Fighting for Himself

In Larry Brown’s brilliant novel Dirty Work, the protagonist, Walter James, shares a dozen anecdotes that reveal the violence from his past. The bloodshed starts early. As a first grader, he gets his nose smacked and his grape Nehi stolen by the class bully. Walter doesn’t fight back. He goes home to his mother seeking sympathy. Instead, she tells him this:

If you don’t take up for yourself in this world, there ain’t nobody else that will. If you let him run over you once, he’s gonna run over you again. The next time he sees you, he’s gonna run over you again. Cause now he knows he can. So you got to teach him right now he can’t. Either now or the next time, it don’t matter. Is he bigger than you?. . .Well, I guess you gonna have to just pick you up a stick, ain’t you?

Mississippi parents still tell their kids things like this all the time. “You better not start a fight at school, but if somebody starts a fight with you, I expect you to finish it.” We tend not to want our children to have to rely on systems we don’t entirely trust to protect themselves. (Whether this is a stronger indictment of education or the law is hard to tell.)

While discussing this passage in class, students expressed varying levels of tolerance for bullying. Some students agreed absolutely with the mother. In light of yesterday’s school shooting in Colorado, it seems easy to wish for playground fights rather than active shooter emergencies. Of course, that’s a false dichotomy borne of nostalgia. The broader issue seems to be this: in a society that’s saturated with violence, how do we encourage children to stand up for themselves?

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9 Responses to Fighting for Himself

  1. B says:

    Violence is now unavoidable, even in school. We should be able to defend ourselves, but we should not be taught to initiate the violence. If someone believes in something so much, it should be defended peacefully, not with violence. Fighting someone doesn’t solve anything or make others see that it is the right way.

  2. Samantha B. says:

    In a perfect society, we wouldn’t have to worry about kids getting involved in violence. Sadly, that’s not the case, and a little bit of playground fighting will always be inevitable. Kids should be taught that violence isn’t the answer and more emphasis put on trying to talk things out and not pick on people who are different. Doing this could possibly help with kids picking fights and bullying, but nothing is guaranteed. I also personally think that if a kid does get involved in a fight, you should finish it but never start it. Kids should learn to stick up for themselves and try to protect themselves, even if it means finishing a fight that someone else started.

  3. Erin says:

    Having no violence in this world would be ideal but it is only an idea. Some people don’t want to stand up for themselves, but most won’t stand there and take someone harassing them. Some children lived a childhood without violence, but now provoke violence, and vice versa. I don’t think there is a solution to this problem because you never know how children will turn out.

  4. Sophie Tipton says:

    There is really no right or wrong way to respond to this as everyone is going to have it differently. Kids hear about war and death in other countries that the US for some reason also gets involved in, people steal and murder and attack, there are fighters and wrestlers that even make money off of beating each other up. Violence is always going to be in the light of everyone’s’ eyes no matter the age. How the parents tell a child to act really just depends on how they grew up as well. Some might not know they are raising the school bully and others might not know they are hurting a victim. The way society is advancing though, at least as I’ve seen from when I was younger in school is that most bullying is more through words and electronics instead of violence. That doesn’t mean that it is fully gone though. Kids need to learn in some way how to defend themselves and protect themselves. It should really just be taught in a way that wouldn’t bring more harm to the situation unless they are really in danger. Since being picked on in the schoolyard is very different from a stranger putting a knife to you in a dark alley. But even if kids are just taught to use words and speak up to an adult, in this unfair world we live in, nothing is really going to help, so even if people talk about making a change and what they would prefer in life, in order to make that happen it would most likely take an act of violence first.

  5. X says:

    “Violence is not the answer,” my parents said as I would come home one day with bruises on my stomach from being punched in second grade. In my situation, I was not able to stand up for myself because the guy who punched me was, rather, scary and strong at the time. If I had said anything verbally, I risked more physical injury. This was in a classroom setting, and there was a substitute that day. The substitute didn’t care (thanks, education system).
    Children should stand up for themselves verbally, and if need be, physically, to others that purposely try to cause harm. Golden rule, right? Treat others the way you want to be treated (which *basically* means do unto others what others do unto you). They should be taught to defend themselves, not back down at every inconvenience. It’s understandable that children could be scared to go against a bully, but if they don’t do anything, won’t the bully just continue? In a society that’s saturated with violence, children should be encouraged to stand up for themselves by the people around them; but most importantly, by themselves.

  6. Khytavia Fleming says:

    As a child in elementary school, my mother consistently told me, “If someone does something to you, you tell the teacher. If the teacher does not do anything, you tell the principal. If the principal does not do anything, then we”ll go to the superintendent.” Although we never went to the superintendent, I never went to the teacher either. Coming from a majority all black school, snitching was looked down upon. As a matter of fact, you would get picked on or talked about even worse for being a snitch. I think parents should teach their kids how to stand up for themselves vocally before getting physical. Most times if you say something smart to someone that’s picking on you, they will shut up because they didn’t think you had the confidence to stand up for yourself in the first place. However, sometimes you do have to get violent when comes to defending yourself. The only way I believe parents can teach children to stand up for themselves is to just tell them, “If you don’t stand up for yourself first, then I won’t stand up for you either.” Just saying, if my mother gave me permission to handle situations myself, I probably would have been suspend a couple of time. However, I would have been fine just from knowing that I got suspended for standing up for myself. More importantly, standing up for oneself keeps individuals from holding and allowing their feelings and thoughts to build up until they burst.

  7. Alyssa says:

    In Mississippi there are only two types of people. There are those that bully and those that get bullied. In my opinion there are few that can be the in between. Personally my sister was told to stand up for herself, and she became friend with those that picked on her after fighting back with the ring leader, then she continued to bully others in the same way that she was. With me, I did not fight back because I am one of those people that have a false sense that there will be peace in this world. So instead of just telling your child to fight back you should be there for them to either say that they just have to be the bigger person, or intervene and talk with that child’s teacher. I do understand that this book was from a different time, which is important to point out because kids are even more brutal than what they used to be. Self harm and school shootings are even more prevalent now because kids do not have the strong mentality like they used to.

  8. B says:

    As an immigrant, it was always told to me, never to draw attention to oneself and to keep to oneself. It is something I have been told, now and then. However, in my head, I knew that I couldn’t stand up for myself and just take the pain when someone starts a fight with me. Which is or wasn’t often, but when it did happen, I tended to finish the fight with words or being the upper person. Violence isn’t a way I want to be or even teach my (maybe) future kids to be.

    My parents have grown more into the western culture, they have noticed that my 6-year-old sister is getting picked on. So, sat down to talk to her and said to her, that she should be the bigger person, but if they ever touched her, she should not take it, but to stand up for herself. They still don’t condone violence but sometimes standing up for oneself, if it is necessary and is a life-threatening situation or a dire need, then it has a justification of why there was violence.

  9. Collin Jeck says:

    Parents do not want their kids to be the source of violence, but they also do not want their children to be spineless and not stand up for themselves. My dad always told me the common quote, “If you start a fight, you’re in trouble, but if someone starts one with you, you can finish it”. This seems to be the perfect way to build a child’s character, while not letting them be the source of violence. Children won’t want to get their Xbox taken away, so they won’t initiate any violent activity. A childhood without violence would most likely lead to a life without violence, solving our problem of violence in this world.

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