A Warrior’s First Step

This is the first chapter of my book: Where Once, I Stood With Giants. This story sets the stage for the overall message of change and growth. I share it with you in hopes that it will inspire others to dig a little deeper and stretch their will a little farther than they have before.

I sat across from a kid named Chris in the second grade. He was proud of a medal he won in wrestling that year. It was the type of medal you pinned to your chest and didn’t wear around your neck.  Pinned to his chest on more days than not, you would be forced to look at it. Silver and shiny, it would make a faint jingling noise as he walked around. Chris loved to talk about how he was the best wrestler in his weight class on the island of Kodiak where I grew up. Chris had to travel to the mainland to do a state competition to win that medal.

Chris said he should have gotten gold, but the person who beat him was cheating. How could he possibly think anything else?

He’d point to his medal, look me in the eye, and say, “This proves I’m better than you.” Being a poor kid who lived in a camper in a gravel pit, this stung more than it would for the average kid. Everyone knew my mom drove us to school in a camper van. Everyone knew my clothes were dirty, worn out, and too small. Everyone knew they were better than me. And lots of people liked to remind me. Especially Chris.

The island of Kodiak is big, but the town is small. The wrestling team in Kodiak was known for being one of the best overall programs in the giant state of Alaska. Kids from our tiny village and big island would do quite well at state-level tournaments on the mainland. Chris was no exception. He was a young boy with a bright future in wrestling. He also had the gift of wielding his pride like a weapon against the poor kid who sat across from him.

Chris thought his words gave him power. He was a little boy super proud of his accomplishments and all he knew was that standing on top of anyone made him feel better. Bullies like him don’t even know they’re bullies. They’re just kids who are taught that respect is a one-way street. I didn’t say anything back. I didn’t argue with him about whether he was better than me.

I was 8 years old, poor, homeless, and living with my mother and 4 other siblings inside a tiny camper van in a gravel pit. My older brother Zach was good at taking his aggression out on me and my younger brother. He was a lot bigger and enjoyed various forms of big brother torture to mitigate how kids at school made him feel too. We were all made fun of. We were all mocked, laughed at, and ostracized for our dirty clothes and shoes held together with duct tape. Zach found lots of ways to make himself feel better. You’d think the shared adversity would bring us together. For Zach, it made him hate his family even more. He blamed us for how others treated him.

Since we kept our camper van parked out in a gravel pit, we’d often just pee in the woods. Going number two was the only thing reserved for the toilet. So, Zach would wait until he saw me going outside the camper to pee and before I could get my pants unzipped, he’d tackle me and hold me down. He wouldn’t let me up until I peed in my pants. Then he’d laugh at me, kick dirt in my face, and call me a baby. Telling my mom wouldn’t help. She would get upset at the dirty pants worse than the actions that got them that way. So I’d often just not say anything and sit outside until it was too dark and cold to stay there. Then, I would quietly climb into my sleeping bag that was on the floor of the camper near the door. By the next morning, my pants would be dry and smelling of pee, but I would have avoided getting yelled at.

Chris, holding his silver medal, and looking down his nose, would often mention how bad I smelled. I never said anything back. I knew I smelled too.

During recess, I didn’t have a friends group. I’d play alone. Most of my recess was spent near the edge of the wood line. Back then, everything wasn’t fenced off like it is now. We had trees and forest next to the playground and nothing stopped you from running into it. It was a perfect place to take a few steps in and disappear from the rest of the group. My imagination would take me down wonderful paths. I would see myself as a knight riding a horse in battle. Often I’d imagine that I was a bear that lived in the woods and needed no one else. Bears didn’t have friends. Bears were solitary and strong. Bears could take care of themselves and nobody ever messed with a bear.

One day, Chris and a couple of his wrestling friends decided it would be good to come pick on the poor kid who hung out in the woods at the edge of the playground.

“Why do you play in the dirt? Is it because you are too poor to afford any real toys?” He asked. The other kids finding similar and equally as boring snaps at my status.

