In seventh grade I did the world’s worst Clint Eastwood walk imitation toward the front doors of Mt. Airy Junior High School. My acid stomach rumbled, and I knew I’d be asking my first period teacher for the usual emergency bathroom hall pass.
My belly was always roiling in junior high. I’d transferred from the county school to the little city system. The city middle schoolers cussed a lot more than the county kids. Before I knew it, rumors about the new kid bounced like rogue dodgeballs around the beige cinder block halls.
Bullies shoved Moist Towelettes in my ears at lunch time, and kid gangs who summered by the country club pool said things I couldn’t track. But I did understand the cackling after the punchlines.
I’m sure you know a twelve-year-old can feel a lot of pain and fear, and that is why I hurt when I hear about anyone any age being bullied. And I’m grateful there was no internet in 1990.
My dad taught me how to throw a punch to defend myself against one particular redneck roughneck who took me into Dante’s deepest circle on the daily.
Picture this hell-scape set in the chain-linked grassy patch next to the school buses where this kid kept picking fights. Prepubescent Dan didn’t want none of that. Dad was trying to school me: Plant my feet, make contact, follow through.
I said through my tear-streaked face, “But Deddy, If I punch him, that’ll hurt him.” “I know son! That’s the point!” (And I wondered why I could never get all beast about football. I’m a lovah not a fightah.)
And here I am. I made it! And when life throws me some booll-shit, I can always say, “Come for me, bish. I made it through seventh grade with As and Bs.”
You and I both know now that nobody gets out of junior high unscathed, bullies and bullied alike.
And now get ready. You’re fixing to reap the benefits of the cold hard truths I grabbed like the last strawberry shortcake ice cream bar in the junior high war of emotional attrition.
Knowing you can take a punch is more important than throwing one.
Fast forward to my twenties. Uh oh. I was on a date in New York, and I managed to hail a cab on Houston Street on an about-to-rain, windy night. My date wore heels, and I’m sure I was being a drama tool (because…my twenties), so she was over it, and her feet were at anguish level red zone.
Every cab was full, so this taxi’s available light shone like a beacon in the humid, horn-saturated air. As the cab pulled over, three jaywalking bros about six beers into a weeknight bender piled in the back seat from the street side.
I’d been accessing some deep anger in acting class in those days, so my interior trailer park dawg was pulling at his rusty chain. When my date and her feet wailed in despair at the taxi thieves, I observed myself shout, “Get the f*ck out! This is our cab!”
Oh what did you just do, Dan?
One of the loaded bros rolled out of the back and squared up at me on the sidewalk. I looked straight into his eyes, and I said to myself, “Self, you are about to get punched.”
He looked at me for a protracted three seconds, and then he said, “Naw, man.” He stepped back and waved his pissed posse along. No punch.
I got in the cab with a little yeah-that’s-right in my sit-down. My date was not as impressed. What? I got the cab!
I wondered at this incident. Did an imposing guardian angel materialize over my right shoulder? Did I shape-shift into a reptile beast? Am I just that intimidating? 🔔
It was probably the Steve-Buschemi-from-Mr.-Deeds crazy eyes I had also been refining in acting class.
The point–I found myself in a scary place, and I realized I was willing to take a hit.
And while I do not recommend my actions of that evening to you, I did find a freedom that night that my twelve-year-old self on the patchy grass behind Mount Airy Junior High School lacked. Both versions of me were scared, but I knew between sheer stupidity and stage combat training, I was going to make it home from Houston Street.
That’s us–artists, singers. We make ourselves available to take emotional hits all the time.
We do it when we invest ourselves into the stories we sing. We do it when we stand in front of table people and open our guts gates and show the parts of us that got the shit bullied out of them in middle school. And we take the hits when the role we imagined playing a gajillion times goes in another direction.
I’m here to tell you I haven’t found another way. When I do find the success-popularity-and-ice-cream path through artistic risk, you will be the first to know.
But what’s most important for you is this–
You are resilient. Remember the thing you came back from that you thought was gonna end you?
You are flexible. Remember the duck-and-dive improv you pulled off as you yes-anded your way through that outa-the-blue shock?
You are strong. Snot and tears poured out your face, and you did the thing anyway.
You are smart. You’re reading this. You are a ninja of compassion, beauty, and connection.
And when you do show up willing to take the hit, remember the other two things I always tell my students and myself: It’s just crying. And you will get up.
Now go get yourself a fro yo. 🍦💙
If you’re currently in the getting up process, please know that if my ruminating Enneagram 4 self can cry, snot, dust off, and keep walking, I know you can, too.