Today, I remembered, with the help of a hefty pitcher of mango margarita and long conversations with a longtime friend, that it’s not just the last few years that I had to survive as someone who people knew of, or knew about, or recognized, rather than to be known as an individual. Starting in grade school and continuing on through high school, it really wasn’t until I was in college and finally experiencing natural puberty that I truly was able to make a first impression without someone already having formed an opinion of me.
All because I was a child model and commercial actor.
I thought it was cool, fun, and it helped support my family. But that changed the moment a certain bully cornered me and asked, rhetorically, “What makes YOU so special? Why are YOU on TV? Why’d they pick YOU?” I remember standing there, my back to the brick wall in the stairwell leading to McCloskey Auditorium, connecting St. Anne’s School and the church, sweating, frightened, not knowing what to say.
This was 40 years ago. I was in fifth grade, just ten years old. “I dunno, they just did,” I stammered.
“‘I dunno'” the boy parroted me, raising his pitch mockingly, getting laughs from the gathering crowd, as he grabbed my tie with his right hand and moved his clenched left fist closer to my face. “How about I break your nose? Not gonna be on TV then, are ya, Ennis?”
My first thought: my mother is gonna kill me.
Not that I’d be in pain, or bloody, or that I would have to live the rest of my life with a broken nose; no, the fear that filled my mind at that exact moment was how angry my mom would get over the fact I somehow managed to have my nose broken by this overgrown escaped convict masquerading as a classmate. And he was right, a broken nose would surely cost me my career.
How many ten year olds do you know who’ve experienced panic at the thought their career might be over? I had spent six of my ten years, pretty much as far back as I can remember, working as a model and commercial actor. And it was all about to end in a big, painful, and no doubt very costly punch.
I decided it was time for action. And that’s when I came up with my plan. But I needed to time it just right.
So, I stood there, defiantly, not answering his taunt, except to take my index finger, and slowly tap the bully’s right fist that held my clip-on tie with his GI Joe Kung Fu Grip… and I drew an invisible line from his fingers to my nose, tapping my nose twice. As if to say, “Here it is. Give it your best shot, tough guy.”
But I didn’t say that. I was too busy watching his eyes change in exactly the way I imagined a bull would look if shown a red cape.
Exactly the same, I am sure. And those eyes were close enough for me to see my own petrified reflection against the wall. And our ears rang with the chant that almost always accompanied a bully — is there a union for bully chanters, or perhaps a roadie-like experience? There should be.
“HIT HIM! HIT HIM! HIT HIM!” chanted the chanters.
He pulled my tie tighter, I watched him clench his left fist, and as it sprung from its coiled position toward my nose, I dropped like a ton of bricks and didn’t look back.
I imagine I must have heard the impact of his fingers against the bricks, the scream of anger, agony and rage as he looked at the clip-on tie still gripped tightly by his other hand, and had I turned around I’m sure I would have seen the almost certain disappointment on the faces of the chanters.
But I was focused only on the stairs that I was running down, toward the door that leads outside. A few more steps, and I’d be —
The chanters had turned the page from two-word repetition to two-word command, directed at anyone else in my path.
I went for the door, my hands extended to hit the bar that would spring it open. And it did not. It would not, no matter how hard I pushed, not with two boys on the other side holding that door shut.
A tall glass door, glass covering every inch except in the frame and hardware that made it operate. I stared at the four hands pressed up against that glass, and to this day I cannot recall the faces… just those hands.
I turned in panic, as a bloody fisted bully with my tie wrapped around his bleeding fist came barreling down those same stairs I had just scooted… and he was headed right for me.
There wasn’t any option left. I needed to escape. It wasn’t just my nose that was at risk this time. I pounded on the bar to open the door, on the glass, on the frame, with my fists, with my body, and finally with my feet.
I kicked, hard… and that’s when I heard the sound that should have meant freedom.
The glass in the door shattered: some of it cracked, some fell in, some fell out, but the bottom line was: Ennis broke the door.
“ENNIS BROKE THE DOOR!!!” screamed the chanters.
What came next was a surprise. The bully turned, and ran, and everyone followed his example. Their allies on the outside, the chanters, the bystanders, anyone and everyone cleared out so fast, you might have thought I had farted.
I stood there, tieless amid the glass shards and tiny pieces, and within seconds of the foyer becoming void of children, in flew the nuns. They didn’t hear the chanting, the punching of the wall, the screams to stop me or the taunts that had started this entire ugly episode. No, what they heard was glass breaking, and what they saw was what others surely told them: Ennis broke the door.
And no, my mother was not mad, despite the call to come get me, and meet with the principal. She was not mad, having avoided my nose being broken; but she still berated me for coming so close to “risking everything.” Actually, it was my father who was pissed that I hadn’t thrown the first punch, or taken the punch and fought back, or tried to, or did anything other than run, and break school property that we now had to pay to replace.
I share this memory because it’s a reminder of a time when I felt so despised, ridiculed, bullied and mistreated… just for being me.
It’s sad to think there are still people in the world who feel that same way about me, even now, just for being me.
But instead of sadness, I feel so wonderful… to have found love, kindness, acceptance and good ol’ simple friendship and respect, here online and out in the world. Then, and now, I’m going to be me, like it or not.
And I’m learning, slowly, what I now must do is learn how to break glass ceilings, instead of doors.