school system here.

See, I came from a broken home. When my mother was alive, I dealt with beatings and severe punishments. Not so much from her, but from our tyrant of a stepfather. I was the oldest, so I perhaps had to deal with the brunt of it since I was always assumed to be the ringleader of any trouble to be had around the house. Added to that, my brother and I had to witness spousal abuse, too. So needless to say I did not come from a household conducive to building strong, confident boys.

To be honest, I have no idea how I did so well in my studies at all. I suppose because, at heart, I really was a nerdy kid who loved books and loved to learn. Perhaps this is what separated me from other Bronx kids in similar predicaments. So, for the first 8 years of my life I had issues to deal with at home, but my schooling was okay.

However, things started getting really bad at home by the time I'd reached the 3rd grade and, as a result, my grades started slipping. Add to the fact, also, that around this time I was told I would need to wear glasses on a full-time basis. Because we were on public assistance, the only glasses we could afford for me were the ugly brown "welfare glasses" much ridiculed far and near in the land.

This is when the bad times at school started, too.

I had been bullied a few times before the glasses--which I usually suffered through silently, since I lived in fear at home and only wanted to simply survive the day at school before heading back to that--but nothing compared to what I received after I was fitted with the glasses. From this moment onward, not a day would go by when I wasn't mocked, ridiculed, tormented, and sometimes physically confronted by those other kids who felt so secure and high n' mighty with themselves. Mostly I just retreated into myself and refused to interact with the world. I would daydream more and more in class, dreaming of far off places to escape to. Places of high adventure and daring-do. Yes, typical things a young boy might fantasize about, but which for me held an added sense of urgency. I wanted to escape from it all--from everything! I hated my home life AND school life equally.

Suffice to say that my grades went even further down the toilet. I was always considered far above average in intelligence. Despite my bad grades, I somehow always managed to be in the top 99 percentile on both state- and city-wide math and reading competency exams. But then, I had no problem with standardized tests. No, it was paying attention to everyday class lessons that were my undoing. The teachers began to notice, and I'm sure they tried speaking to my mom about it, but she was living in a state of fear herself. So much so, I think, that her fear added to mine. Kids pick up on these things, you know?

So, my mother ended up leaving our stepfather. She did it real sneaky like, too. We went to school one morning, and when we came back in the afternoon my brother and I saw a moving truck outside our apartment complex. I remember thinking: Oh, I wish that were us moving away from this dump! Only to find out that, lo and behold, that was our furniture being loaded into the back! Somehow my mother had planned this to occur the moment my stepdad left for work that day. She had it all figured out, and had a government-funded apartment waiting for us clear across town already. It was brand-spanking new, too! The plastic and cardboard were still on the appliances, and the wood floors glistened with first time wax. From now on it would just be us and my mom. Exactly what I had wanted all along. I could feel the winds of change blowing already.

Of course, our stepdad found us the very next day.

We were leaving to go shopping and we saw his car parked across the street. He'd looked to have been sitting there for quite some time. I remember to this day the vivid scene of my mom crying in the elevator as all of us plus my stepdad rode it up back to our new apartment. We didn't go shopping that day. I don't know what they talked about behind the closed bedroom door, but next thing I knew he was living with us again. Just like that, everything returned to the way it was.

And what did I have for my trouble? A brand new school to have to adjust to now. I started the 4th grade that summer terrified. Not only would I have to deal with bullies, but new bullies at that! Everyone had already formed their little cliques in this new school, and I was clearly the odd duck out. As a result, I withdrew even more and my grades were terrible! My mother was severely depressed at this time, too. Even though the beatings had stopped, she was clearly unhappy. I imagine now that she must have felt trapped. She stopped caring whether or not we went to school. Some days we did, some days we stayed home and watched cartoons. I had a vague feeling that this was bad, of course. But seeing as how I hated school so much, I didn't say anything.

Later that year my stepfather stabbed my mother to death, and suddenly the three of us kids were left without a momma or a papa. It was the worst moment of my life.

But there was a silver lining to this cloud, if such a thing can be said. For with the death of my mother, custody of us fell to her mother, my grandma. And there aren't words enough to tell you how much we loved our grandma. Our stepdad used to forbid us from visiting her back before the tragedy, so we only got to see her on holidays despite the fact the she lived in the Bronx as well. I guess that bum didn't want her filling her daughter's head with good advice. Like, to dump his sorry ass. Whatever the case, we were truly happy to be living with my grandmother now. And our aunt--my mom's younger sister--who still lived at home at the time also contributed to our upbringing. These two women took us in and showed us love and tenderness, and for once we felt truly protected.

