Only twice in my life have I ever come THIS close to punching someone in the face. The first experience was something relatively uneventful that happened in high school—this fat kid I’d always hated knocked the books out from the arms of a freshman I knew for absolutely no reason. Fury burbling in my guts I could feel my eyes go white around the edges and I pushed him without even thinking about it.
He looked at me like I had purple skin and, at about 120 pounds, I told his gigantic, rotund, bully butt to pick the books up before somebody got hurt. I probably looked about as frightening as Spongebob Squarepants when I offered this threat, but because my knuckles were white and I was shaking with rage, the fat kid probably didn’t care to test my unpredictability. Knowing I wasn’t the sort of the kid who normally got into fights, and having about zero adrenaline coursing through his own veins at the time, he gave me a “Fine, geez” sort of look and picked up the books. I went to Biology next class shaking. It took my like fifteen minutes to settle down.
The second experience didn’t go over in a flash like the incident with the fat bully. It did, however, relate to my first near face-punching in that the near victim was also a bully who some could easily classify as overweight. But this guy wasn’t the sort of fat where you can imagine throwing a punch into his gut and losing your fist like you’d just punched a vat of pudding; he was fat the way old weight-lifters were in the 1800s—barrel-chested with a gut that wasn’t immediately recognizable as gut but as girth. For all I knew the man was just filled too full with muscle, like a glass filled so full with water it falls just short of dripping over the edge. Let’s just say I wouldn’t push him from behind no matter whose books he knocked to the floor.
As a rookie teacher I was thrown into the yearbook business because it was just part of the job, and it was through this extracurricular responsibility that I came into the contact with the man I’ve just spent about 150 words describing. He was my yearbook sales rep from the company we published through—we’ll call him Tom Dread for the sake of the story—and from the first time I met him he scared the piss out of me. People built like him are used to getting their way, and they know how to impose their will with their daunting physical presence. Total bully, through and through.
But despite the fact that I’d been bullied all throughout grade school and high school because I was a skinny goof that got good grades and liked choir and theater and books, I’d spent the last four years at college, where bullying really doesn’t occur in a conventional sense. I had been under the impression that my days of getting bullied were over, and I had adjusted my level of self-confidence to compensate for that. Having just gotten a job and started dating the hottie I’d eventually marry, I didn’t think I could ever feel more confident.
But this Dread guy always had something weird about him. He’d often say, “If you ever need anything just give me a call,” but it was in a way that insinuated that, “If you call me, it better damn well be because something’s on fire or someone’s dying, because anything less than that isn’t worth my time.” We all say, “Hey, if you ever need anything…” but how often do we really mean it, right? Well, helping me was this guy’s job, and I always had the distinct impression that helping me was absolutely the last thing on his list of priorities.
But he did a smart thing, at least from a business standpoint, by having me sign a four-year contract with him and his company within weeks of getting the job. I had absolutely no clue what that meant at the time, but I feared that by not signing something I’d ruin the yearbook in only my first few weeks with the job, and I didn’t want to do that. So I signed it, as Dread stood behind me ringing his hands, muttering, “Yes, yes… Just sign there. Yeeeeessss…” And he didn’t have a mustache but if he did he’d be twisting it like a true villain.
I later found out that my current contract wasn’t even up at that point and didn’t need to be renewed for another year, and that the standard contract extension is three years. Four years is absolutely unheard of. That son-of-a-gun swindled me.
Now, I didn’t trust Mr. Dread in the first place, but after finding out about this I felt really burned. But what can a guy do? He beat me, straight up. I’d just have to live with it.
Or so I thought.
It just so happened right around that time that a rep from another company asked if he could make a pitch for our business. Considering I viewed Dread as an abusive step-parent at the time, I agreed, though I felt really dirty about doing it. I’d never in a million years cheat on my wife, but I’m sure it feels something like it did to have another yearbook company come in and attempt to woo me away from Tom Dread and my current publisher.
This new rep—we’ll call him Joe Bright—came in with better software, better customer service, and most importantly an attitude and disposition that made me feel as if the sales rep paid to help me would actually be helping me. Immediately I clicked with the new guy and loved everything about his pitch.
“But,” I told him, “I’m only a year into a four-year contract with Tom Dread’s company.” Joe of course is very familiar with his biggest industry rival, and told me that the contracts schools sign with yearbook publishers can be broken extremely easily. It’s not in a company’s best interest from a PR standpoint to sue a school for wanting to switch publishers, regardless of what some contract says. What’s the best way to lose customers? How about sue your customers? Is that pretty high up there?
When I told Tom Dread as cordially as possible that I’d be leaving him to go with another company, threatening legal action was his first recourse. Imagine that in a marriage—“Honey, I want a divorce.” “I’m going to sue you so you’ll stay with me.” “Yes, because that will make both of us happy.” “It doesn’t matter because at least we’ll still be together.” “I hate you so much right now.”
Freaked completely out at that point, I called Joe Bright and said to forget the whole thing. I wanted to switch companies, but I didn’t want to get sued over it. Joe gave me a pep talk, and then I met with my principal and he gave me a pep talk and offered his support, so I called Dread back to say I meant what I said. I was changing companies.
That phone conversation went a lot longer than I’d hoped because Dread wanted to know the monetary details of my decision to leave so he could match them and alter our contract. I should’ve kept my mouth shut and told him to shove it, but as I’ve already mentioned the man had a way of getting what he wants, so he someone talked me into it. Begrudgingly I gave him the numbers and he agreed to better each and every one of them. At the end I told him, about as nervous I can ever recall being in my adult life, that I was switching anyway.
He hung up on me and drove to the school.
Dread came in and charmed the oblivious secretary into allowing him down to my room during prep period. He had with him a copy of our contract and a particularly unpleasant disposition with which he delivered it into my hands. Exhausted, I couldn’t get him to leave my room, but I kept telling him over and over that I wanted to switch companies and there was nothing he could do or say to change my mind. I had my principal behind me and everything. This was a done deal, and could you please leave. I said all this with the confidence of a six-year-old asking the pretty flower girl to dance at some uncle’s wedding.
“I mean,” I finally said, “You really want take this to court? That’s really the smartest move for you?”
“If that’s what it comes down to,” he said smugly, squeezed into one of my students’ desks, looking like a water balloon with a rubber band squeezing in the midsection.
After weeks of frustration and being bullied, my knuckles got white I started to shake with rage, but it’s not in my nature to fight, mostly because the idea of fighting scares me to death. So I sat there pissed off and completely silent. We sort of stared at each other in the quiet of the room for what felt like several minutes, and eventually, somehow, the man left without our having resolved the issue.
What did resolve it was my principal writing Mr. Tom Dread a letter asking him to never step foot on the school’s premises ever again without having been invited, and he CC’d it to the man’s higher ups to make sure they knew about it, too. At that point, he just never came back, and I was free to join Joe Bright and the new company, who I’ve been with ever since. I feel like a battered wife who finally found a man who spoke with his words instead of his fists.
To this day I still get newsletters and emails from Dread’s company, some of which feature his picture. I look at that picture a few years after last having seen him in person, and all I can think is, “Man, I’d still love to punch that guy in the face.” Or at least knock his books out of his arms in the hallway.