A small pile of sticks I’d gathered and used to make teepees or small structures was kicked and strewn out by another boy. Chris stood close to me while I sat on the ground.

“Kiss my shoe, poor boy.” His lips were thinly pulled and sitting somewhere in between a smile and a sneer, he stared down at me.

I felt tears beginning to push their way out. My eyes got hot, and my cheeks felt suddenly cold. The insides of my nostrils burned as I fought back the dueling emotions of defeat and defiance.

“No,” I said. I didn’t look up. I didn’t want them to see my face.

Chris responded with a blur of motion. He was on top of me, I fell to my side. He spun, shifted and got an arm around my head. Like a little anaconda, his grip tightened, and my head felt like it was going to explode. He squeezed so hard that I couldn’t scream or yell for help. I heard laughter. My vision had black spots in it. I’d never wrestled before, and I didn’t fight back. Fighting back only made things worse with my brother, they were sure to make things worse here.

Chris rotated while holding my head and pushed it close to the ground. The other boys kicked dirt in my eyes. Someone pulled off a shoe and threw it into the woods. More laughter.

“You ready to kiss my shoes now?” The words dripped out of Chris’s mouth like a disrespectful rich kid demanding service from a waiter.

I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t even sure if I could talk with the grip he had around my neck. Chris let me go and he stood up.

Panting and face down my view of dirt and roots was interrupted by a brand-new Converse shoe.

“Kiss my shoe, poor boy.” The words hit like bricks being dropped on my head.

“Kiss mine too!” Another boy chimed in.

“And mine!” yet another yelled.

Four shoes all belonging to different kids sat in front of my face. My head down, I refused to look up at them. In my heart, I wanted to break their bones. I wanted to crush them and watch them bleed. I wanted to make them pay for how they were treating me. I wished I could become a bear and tear them apart. I wished and wished and wished.

The dirt was soft, almost wispy in a way. The tears made little dents in the dirt by their shoes. Snot welled up in my nose and I kissed Chris’s shoe.

“Don’t get your gross tears and snot on my shoe, poor boy!” He snapped and quickly pulled his foot away.

“I-I-I am sorry,” stuttering and fearful of getting hit or kicked by the group. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to will myself to stop the crying. It just made it worse.

“I got a better idea.” One of the other boys said. Hocking noises from his throat. Shortly after, I felt a glob of spit land on the back of my head. More laughter ensued.

The rest of them followed suit. I didn’t move.

At eight years old, I was no stranger to cruelty. I knew that I had to let it happen or it would only get worse.

Chris kicked dirt in my face once the spitting was done. “Go find your shoe, poor boy,” was his parting words as they all turned around and ran back towards the playground.

That day I went home and told my mom I wanted to join the wrestling team. Wrestling practice was nearly year round and I would have about 8 months before state championships tournament was to take place. My mother was happy for me. We went to practice, she talked to the coach and I was handed a set of headgear, a singlet, and some hand-me-down shoes that were only slightly too big for me. They soon became my prize possessions.

Since practice didn’t start until about two hours after school, my mother would just leave me there and pick me up once practice was over. The wrestling mats got rolled out about 20 minutes before practice began, so that meant I had a lot of time to burn.

Within a few days, I would use the time to help improve. I would run stairs, do mountain climbers and practice the footwork the coaches taught. I’d spend hours upon hours working on how to step in for all the take downs they showed us.

By the time I’d been training for three months, I could take anyone down close to my weight class. Even Chris.

Chris rarely trained with me. He would avoid me at all costs. He’d make comments to other kids about how dirty and gross I was. He would even try to get people not to practice with me. The coaches would often intervene and talked to Chris about teamwork and lifting each other up. They may as well have been talking to the dirt I cried on.

Every day that my mother picked me up, I felt better about myself.

The coaches saw how hard I worked and it was obvious some of them poured extra time into me. In me, they saw a fighter. They saw a kid who had a fire in his belly and wanted more than anything to win.

I never talked about Chris or other kids. I never mentioned to a single person that their treatment of me at school took a different turn. Chris and friends didn’t physically attack me anymore, but they waged a campaign of words against me.

