My summer routine for the boys has us alternating between working on skills with them individually and then the three of us just having fun together, mostly in the pool, but there’s a lot you can do around the Sharpmans to keep a couple boys engaged. We even started playing board games to get us out of the sun for a while. Matteo likes to lose at Monopoly the way I like to lose at baseball; I think he enjoys driving me and Jacob into bankruptcy lol.
My next time alone with Matteo after I talked to Maya that morning was going to be in the gym that afternoon. Boxing has replaced putting him on the treadmill, which he appreciates, although he’s not loving boxing as much as I hoped he would. You kinda have to let Matteo find his way into new things…he’s not the kind of kid who jumps in at the deep end.
I wasn’t sure how to bring the subject up, but the least lameass thing that came to mind was as he was sort of attacking the heavy bag was:
“So you think you’re ready for anyone who bullies you when you get back to school?”
“I’m getting sent back to school?,” he asked in alarm.
“Truth is your parents haven’t decided for sure what they’re going to do,” I said. “I talked to your mom this morning about it. They want to do what’s best.”
“I wish I knew what I wanted to do, and then I could ask them,” he said. “It’s totally stresing me out.”
That was a pretty grown-up thing to say, even for Matteo, and I couldn’t help but smile.
“What do you think, Hunter?”
“You’re asking me?,” I asked. I really didn’t want to say the wrong thing, and, well, what would happen if it was a disaster if he went back to school and got bullied and it did permanent psychological damage or something?
“Yeah,” he said. “I trust you.”
“I…I think you should go back to school and hang out with other kids and make friends.”
“But I don’t have any friends!,” he protested. “And I’m never going to have any!”
“Oh yes you will,” I said. “You’re an awesome kid. Any kid would be lucky to have you as a friend. And you’re not gonna get picked last for sports anymore, at least once they see that you know your way around most sports. You’re a really good swimmer, and any little league team would be glad to have you…”
“But I don’t want…,” he interrupted.
“I didn’t say you had to play little league. Just that you’re good enough for it.”
“You really think so?”
“Dude, if there’s one thing I know, it’s baseball. You’ve got plenty of skills. What do you think we’ve been doing all these months?”
“And what if I get bullied again?”
“Ok, dude,” I said. “Have a seat. We’re gonna talk this out once and for all.”
He took a seat on one of the stretching mats and looked up at me. I realized I was towering over him so I sat down as well.
“What’s the deal with the bullying? I mean…what were the other kids doing to you? The one time I really got bullied, the kid gave me a bloody nose. It was a physical thing. Is that what it was with you?”
“No…,” Matteo said, “not really. It was more…”
I looked up at him expectantly. I could tell he really didn’t want to talk about it, but I really wanted to know what Matteo meant when he said he was getting ‘bullied’.
“More like…calling me names and stuff. And making fun of me because I suck at sports and am good in school. I know, you’re going to say that I shouldn’t let it bother me if all they’re doing is calling me names, but you wouldn’t understand.”
I was a little hurt: I’d like to think I’m not such an insensitive jock that I can’t understand a kid’s problems. I don’t think I ever made fun of another kid – Dad would have gone ballistic if he found out that I was pulling shit like that – but I knew plenty of guys in the locker room who were pretty fuckin meanass to the kids who weren’t good at sports. It was partly calling them names (I don’t get why they always called the kids who were bad at sports ‘gay’…just think of all the great gay catchers I played with lol) and partly pushing them into the shower fully dressed and dumbass shit like that. I’ll admt that I didn’t stand up for every kid who got bulled that way, but I did stand up for my friends and family…and nobody close to me got shit from other kids for too long.
Of course that all went through my head pretty quickly as I tried to come up with an answer for Matteo.
“I’m not going to say you shouldn’t let it bother you,” I decided to say. “And I’m not going to ask you what kind of names they called you.” That I learned from Dad during my one bullying incident. “I’m sure it sucks big time to have to put up with sh… with stuff like that. Thing is, dude, you don’t solve problems by running away from them.”
“You know I enjoyed the quarantine, right? It meant no one was making fun of me.”
“Yeah…but a kid belongs in school.”
“I’m sure I learned a lot more with Dr. Peterson than most kids learned going to school on Zoom this year. Me and Jacob are doing the same math.”
“Yeah…but there’s more to school than math.”
“I’m way ahead in all my other subjects, too.”
“That’s not what I mean. I meant that school’s a chance to be with other kids. Dude, you practically haven’t talked to another kid since I’ve known you.”
“Except Asher. And look how that turned out,” he said, showing his sarcastic side again. “What about Jacob? He’s a kid, isn’t he? And I talk to you…and you’re not so old, either.”
“It’s not the same thing, and you know it. Don’t you want to have friends?”
“Yeah, but do friends want to have me?”
“Of course they do,” I said.