I'm not ashamed to say this, but: my mom dying was the best thing to ever happen to me. It's a secret I've kept hidden away all this time, but it's truly how I feel. Living with my grandma and aunt gave us that structure we'd been missing. It was the start of a golden age of sorts for me. At least, in my home life. Unfortunately, things only got worse on the school front.

My mother's death had left me horribly scarred. I went to school like a shell of my old self. I remember feeling like I was sleepwalking through the day. Everything was a blur. I didn't take notes, and I barely did my homework. I still passed all the exams, though, because I was always *that kid* in class. You know, the one with so much natural intelligence that he barely has to work at passing tests? Yeah, that was me. I was a horrible student, but a wonderful statistic for the higher ups administering the exams. What did they care?

But the kids around me noticed as well. I was called "nerd" and "geek" and even worse names as a result. And my glasses and frightened demeanor meant that I was an open target for bullies of all stripes. The fights began in earnest now.

Save for one small change: I started to fight back.

Yes, around this time I had all this anger building up inside me that I wasn't aware of. But in the second half of the 4th grade, it would all come to a head. The kids who would actually get into fistfights with me learned a valuable lesson: a mark is only a mark until he no longer fears harm.

What had happened to my mother was the last straw for me. Nothing else could be worse than that, right? All the rage and pain at the unjustness of it all would come welling up to surface, and I started getting a reputation around school as that nerdy kid not to fuck around with. I got into many fights between the 4th and 8th grades, and I won every single one of them. Best yet, I never got in trouble. Because of my history, which all the teachers knew about, I was always the victim in the eyes of those in the position of authority.

Which I was, a victim.

I can say that every fight I've been in was because someone provoked me and went too far. Usually, I dealt with verbal ridicule from other students fine. What did I care what they said? But the minute someone laid a finger on me, that's when the floodgates would open inside. I would fight like three people inside of one. I remember this one time someone knocked my glasses off with a punch, and I grabbed him by the throat and bodily lifted him off his feet with one hand. I then threw him hard against the wall and made him cry.

This was the consequence of going too far with me in those days. I would only be bullied but so much. And woe befell the boy who said something about my mother. All I remember was a blind rage coming over me, and when it lifted I was being pulled off the boy who had been pummeled bloody. Yeah, I didn't get in trouble for that either. The other students told the teacher what the boy had said about my mother. He ended up getting suspended, while I was able to return to class.

In high school, I was still a horrible student. And in addition to wearing these ridiculous big glasses all the time, I was also the youngest in my class. And as if that wasn't bad enough, I had acne and was also late to develop.

As a result, I had to suffer tremendous ridicule and embarrassment. At home things were fine, but my grandma wasn't a mother: she was a grandma! This meant we had almost zero discipline. To be fair, my grandma assumed that I was a great student and that she didn't have to always hover over me. But, by this time, I had learned how to fake it. I knew how to pour it on when it came time for exams, but I was still a very poor student. In high school I cut class all the time. I daydreamed a lot, and I ran from gangs and other assorted nasties from time to time. Hey, it was the only way to survive the South Bronx!

But halfway through high school, I had had enough. I realized for once in my life that being a victim was not ideal. I came to a decision then: that the only way I was going to escape this hell hole existence was to start doing for myself. I had to take charge of my own destiny, because I was on my own. I had no mother, I had no father. I had no older brother. I was all that I had to look up to.

And more importantly, I told myself this: I had to stop taking SHIT from other people!

The summer before junior year began was a revolution for me. I finally convinced my aunt to get me contact lenses, for one. And, two, I'd made up my mind that I would not be bullied anymore. I told myself: no one is better than you. No one is your master. No one! If anyone so much as dares to assert himself over you, take him down and take him down HARD. You are the best, not them. They're nothing but shadows to your light. You are the master of you.

I would repeat this over and over to myself, like a mantra. The way I looked at it, if I got picked on again, at least I would go down fighting. It had to be better than just being a victim.

So when school started up again in September, I was a different me. I walked with my head held high and my shoulders squared back. But most importantly: I had that look in my eye. It was a look that said I had had enough. It was a look that said I will END you if you try to step to this. I started to look at people dead straight in the eyes, and I adopted this facial expression of someone who's severely ticked off. Yes, it was extreme, but it was what I needed to do to survive high school in the ghetto. Unless you've lived through it yourself, you have no idea how much the people here feed off of perceived fear.

