Subject: Someone I didn't deserve
Date: Aug 8 2005 2:55PM
This morning I thought of something that happened a long time ago, something that I need to remember and remind myself about from time to time. Remind myself to not lose that inner voice, listening to it and most importantly, reacting to it. I don't know whether it's that I've reached a point in my life that I'm remembering more or reflecting more on my younger years or what, but it seems to happen more frequently now. I have come to the decision that these memories are a good thing. Good or bad, things that are pleasant or things I'd just as soon forget. All of them, they're a good thing.
When I was a sophomore in High School, that meant the first year of H.S. It also meant carrying girl's books as you walked home, letter jackets, jocks, gear heads, 'so-shuss' (socials), and brains. The group names have changed somewhat, with several new categories these days, but I don't think that's really changed much. There were no cell phones, computers, laptops, pagers, I-Pods, candy bar machines or pop machines in school. There was however, the constant battles for supremacy, acceptance, popularity and maintaining a certain recognized status quo, all of which you find today in one form or another, in any High School in this country. Just to give you a setting and a time reference for this little memory. And how old I really am.
Anyway, I had one of the most important and defining points in my young life in that 10th grade year. A follower I wasn't and I liked it that way. It was directly related to my Father and who he was and how he thought one should conduct himself. More accurately how he thought I should conduct myself. Feelings and thoughts I didn't always agree with, nor was I always successful in performing them. He always told me that most of the time knowing right from wrong was not nearly as hard or as troubling as people like to make it out to be. He would say the trouble or hard part was to actually do the right thing and trying to resist the easier wrong route, for the right way was often the most difficult. Sounds real basic, but that's the way he kept things. I liked sports. Teams were o.k, but I liked the test that individual sports tended to offer. I wrestled, and had many friends on the wrestling team as well as other friends, including upperclassmen, on the other school athletic teams. I did o.k. academically and had other friends that basically met each of the 'general population' category names I mentioned. I'd had girlfriends, although not many, and had one then. I was as close to being an average 'balanced' kid, or as close you can get when you're that age.
At the beginning of the year there was the usual recognized faces, some new ones sprinkled in that you didn't really notice because they seemed, either by great effort or gifted ease on their part, to melt right in. This went for both black and whites, who were at that particular time, almost segregated by mutual choice. The relationship between these two groups was at times standoffish and other times it was friction filled and tense, occasionally resulting in violence. Both groups had their own little society and each student, black or white, had his only position, his niche, in those societies or was looking to fit in somewhere.
But none of this really mattered to Mike. Mike was neither Black or White. Mike was Chinese, from Taiwan to be exact. The reason it did not matter to Mike was not because he was neither black nor white. It had nothing to do with anything racial really, it was just because of who he was. He was huge, towering over almost everybody except our center on the basketball team. He had enormous feet – shoes that might have been one size under Herman Munster's. He was heavy, but not fat…..as I said, just a huge kid. He was awkward, no, he was a complete oaf – absolutely no athletic skills whatsoever. He wore thick black frames and coke bottle thickness glasses, his hair stood out at weird angles – thick as cable and so black it almost looked dark, dark blue sometimes. He was also a sweet guy, a term I certainly don't use often because so few people meet my criteria for that and also a term I would Never have used back then, being the shallow pool I was. He was friendly, open, forgiving and anxious to help. He was loyal, in friendship terms, to the point of being ridiculous.
"Mike Fung?" the homeroom teacher asked. "I'm He-ah." Mike answered that first day. He was sitting next to me in unassigned seating, sitting there about as self conscious as it is humanly possible for someone to be. Several looks he got thanks to his accent, size and appearance probably only tripled that anxiety. After roll and all the boring first of the year homeroom stuff, the bell rang and we all headed bravely out into mind-boggling world of high school. Mike Fung, the new Chinese Giant, whom I had ignored not out of anything but sheer apathy, loomed over and slightly behind me coming out into the hallway. "Hi, Jeem." I turned around and stared almost directly into his chest. Looking up at him, from way too close for my druthers, I remember saying a not so pleasant "WHat?" Mike was smiling broadly, ear to ear, and said again, "I say, Hi Jeem….how you doing?" He was one of the first oriental people I had ever come across up close and personal so to speak. It wasn't that I had grown up in some racially exclusive town or area, it wasn't that I had never talked to or was ignorant of Orientals or other races – it was just, well, different. It was different because Mike was so anxious, so willing and so desperate for me. Yes, me. He had decided on me. You could see it behind the smile and in his eyes. He was terrified. He was scared of being in this big old school, scared of having maybe only three or four other kids that looked like him around that school and scared because all kids in the 10th grade – including me, are scared of something. They might fear being a social outcast, might fear being failing academically, fear of not making the team that dad had been dreaming of, they might fear getting their ass kicked or a thousand other concerns. Some valid fears and some not valid at all. I would come to find out that the only fear Mike should not, no - could not, have was that of academic failure. He was brilliant and it would not take long for everybody to figure that out, students and teachers alike.