“They’re just going to remember me as the kid they bullied before the quarantine and pick up where they left off,” he protested.
“Only if you let them,” I said. “First of all, you’ve changed a lot since then. You lost all that weight and you’re getting good at sports. You won’t be the kid who gets picked last anymore. That’ll help you not get bullied so much.”
“Yeah…but what if I still get bullied?”
“You know you have my permission to teach the bully a lesson. We’re gonna keep working on boxing with both you and Jacob. It’s great exercise, but way more importantly knowing how to win a fight is going to come in handy at some point in your life. But look, dude, you can’t let the bullies ruin your life…or look at yourself as someone who always gets bullied.”
“What you’re saying is that you don’t want me to be homeschooled, isn’t it?”
“Well…I reckon it’s no secret. But, like my girlfriend keeps reminding me, I don’t get a vote. It’s up to your parents to decide.”
“But you’re hoping they’ll send me back to school, aren’t you?”
“You make it sound like a punishment…”
“It is, kinda.” I wasn’t expecting for Matteo to be as upset as he was getting. I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing when he’s fixing to cry, and this was one of those times. I wasn’t doing very well if I thought I was delivering a pep talk: I was about to have a crying 10 year old on my hands.
“I just don’t want to go back to school and have kids make fun of me and bully me and not have any friends and have to sit all by myself at lunch. You don’t know what it’s like, I keep telling you.”
“Ok, you’re right…I don’t know what that’s like. But I’m trying to understand and I’m doing everything I can to stop it from happening. You know, I did have a friend who got bullied, like you call it. One of my two best buddies, as a matter of fact.”
“And he’s got a great life with his fiancee as a sportscaster in Alabama.”
“Yeah, that’s now. What about then?”
“Turner loved sports at least as much as me and my other best buddy Gardner but he wasn’t good at any of them. He was always getting picked last and sometimes got bullied. I got into some pretty good fights standing up for him. That’s what I was doing the night that the cops picked me up for public fighting when I was 16…”
The beginning of that story didn’t just slip out. I figured it would get Matteo re-focused on something other than fixing to cry.
“Yeah…I got picked up by the police when I was 16 for public fighting one night in a park back home. A…an idiot disrespected Turner and the rest of us pretty badly, so I told him to meet me in the park at night so I could beat the crap outta him.”
“And he showed up?”
“Bullies have to show up when they get called out, otherwise they lose face, I reckon. I don’t understand bully psychology completely. Keaton’s probably the expert on that.”
“Why? Was he a bully?”
“The opposite. He made it a point of standing up for kids who were getting bullied. He still does…with grown-ups, I mean.”
“That’s so cool of him. But what about you getting arrested?”
“I didn’t get arrested,” I told him. “The cops just put me in their car and the other kid in another – after giving him some first aid – and drove us down to the police station, where they called Dad, who came to pick me up. Looking back, I realize that they were trying to scare the crap out of both of us. And it worked. At least on me. It’s not a good feeling sitting in the back of a cop car in handcuffs and and not knowing what’s gonna happen to you.”
“So the moral of the story is you get in trouble for getting into a fight…”
“Nice try, dude,” I said, with a smile. “I’m just trying to get you set up for school. You’ve got a lot more tools at your disposal than you used to. You’re getting pretty good at sports, you’re learning how to defend yourself…it’s gonna be very different…if you’d only trust me.”
“I hope you’re right. If that’s what Mom and Dad decide.” He paused. “You know, maybe it’s good that I can see both sides. Thanks, Hunter.”
“Why don’t you go upstairs, get Jacob and change into bathing suits? It’s hot as heck out there and a great day for a swim.”
“No more boxing today, then?,” Matteo said, more hopefully than I’d of liked.
“Ok, you get a pass for today,” I said. “But it’s back to work tomorrow.”
“Ok, Hunter,” Matteo said. I think he was afraid I would change my mind, because he was gone way faster than he usually leaves a room. I was left looking after him and hoping I was right about him going back to school. I know he’s right about my not really understanding what it’s like to have other kids make fun of you, but I really am trying to get it. And to do my best to see it doesn’t happen.
“I’m right to want Matteo to learn that he can’t run away from his problems, right?,” I asked Joyce when I talked to her that night.
“Of course you are. He’s lucky to have you in his corner…but he’s the one who has to go stand in the ring.”
She could hear me laughing, I think.
“Ok, so I shouldn’t dabble in sports metaphors,” she said, also with a laugh in her voice. “But you know what I mean, Hunter.”
I thought I did, but then she mixed me up trying to talk about boxing lol.
“Keep caring about him in your high-testosterone way and you won’t go wrong,” she explained. “You can’t go too far wrong if your heart’s in the right place.”
I told y’all that I have a smart girlfriend, right? Let’s hope she’s as smart about Matteo as she is about me.