Given that I’m a college professor, you’d suppose my thoughts at the start of the school year would be adult thoughts, rooted on the teacher’s side of the desk. You’d be wrong. Each fall, as neighborhood schoolyards fill with squealing children, I am unfailingly yanked back to junior-high school — specifically, to the memory of Mike Delvecchio, the toughest kid in ninth grade. I can still see him strutting across the asphalt, a box of Lucky Strikes peeking out from his rolled up right sleeve, an entourage of demi-thugs trailing in his wake. He was built like a fire hydrant, and he seemed to have been formed from the knuckles outward, his tight face, dense neck, and veined forearms mere secondary expressions of his balled up right fist.
That balled up right fist: the collective nightmares of the male half of the entire ninth grade were realized in that fist. Bravado counts for a lot among pubescent boys, but with respect to Mike Delvecchio common sense prevailed. If you ever caused him offense, the question was not whether to run, but in what direction, for how long, and, by the way, did the Witness Relocation Program accept minors?
Common sense, I repeat, prevailed — with the exception of Phillip Spindler. I suspect there’s a Phillip Spindler in everybody’s junior-high memories. The kid who never got with the program, who wouldn’t eat licorice because it was sold unwrapped, who wouldn’t join the recess game of tag until dutifully stretching his hamstrings, who would trade his Scooter Pie for a second orange during cold and flu season. The Phillip Spindler I remember was Bic-pen thin, his glasses thick as petri dishes, and he always toted a shiny black attaché case. It was the attaché case, amid an ocean of knapsacks, that caught Mike Delvecchio’s eye one afternoon after school. He came up behind Phillip Spindler and “snagged” it to the pavement. The thing broke open, its metal snaps mangled, and Phillip Spindler’s loose papers swirled across the suburban lawns of Whitestone.
“Psyche!” Mike Delvecchio cried.
He and his gang broke into uproarious laughter.
Phillip Spindler didn’t scramble to retrieve the papers. He didn’t move. He faced Mike Delvecchio. His eyes narrowed, his lower lip quivering with anger.
“You wanna make somethin’ of it?” Mike Delvecchio asked.
Phillip Spindler didn’t respond. He continued to stand motionless.
Finally, Mike Delvecchio shouted, “Double psyche!” Then he turned and walked off. His gang shot Phillip Spindler a few nasty glares, then followed.
That should’ve ended the story. It didn’t — because childhood is never kind to Phillip Spindlers. He trudged home that afternoon, his ruined attaché case hugged to his chest, and told his father what had happened. Whereupon his father stupidly advised Phillip Spindler that the way to deal with a bully was to stand up to him. It was just the kind of advice that worked on The Brady Bunch and Andy Griffith. The trouble, of course, was that Mike Delvecchio never watched those shows. He spent his evenings in the alley smoking Lucky Strikes.
The following morning, before our homeroom teacher walked in, Phillip Spindler announced that he was going to “stand up” to Mike Delvecchio. Several of us tried to talk him out of it. But he was determined. He quoted his father to us, and we shook our heads.
By three o’clock, word had reached Mike Delvecchio that some geek from the advanced class intended to stand up to him. He showed up at the appointed intersection first, before Phillip Spindler, pounding his clenched right fist into the palm of his left hand. He shadowboxed as he waited for his challenger to appear; the curiosity on his face was evident. When he saw who it was, a look of disappointment, almost remorse, came over his face. He hadn’t expected the kid with the petri-dish glasses from the previous afternoon. Still, he handed his Lucky Strikes to one of his flunkies and strode up to Phillip Spindler. He jabbed his forefinger into Phillip Spindler’s chest and said, “You get the first shot.”
Phillip Spindler turned around, handed his glasses to the nearest bystander and then, in a single motion, wheeled around a punched Mike Delvecchio right in the stomach.
There was a loud gasp. It came from the crowd of onlookers.
The punch had no effect whatsoever on Mike Delvecchio.
The pummeling he gave Phillip Spindler that afternoon lasted several minutes, and, in the end, Mike Delvecchio didn’t especially seem to enjoy it. He went strictly by the numbers: He flung Phillip Spindler to the ground, banged his head on the sidewalk, split his lower lip, blackened his right eye. But there was none of the usual Delvecchio panache, no signature, like the time he straddled Kenneth Conway’s chest and broke wind in his face.
Later, as four of us struggled to extricate Phillip Spindler from the sticker bushes where Mike Delvecchio had left him, I felt a grudging admiration for him, an admiration that bordered on envy; the scariest thing that could happen had happened to him, and now it was over, and he had lived through it. There seemed indeed an odd nobility about Phillip Spindler at that moment, about the way he pushed his glasses back onto his head, wincing slightly as they came to rest on his swollen cheekbones. Several years later, as a freshman in college, I thought of him as I was reading the closing passage of The Red Badge of Courage: “He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death.”
Well, all right, maybe in the larger scheme of things Mike Delvecchio never quite ranked with “the great death.” But the truth about ninth grade is that the greater scheme of things has not yet begun to register. For that year, at least, he couldn’t have been scarier if he wore a hood and carried a scythe.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The names above have been changed. To avoid lawsuits. And because I am still scared.
— Mark Goldblatt teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology. His hip-hop satire Africa Speaks is now available in paperback.