As we walked into that hallway of the old coliseum of a high school; all three floors, confusing room numbers and many nooks and crannies of it (even at that time was nearing the century mark) - it was daunting for all of us sophomores I'm sure. For him though, for Mike, it had to be his worst nightmare. Of course at the time, I knew or appreciated none of that. My bored and distracted "hey" in reply, or whatever short one word mumbled greeting I said back to him was certainly not a welcome type comment. It was all he needed though. My nightmare, or what I considered one, had just begun and his was looking better. We continued down the hall and I veered off to my first class. As I finally found that class, and started to slowly file in with the other deer in the headlight gazing kids, I had to slow down for the bottle neck. As I did I was bumped in the back, a heavy bump, and I turned around almost knowing that he'd be there. Him. The Chinese Giant. Mike Fung.
Whether it was fate or design or both, it turned out that Mike and I had almost identical schedules. In the week that followed we even walked a good part of the way home on identical routes, finally forking off our separate ways. We talked some, but not much. Mike was painfully shy and not sure what to say. I was purposely not saying much, not because I disliked him or even hated him but basically because I had no interest in him anymore that anybody else I didn't know. What my selfish and not so sensitive self didn't realize was that Mike didn't have that selective choice of friends. He would walk slightly to the side of me or slightly behind me on the way to class, depending on whether I was walking with a girl or other guys or alone. Walk isn't the right word really, it was more of a lumber, yeah, he lumbered and smiling all the way. I started to get very self conscious about my lumbering shadow and it got worse when I started noticing that after school he would wait outside at the bottom of those massive steps for me. Patiently waiting for me, so he could have somebody to walk home beside, or trailing behind if I was with my girlfriend. As I said it wasn't because of hatred or dislike, I just didn't care about him. I just didn't like it. Not something I'm proud of, that's for sure, but that's what the deal was.
Finally one day it boiled over, instead of veering off on his way home, he followed me and my girlfriend at the time, as I went my way home. About a block or two later, I simply stopped, turned around and glared at him. I even took an uncalled for and totally ridiculous, aggressive stance. "What do WANT Mike?" I asked with dramatized impatience. I'll never forget his look as he hesitated, stopped, grinned, waved and slowly turned back towards his house. He was grinning sure but it had crushed him. Embarrassed him. I was sure of it and the sad part was I still didn't care. I'll never forget that look. My girlfriend didn't let me forget it either. When I got home my mother told me that someone named Mike had called and apologized. Apologized and was coming over. Now I was really mad. Why couldn't he just leave me alone, find somebody else to attach himself to, stalk (not even a term back then) some other guy? And why was he apologizing?
When he got to our house, I was conveniently out back attending to nothing. My Mom walked through the back screen door holding something, with a very quizzical look on her face. She then presented me with a small oriental box which I opened, and inside sitting on the velvet lining, was a sort of miniature warrior figure. She told me that he had simply greeted her, left his apology for me, nodded his head and then given her my gift. I went in and set it on my dresser, thoroughly confused and somewhat embarrassed. Not sure what to do really.
As the weeks and months followed, he eased up on the shadowing and lurking. I had finally thanked him for the present and told him I didn't really mean anything that day, but had stopped far short of saying anything that might continue or grow the acquaintance. As time went by, he was virtually ignored at school, sometimes openly ridiculed and occasionally teased by others. He was a constant and faithful fan at my wrestling meets. Grinning and cheering. He was always smiling, always. He would wave at me from down the hall, down the sidewalk, from the stands and I'm willing to bet when I wasn't even looking. He forever had an opened book, head bent and reading. He was always pleasant, polite and well meaning.
And I didn't care. Just flat, Didn't Care. I did watch him though. Almost as a curiosity I thought to myself, but in reality (and something I wouldn't admit to myself – not right away anyway) it was something else. It was shame. Pure and simple, I was ashamed of the way I had treated a guy who wanted nothing more than to have a friend. He had chosen me, to be that friend. He asked for very, very little and was willing to offer anything just to have a friend.
