June 6, 1952.  It’s funny the things you remember, the things that refuse to be dislodged from your memory.  I remember little about grade four — a few incidents — some kid’s names, my teacher Mrs. Anderson … and June 6, 1952.  That was when Myron Murphy was born, and Myron Murphy was the kid who ruled forth grade when I first arrived at Joseph Welsh Elementary School fifty years ago.

Back in grade four I was five feet tall, almost one hundred pounds, and had an early-onset spare tire.  In the previous three grades, my size meant bullies hadn’t bothered me much, at least not those who were my own age.

Like most kids in a new school, I spent the first few days watching the other kids interact and trying the figure out where I fit in.  Myron immediately drew my attention, not because of his size–though he looked like a bulldog–but because of his manner.  His eyes followed the antics of his fellow forth graders with a certain distain.  Myron rarely smiled and never laughed, and yet it was clear that almost every other boy in the class was trying to get him to do just that.  They would do something silly or make a joke and then look right at Myron to see what his reaction was.  Usually there was no reaction or Myron would purse his lips and stare the kid down.  Occasionally he would smile.  When that happened, it was as if he had bestowed a blessing on the other kid.

Among the boys, two of us in the class were new.  The other boy was Andrew MacTavish, a red-haired freckled-faced shrew of a kid with green eyes and a chipped-toothed grin.  He was the kind of kid who was friendly to a fault.

On the second day of class Andrew got up from his desk and went to the mechanical pencil sharpener mounted on the back wall.   He had a brand new bright red HB pencil.  Myron followed Andrew to the pencil sharpener and stood behind as the red head cranked the sharpener, bringing the pencil to its desired point.  When Andrew finished, Myron handed him his pencil — a well-chewed stubby yellow thing nearly too short to fit into the sharpener.

Andrew immediately recognized this as a test.  He slowly received the pencil from Myron and carefully sharpened it.  When he turned to give the pencil back, Myron plucked the red pencil from Andrew’s other hand and returned to his seat.   Andrew stood alone at the back of the room with Myron’s pencil.

Mrs. Anderson, who was reading at her desk, saw none of this but every kid was watching Andrew.   His face was flushed but he forced a smile.  He gestured with the pencil towards Myron, as if to say “Thanks.” A thin smile spread across Myron’s face … One down, one to go.

Myron rarely engaged in physical bullying.  He picked his confrontations carefully for maximum impact.  I outweighed Myron by ten pounds and was bigger than most of the grade fives.   The grade fives were senior at Joseph Welsh.   The sixth graders had been moved to the new Eastview Junior High School, where there was more room.  If Myron’s victory was decisive enough he could remove some of those annoying “little” interventions; the ones that happened when older grade-five brothers came to the defence of their younger fourth grade siblings.  This also meant that the fight had to occur during recess when it would have the largest possible audience.

About two weeks had gone by without Myron paying even the slightest bit of attention to me.  I was beginning to relax, even though I would frequently catch snatches of troubling conversation:

 

“When he gonna get Conrad, d’yah think?”

“I don’t know. When he’s ready, I guess.”

“Conrad don’t do much, the big tub of lard … Maybe Myron don’t care.  Conrad’s sure not getting in the way.”

“But he’s not givin’ anything either, is he?  Everybody gotta give, right?”

“Yeah, everybody gotta give.”

“Just wait.  It’ll happen.  Myron’ll get him.”

But nothing happened.  Finally, I relaxed enough to start playing soccer with the other kids.  I had noticed that Myron never got involved in the sport.  He spent his recesses leaning up against the school wall showing off the contents of his pockets to any kid with enough status.  From a distance I’d seen cigarettes, yo-yos, candy, those little liquor bottles they give you on planes, even condoms—though I didn’t know what they were at the time—all of it given to him as tribute by other kids.  Anyway, like I said, Myron didn’t seem to be interested in soccer.

I was playing defense and I looked up to see Myron dribbling in on me.  I didn’t see him enter the game but, being the only person between him and the goal, I challenged.  He didn’t try to go around me, just stopped.

“What do you think you’re doing, Conrad?” he asked.

“Defending,” I said.

“Not against me you’re not.”

“But I’m the only one back.”

“I’m taking a shot on goal,” he said.

“You’ll have to get around me first,” I said, surprised at my own bravado.

“Fine, if that’s the way you want it.”

He pushed me down hard and then went around me and scored.  The kid in goal didn’t even try to stop it.  I started to get up but Myron stood over me.

“I want you to stay down there, Conrad.  Then you won’t get in my way if I decide to take another shot on goal.”

I looked up at him not knowing whether I should fight or be humiliated.  “I don’t think so,” I said … and started to get up.

He pushed me down again, this time kneeing me in the side of the head in the process.  “It’s safer down there, Conrad,” he said.

By now a crowd of boys had gathered, all grinning down at me.  I brought my elbow down hard on top of Myron’s sneaker.  The move took him by surprise and he backed up a few steps, giving me the chance to get to my feet.

“You’re not safe anymore, Conrad,” he said advancing on me.  I used the only thing I had in my arsenal, a straight right.  It landed square in the middle of his forehead, snapping his head back and breaking my hand.  The pain was so intense that I barely noticed when he pushed me down again and began rubbing dirt into my face.

“This is how we make mud pies,” he said as the dirt mixed with my tears.  I heard the laughter all the way to the hospital.

I returned to class a couple of days later with my hand in a cast.  Myron greeted me with a smile and a huge yellow lump in the middle of his forehead.  “Nice punch,” he said.  “We’re going to get along just fine.”

“You two,” Mrs. Anderson said.  “The principal wants to see you in the office — about that little tussle you had a few days ago I suspect.”

“I’ve been looking for a partner,” Myron said as we approached the principal’s office.  “You know, somebody to back me up.”

I looked at him blankly and said nothing.

We entered the school’s outer office and the secretary waved us through to the principal’s desk.  The principal was a balding little man overdressed in a Harris Tweed suit.  In front of him on the desk were two open file folders, one with my name on it and one with Myron’s.  The principal quickly closed these — but not before I saw it: “June 6th, 1952.”  Myron was over a year older than I was.

We got the usual chewing out and a week’s detention.  On the way back to class Myron tried to pick up where he had left off.

“So are you in?” he asked.

“June 6th, 1952,” I replied.

“What?”

“That’s your birthday, right?”

Myron’s face went white.

“So you got put back.  You flunked a grade.”

“Don’t you ever…”

“I won’t, don’t worry.  I’m not going to back you up, though.  I’m gonna back up the other kids.  Maybe you could help me with that.  You know, make sure the other kids don’t get pushed around?”

Myron stopped at the classroom door, unsure about whether or not to enter.

“Oh, and Myron?” I said.

“…Yeah? …” he mumbled, reluctantly.

“Give Andrew his pencil back.”