I was about 11 years old and had a girlfriend named Beth. This was a bit out of the ordinary for a 6th grader, and we got teased about it a little, but most of those kids were either in awe or jealous. But there was this one kid, Bruce Booth, who was particularly mean about it . . . his family was well to do, ugly, mean, and had the terrible taste to name all of the boys names that started with B . . . so a line of Booth boys, Babbit, Brian, Balin, and now Bruce, smeared itself across the school like a polo shirt wearing plague of douchery.
Bruce was the last in the line and had no shortage of idiot bravado. He wasn’t so much a bully as a spoiled jerk . . . and liked to show how much he felt that nothing could touch him. So much so that one day when the whole class was getting up to go to lunch, teacher first, Bruce decided to take Beth´s book bag in his hands and taunt me (she was out of the room already).
“I got your girlfriend’s bookbag” he said, pointing out the obvious with characteristic charm.
“Well, put it back” I said, unafraid but still a little wary of him doing something really stupid.
In response, he took the backpack in his hands and threw it across the room.
“Go get that and put it back where you found it” I said, which provoked the challenge that no child can ignore, at the risk of appearing like a total coward . . .
At this moment, every story I´d ever read, every movie, tv show and cartoon I´d ever seen, every song I´d ever heard, all told me what I must do. There was only one problem. I´d never raised a fist in my life.
“put it BACK!” I said
“what are you gonna do?” he asked
And there was just no going back now. I summoned a force from within myself I´d only suspected was there but never tapped. I brought up all my rage, frustration, fear, anger, and the noble qualities that made me feel my cause was just, and focused it like a laser at the ugly face of Bruce Booth.
Well, not quite like a laser. More like an epileptic contortion flailing itself in the approximate direction of my enemy. A lucky shot cracked him in the eye, and he flinched backwards . . . and I got ready for the return punch
But it never came. Instead, tears came to his eyes . . . and he was shaking
“Put her book bag back where you found it” I said
And he did . . . he sort of got smaller, and said “ok, ok” and found the pink bookbag and put it back in Beth´s chair with her folders full of heart stickers and Nancy Drew novels intact.
So I went to lunch and sat across from Beth silently as we always did because we really didn’t know what to say to each other but liked the idea of being a couple. And that is when I felt the hand of the Principal of the school on my shoulder.
“Come with me Aaron” I heard, and a chorus of oooooohs followed us as we walked out the room.
We walked down the hall without a word, and entered a room.
In the center, four desks were arranged in the shape of a crucifix. In one seat sat my teacher, the principal went and sat in the one across from him, leaving me to sit directly across from Bruce, who was holding a block of ice wrapped in cloth to his grossly swollen and bruised left eye.
“So,” the principal said “you want to tell us what happened?”
And I told them the story, just as I told you.
The principal asked Bruce if what I said was true, which he confirmed with a whimpering grunt.
After a long pause, my teacher stared straight at the principal, cracked a grin, and said
“well, I guess chivalry isn´t dead”
After they were finished laughing, or trying not to and failing, they came up with a plan. We would each write apology letters to the other, and give them to our teacher to make sure we each got them. Mine said something like “Dear Bruce, I´m sorry I gave you a black eye. I wasn´t trying to give you a black eye, just get you to put the bag back. Aaron”. His said something like “Dear Aaron, I’m sorry I threw your girlfriend’s book bag across the room. The doctor said my eye should heal in the next two weeks and so there´ll be no need for a lawsuit. Bruce”
Beth called me that night and told me that was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for her. We kept dating that year, but didn’t see each other all summer and were in different classes the next year, probably by order of the principal. Bruce made halfhearted attempts to be nice to me for the rest of our years at school but I kept him at arm’s length.
Years later, as I was just finishing college, I was walking around with another girlfriend when I saw him. He´d become president of the interfraternity council or some other unfathomably awful thing and I was walking around with a knit cap of the kind a wanted felon had been recently wearing. He looked at me hard to see if I was the guy, and then realized it was me.
“It´s you!” he said, again pointing out the obvious . . . “The only guy I´ve ever been in a fight with, you violent bastard!” He was smiling like it was all water under the bridge, but I wasn’t about to let it go, not with my girl there, not this time, not ever.
“You threw my girlfriend’s book bag across the room” I said, and we left him standing there.
“What was THAT all about?” my girl asked.
“Chivalry´s not dead” I answered, and opened the door for her to enter the bar.