The day it all changed for me and Mike was not spectacular in any way, except it was the day I got suspended from school for a week. This happened to a 'good kid', a solid Dudley Do Right kind of jock. A kid that said yes ma'am and yes sir, did his homework, got good grades, had a part-time job already, helped older neighbors, etc., etc. He followed the damn rules. Of course that good kid, me, was not always the knight in shining armor when it came to doing the right thing. I had certainly proved that to Mike Fung (and myself) for the last few months. As I came out of school that day and down the steps I was again walking with my girlfriend. Off to my right, down below in a little alcove beside the steps I heard somebody yelling something. As we all remember, there was always somebody pissed off at somebody in High School, somebody has stolen someone's girlfriend, someone had smarted off to someone, some guy had challenged some other guy and even an occasional girl fight about boys or something. Looking over the edge of the railing I saw that it was guys, three guys and some onlookers. One of the guys was Mike Fung, the other two were football players. Guys I knew and hung around with occasionally. Mike was bigger than them, but he was cornered and for one of the few times I ever remember he was not smiling, sensing the inevitable trouble and threatening manner the other two were loudly acting out. I knew damn well he had not done anything wrong, knew damn well that those two were taking on his size more than anything. I was also damn sure that Mike did not want to - or even knew how - to fight. I looked away quickly, trying to ignore it, trying to be as uncaring as I was that other day on our way home earlier that year. Reaching the bottom of the steps and heading down the sidewalk, I was successful in ignoring it, because I quickly thought how many times had I been in a scrap and nobody chipped in? And if they did, it wasn't because I wanted them to, after all. Plus it was always a friend, someone I knew that hopped in just to even up the odds a little and only when I was getting ganged up on. It basically never happened anymore anyway, because I would fight and I was pretty good at it. So hey, what the hell did it matter to me?
As it turned out, Mike was lucky, but I was much, much more lucky. Lucky for Mike that he didn't get a serious ass kicking, luckier for me that the one guy's voice turned me around. It was a voice of pure ridicule, taunting, belligerence and false anger. A voice that was full of a fictional wrongdoing, a supposedly besmirched honor. In other words, Bullshit. Never really liked the dude that was picking the fight anyway……He was going to fight a gentle, easygoing, non aggressive guy who didn't have a mean bone in his body. Totally un-experienced in fighting and an easy target. I said it was luckier for me, mainly because it slapped me with Guilt. I made me do the right thing.
At the beginning of it, I was more pissed at having to get involved, like some great inconvenience or something – again shameful, but that's what it was. As I remember, I didn't make some valiant statement or say anything really as I got in there between them, just walked in and started punching. (Always, Always get the first punch in - something else a little less chivalrous that I'd been told more than once by my father.)
In the middle of it, I got lucky with the little follower boy, using that same first punch strategy. He was just along for the ride anyway and had been the one to knock off Mike's glasses but that was about it. One quick shot to the nose he was all wide eyes and bleeding. He was out of the game before it really started. The main guy, well, that was another story. He was a fighter, a big and very good fighter. He was definitely not out of the game early. A draw at best, we were both on the ground which is where I had to be with that particular guy, we were both a mess too, and I was barely hanging on as it finally got broke up - by my wrestling coach of all people.
In the end, it was probably the best I had ever felt about myself, at that point in my then short life and I had finally done the right thing with Mike. I hadn't done it for the right reasons initially, but it had at least made me realize what those right reasons were. Mike's only problem was a pair of glasses that needed the all too familiar piece of white tape in the middle over the nose. His parents who were well to do, could have bought him ten new pairs but he continued to wear the old ones. As for me, when my dad heard the whole story, he granted me clemency, my death sentence lifted. My coach lessened my penalty bleacher runs and my girlfriend liked me again (for awhile). Hey, you know, that stuff mattered too. Although we did not become the best of friends, like a true Hollywood ending, we did become good friends. I learned about his family, his culture and we shared some good times through high school. I remember telling him at graduation that I was damn lucky to have him as a friend, instead of the other way around, like he maintained. I'll say it again; he was the best natured, truly nice guy I think I've ever met. I'm positive he still is. It would be impossible for him to be any different. I'm also positive that I have still have that small ornate box somewhere, or it might be packed away at my mom's house. Wherever it is, I'm going to find it. I need to look at that again. I need to remember how that felt.