I was a poor kid. I had holes in my shoes. My clothes were dirty. I was gross. I used spit to wash my hair. Yep. I would not be allowed to forget my status.

But I didn’t care about what they said. When they talked about me, it made me work harder in practice. It made me stay longer. Their words were fire. They only added heat to the metal I was forging into a blade. The treatment was dismissively cruel and little did they know how much it no longer hurt, but strengthened my resolve.

By the time 3rd grade started, I was nine years old and had been practicing wrestling for a whopping 6 months. Despite that, I knew the coaches considered me one of the best young wrestlers on the team. I only knew this because we couldn’t afford to pay the dues and the coaches pitched the money in themselves to allow me to continue attending. I heard them tell my mother that wrestling was good for me and I was a good example to other kids. The coaches wanted me to stay.

Third grade meant different kids in a different classroom. It also meant no Chris sitting across from me. I still saw him at recess. He still kept his silver medal pinned to his chest. He still made fun of me.

By the time state championships rolled around, we had found a home to live in. It was a yellow house on the end of a street relatively close to the post office. The backyard butted up to an old Russian cemetery. The bones and detritus buried over a hundred years ago sluffed out of the hillside near the house. My father had come home from fishing, and he attended a couple of my wrestling meets leading up to the state event. He was proud of me and insisted the family find a way to pay for my trip to the mainland. It was a few hundred dollars to get my ticket and food covered for the trip and it was taken care of.

In the season leading up to the championships, I had not lost a single match. And not one time had I fought Chris. Chris was avoiding me, and I knew it.

A two-day ferry ride and two full days of wrestling later, I made it to the final match. I was guaranteed at least a second-place medal. My family was not watching me, my coaches were off with the bigger kids from the high school, and I was getting the green band wrapped around my ankle by a referee.

“Do you have any questions?” the big, round-faced ref asked as he stood back up.

My singlet felt tight. I’d grown a lot since buying it and it was no longer loose in the chest. The veins on my 9-year-old arms popped out as they sat over striated biceps. I was not the same boy who sat face down getting spit on.

Getting spit on by the person across from me.

Chris was my final match for first place.

There are two bars of tape on the center of the wrestling ring. About three feet apart, you’re supposed to place one foot on the tape when squaring off to start the match. I put my well-worn wrestling cleat over the tape and looked at it.

I thought about the moment I had to walk around the woods near the playground to find the shoe they tossed out there. The way branches and roots dug into my foot and small bits of debris clung to my already dirty sock while I searched. When recess ended that day, I didn’t go back inside. Clouds hung heavy and low in the sky and I stayed out in the rain to wash tears from my face and spit from my hair. I thought about Chris making me kiss his shoe.

“Shake hands and get ready.” The referee stood in between us.

I don’t remember shaking Chris’s hand. I just remember the ref’s hand waving past my face as he told us to, “Wrestle!”

I shot in, took Chris down with a flawless single leg and stood back up.

Two points for me, one for him. I gladly gave up the point. I wasn’t going to pin Chris, I wanted to win a different way.

The first round is three minutes long. The second and third are two minutes long. I wanted a first-round win by technical fall and that meant I had to get a 15-point lead on him before time ran out. Winning like this demonstrated exceptional superiority and skill over your opponent. I only knew that because my coaches said technical falls were rare and only done by the very best because most wrestlers were too good to allow it to happen.

I would shoot in, get a fast takedown and stand back up.

Shot. Takedown. Shot. Takedown. By one minute in, the referee could already see what I was doing.

By two minutes in, I was getting close. 22 to 11. Four more takedowns and I would have my victory. With ten seconds left in the first round it was 28 to 14. Chris knew he was about to lose so he shot in on me as soon as I stood back up. Grabbing my ankle he tried to climb up my leg and take me down. I moved to the side, got a head and arm and began to turn my body for the final takedown to win the match.

“TIME!” The referee yelled.