Before long, no one was messing with me anymore. And those who did, I gave back just as good as I got! I also started filling out around this time, growing tall and broad-shouldered. I discovered that with the right attitude and look, people could mistake me for being some kind of badass. And, oh, I so reveled in this!

Not so coincidentally, then, my grades started to pick up around this time, too--and pick up they did! I went from being a C- student at best, to a B+/A- one almost overnight. I took my own destiny into my hands and became the master of me. I took notes, studied hard, and attended every single class. I had confidence and swagger now, and nothing was going to stop me. By senior year, I pretty much exploded onto the scene. I was no longer an awkward teen, but someone with the glimmer of the man I would later become. I started to get more notice by everyone around me--especially of the opposite sex (which I could care less about)--and I was a straight A student all across the board. I had one of the highest SAT scores, and my writing skills were also second to none at this school where, admittedly, the bar had not been set all that high.

Because of all this, and despite my horrible first two years in high school, I was approached by a pretty well-known and prestigious private college in Vermont and told that I would be accepted there if I was interested.

From that moment on, you can say I began a new philosophy in life. One which I still live today in some way. It's an attitude encapsulated by the belief that I will NOT take anything lying down. I refuse to ever be the victim of anything, ever. I guess you can say I learned to be a fighter at this point. To this day, I call it the being a warrior mentality. It's clich├ęd, but it's what I do to psych myself up for life. I don't let people get over on me or try to put me down anymore.

But, also, I'm the nicest person you'll ever meet if you are not an asshole. Because, you see, I know what it's like. I've been there. I know how it feels to be downtrodden, and I never forget where I came from. I'm still my mother's son, and my gran's grandson, after all. I am who the strong women in my life have shaped me to become.

But I'll also knock you on your ass if you try to hurt me or those I love. Because, never doubt it: that rage of injustice is still burning deep down inside me. I keep a damn good lid on it, as those who know me well already realize. But it's there. And we all have different ways of channeling that rage. I'm no Georges St. Pierre, but I know exactly where he's coming from.

Life doesn't happen to you, you happen to life. Confidence and good-will comes from first learning to love yourself. To know that you're the best. And to truly believe that no one else deserves happiness at the sake of your very own.

This right there is my philosophy in life. This is my Tao of David.


getyourselfconnected said...

Lost for words from such a heart felt, moving post. Thanks David.

Watchtower said...

I hate that you had to go thru that David, no child should.
I had such an idyllic 'Leave it to Beaver' childhood that I can't even comprehend what you went thru but my heart goes out to you.
You're a lot stronger than I am that's for sure.
Take care.

Botanist said...

You've talked about your tough childhood before, David, and it still amazes me to hear about it. You're right, there's no way I can begin to imagine what it was like, but I'm left with profound admiration for how you took yourself in hand...

David Batista said...

Thanks guys. You probably don't realize it, but your words of encouragement and sympathy are so well appreciated. I cannot thank you enough.

Anonymous said...

Wow it's so strange to read this I've known you 20 semiodd yrs & you always show me a different side to this complicated yet simplistic & very caring soul I refer to as a brother & a friend.

Jennifer Hillier said...

Wow. Just... wow. I'm so choked up right now.

I think I've said this before, but it bears repeating: it's a privilege to know you.

getyourselfconnected said...

I never asked you, but have you read "Tau Zero"? Good stuff. Messing with the Tao word.

David Batista said...

Thanks Anon . . . I mean Bob! :)

Jen -- Aww, shucks. Thanks, too. And, btw, I'm so excited for your book to come out! YAY!!!

GYSC -- No, I haven't read that. But due to my background in Chinese, I know all about Tao and its many permutations. LOL! I would imagine in this case, tho, the "Tau" has something to do with the Greek alphabet and not the Chinese religion/philosophy.

getyourselfconnected said...

The Leonora Christine, a fine ship.

Kim Kasch said...

There's definitely a book in there.

David Batista said...

LOL, Kim. I would never write a book about my life. Besides, I only write fiction.

Hmmm, now a *fictional* account of my life? Now that might be fun! :)

Although, on second thought, I think the factual aspects of my life probably sound fictional enough to people who didn't grow up in the environment I did.

Yvonne said...

This post made me cry. You have been through so much. Being so young and having to deal with so much is just terrible. But you made a decision in essence, to live or die. And you chose to live. Very inspiring story, my friend! I hope you never know that kind of loss (your mom) again! You should be very proud of yourself! :)

David Batista said...

Aww, you're too sweet, Yvonne. But thanks. It's all in the past to me, which is why I guess I can write so frankly about it all. I'm not so much proud as relieved that all that is behind me now. It's good to be in charge of one's own life.

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