When I was in kindergarten, Stevie Duffy was my nemesis. I’m astonished, actually, that I still remember his name. And his face. And his voice. But it’s all quite keen in my mind.
There came a day he crossed the line. He was riding atop the teeter-totter, and he sneered “Stupid face!” And suddenly nothing in heaven or earth was more important to 5-year-old Steven Kalas than to take a stand for dignity, truth and justice. To take a stand for selfhood.
Nobody calls Steven Kalas a “stupid face” and gets away with it!
So I pushed him off the teeter-totter. And then I got in a lot of trouble. Had to go stand in the corner. Nose to the wall. For the rest of recess. In 1962, ritual shaming was all the rage for rearing healthy, competent children.
But I showed Stevie Duffy. Interesting piece of vernacular, yes? To show. Show him what, exactly? How tough I was? Or how incredible fragile and insecure I was?
Today, I’m 56. I make myself imagine scenarios, looking for an example of a particular verbal insult that would require me to initiate a physical aggression. To push. To hit. What would someone have to say to me to make it crucial, vital, necessary to stand up for the man I am?
I can’t think of one thing. I can imagine things I would find distasteful. Affronting. If you persist, I might inquire after the management or a bouncer to put an end to the noise pollution.
But need to fight you? Not hardly.
November 2013. I’m walking down Oneida Street in Green Bay, Wis., my eldest son on my right. We’re decked out in Fort Knox gold and Kelly green. In front of us, my middle and third son stroll, sporting Philadelphia Eagle metallic green and black. The traffic exiting Lambeau Field crawls slowly to our left.
What happens next is, frankly, unusual in Green Bay. Packer fans are renowned for Midwest hospitality. Or, as I said later to my two Eagle fans, “Packer fans aren’t Eagle fans.”
Nonetheless, the Packer fan (likely a drunken Packer fan) in the passenger side glances our way.
Joseph, my youngest, age 11, glances back. The Packer fan glares at my young Eagle fan. His lips pull back in a snarl. And then he invites Joseph to be intimate with himself and tags it with a gay slur.
Leaving aside the gaping indecency of any adult talking to any child that way, what happens next is golden. Purely inspiring. My 11-year-old blinks two, three times under the surprising weight of bemused incredulity. Then, with a telling chuckle not quite contained, he says, “Whaat?”
Joseph’s antagonist repeats the profane assault.
Joseph turns his head slightly to the right, eyes focusing, as if detachedly contemplative and curious about the growth of mold in a petri dish.
“I’m not the one who lost by 14,” he says with a simple shrug.
My laughter is one part amusement and 10 parts admiration. Eleven years old! And somehow he knows what took me two or three more decades to learn. This cretin idiocy is not about him. He doesn’t even consider personalizing it. To Joseph, both the words and the man saying the words are … ridiculous. You might as well be offended by the bleating of sheep.
I think of my favorite scene from the 1974 Mel Brooks film “Blazing Saddles.” The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) is trying to console a desperately hurt Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) after the latter is assaulted by a slur from a little ol’ lady. In a piece of screenwriting genius, we are lifted past comedy into the realm of the culturally prophetic: “You’ve gotta remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know … morons.” Both characters bust up laughing.
And to think I was once deeply aggrieved by “stupid face.”
Spontaneously, I reach over and give Joseph a fatherly pat and rub on the head. To which he looks at me with a bemused incredulity and says with a not-quite contained chuckle, “Whaat?”
Stand up for the man I am? Hmm. Take a lesson from Joseph. The more steps you take forward into manhood, the more you notice manhood doesn’t require anxious affirmations or vigilant, aggressive defense. Manhood stands for itself. By itself. With itself. For itself. For a man, it’s absurd to think that a word could or should have the final say-so whether to inspire. Or constrain. Or injure.
It’s insecurity that needs to pick a fight.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at skalas@ reviewjournal.com.