The Clenched Fist

Giving and receiving can be as simple as opening your hand

“When you clench your fist, no one can put anything in your hand, nor can your hand pick up anything.”
–Alex Haley

It was 1973 and Colleen was the new girl in school. She was long-legged, smart-mouthed, and had a slight scar on her face. That was all I knew about her until the day she snatched me in the staircase and threatened to tear me up if I didn’t hand over my purple hair ribbons. At that moment, I discovered that Colleen was also a bully.

But she was no fool. “Tell anybody,” she said, “and I’ll bash your brains in.” Well, I was no fool either. We had a deal.

This went on for months. Colleen got to keep my psychedelic headband, my peace sign key ring, my enamel heart pin, a good portion of my milk-and-pretzel money — and I got to keep my brains — unbashed.

Then things got worse. If I laughed at a joke she didn’t find funny, she’d show me her fist. If I spoke up in class, she’d narrow her eyes and touch her watch, silently warning me: “Don’t let me catch you at 3 o’clock.” I became quiet; my confidence sank. Clearly, the only way to avoid Colleen’s wrath was to blend into the blackboard as much as possible. So that’s what I did.

At 8 I had been stripped of my belief in the basic good of mankind and was eagerly waiting for the beginning of junior high, when I would hopefully escape Colleen. Then something happened. After months of cowering under Colleen’s reign, a sweet girl named Michelle refused to give Colleen a silver bracelet she had gotten for her birthday. When Colleen reached for it anyway, Michelle dug her nails into Colleen’s hand so hard she dropped to her boney knees and squealed like a baby. In no time, the rest of us were on her, taunting her mercilessly. Amazingly, Colleen started to cry. A teacher came over before things got worse but it was already too late. Colleen’s cover was blown. Her reign was over.

Even in junior high, Colleen kept putting us down, showing her scowl, flashing her scar. But we were unfazed. Without her bully status, she slipped into the background and was largely ignored.

I have often wondered about Colleen over the years. What became of her and how did she get that scar? No one becomes a bully in a vacuum. As time passed, how much more did she bring upon herself?

The world is full of Colleens — people who lash out before they reach out; who scream before they speak; who push everyone away when what they want, and need, most is to be pulled close and praised. Like the late author Alex Haley said in Roots, those who face the world with clenched fists typically suffer far worse harm than they inflict on others because they sever their ability not only to give, but to receive. Anger is often born of heartache.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all go out and

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