I didn’t get a technical fall in the first round. But I had one minute of standing across from Chris. Like a statue, I didn’t move, I didn’t avert my gaze, and I didn’t care if anyone ever saw me beat him. I was a bear. Bears didn’t need friends, and bears were powerful.

I was a Kodiak Bear and I was going to tear my opponent apart.

The second round ended as fast as it started. It felt like Chris didn’t even try to stop the final takedown. He was flaccid and limp in his defense. His spirit was broken. He knew he couldn’t beat the poor kid. He knew he would never again be able to show off his silver medal at school and be proud of it. Not because he didn’t earn it, but because the poor kid was the one that beat him.

Returning home, the ferry ride was a lot different. Many of the kids that avoided me but didn’t try to befriend me started asking me questions. They suddenly saw a different person. They saw a kid who didn’t let the world decide who he was. And, even though they didn’t know exactly what they were seeing, they knew I was different in a good way.

When the ferry arrived at the docks of Kodiak, the entire town was waiting for us. My mother and father stood in the throngs of people waiting for their son to return. All the boys of the Kodiak wrestling team lined the edge of the ferry screaming out to their parents. I took my gold medal out of the box and held it out over the edge of the railing showing them what I’d achieved.

And, like a sudden joke from God, the clasp holding the medal to the ribbon broke.

The dock went quiet as the medal fell in between the dock and ferry into the water below. I watched the water splash up and form a round ripple. I was reminded of tears in the dust. Laughter burst out down the railing and I could see Chris’s smiling face as he pointed at me.

I felt like I was kneeling in front of a quartet of boys as they spit on my head again. Then, I flushed with anger and headed down the walkway towards Chris.

“I don’t need a gold medal to kick your ass. You’ll never beat me. Your friends won’t either.” I spat the words out in violent staccato. I turned around to walk towards my bag and found several more older boys standing in my way.

They were the High schoolers. They were the kids that all us young kids looked up to. I stumbled back but their faces immediately changed from hard to soft.

“Come here Daniel.” The state champion of the 165 pound weight division said to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked down at me with immense kindness. Then, he held out his case with his gold medal in it.

“You can have my medal if you want.” He said.

I hugged him. I could tell he felt awkward but he allowed me to do it. I hid my face under my own arm so I could keep the tears from falling out.

“That’s okay. I don’t need a medal to know what I did.” My words muffled as I kept hugging the young man who decided to show me kindness.

He gently pushed me away and looked me in the eyes. “You’re a great wrestler and a real fighter. I’m lucky to have you on my team. If you need anything, you ask me.” Then he looked up at Chris and his friends, and his face changed to something ominous.

“If I find out you’re treating your teammates poorly, I’ll ensure you never wrestle again.” A sense of finality colored the tone of his words.

I wasn’t sure if that meant Chris would get kicked off for being mean, or if it meant something much more violent. I don’t think Chris knew either. Regardless, it worked. Chris never said another word about me.

In the ensuing weeks, the coach got me a replacement medal and had it presented in front of the wrestling team. He took the time to talk about how hard I had worked and how important it was to support each other. Everyone, parents included, had heard or seen Chris and friends laughing and pointing at me when the medal was dropped. Little did they know that moment would change their lives forever too.

I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, this was the first step I took down walking the path of a warrior. The experiences that could have, and should have, pushed me down did the opposite. It wasn’t because there was a light I could see at the end of the tunnel or eight-year-old me somehow knew I would become stronger by doing what I did.

It was because I chose to fight a longer game. I had to defer my victory over months instead of the instant gratification of fighting back when the battle would definitively be lost.

To be a warrior, you must be consistent, and dedicated and choose to endure instead of quit. You cannot go for the easy win when it doesn’t help you win the war.

A warrior knows that it is from the well of struggle that we pull a drink and sip upon change.

Without the contrast that the emotionally selfish provide, it is hard to see the honor in personal action. While standing up to Chris was something I did for myself, it was also something that others could find inspiration in. To stand up to the odds when not in your favor, even if you lose, is still an act of kindness to mankind. We show our fellow man that hope and will have a place in this world. For it is the power of hope and will that drive humanity to a better future.

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