“I am in the midst of lions;
I lie among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.” Psalm 57
Taking writing courses can be tough if you don’t have material. “What am I going to write about?” is often the most perplexing question students face—even college students—through an entire semester, which is why most teachers make assignments. For years I sprung the same one on students on the first day of class: in 500 words or so, go back to middle school and describe and define your “nemesis.”
It’s a winner because everybody has one. The moment I say the word nemesis, eyes light up. Somewhere through junior high, every one of us felt like killing the kid we thought of as the boss or the snob, the bully or the hot shot, maybe the teachers pet. We’ve all had a nemesis.
Sometimes I’d give those essays to my colleagues in the Education Department, who used the stories in class to make sure future teachers remembered that school can be torture, and often is. It’s a wonder some of us ever make it out of middle school. Those essays could make a ton of young parents think seriously about home-schooling. Only once in twenty years did a student confess to being the bugger herself.
One story I’ll never forget. Its rising action is universal—little girl gets on the bus every day, teeth chattering, scared to death of the bully, an overgrown fourth or fifth-grade girl who makes her life miserable. I don’t remember the facts, but they’re all alike—mental abuse, physical abuse, even sexual abuse. It’s not pretty. Think the worst.
But this story didn’t end there. Years later, this student, a junior in college, goes to a beautician to get her hair done and gets assigned a woman she recognizes as the satanic figure on the neighborhood bus. Chills flash up and down her spine, but she takes the chair, and the two of them start to talk, laugh. Eons have passed, of course, and neither of them are who they were. And yet both of them are.
The hairdresser takes a snip or turns or curl or whatever hairdressers do, then, out of nowhere, says, “I’m really sorry for who I was way back then.”
Blew my student away, she said, and that’s the story she wrote, the only one I’ll never, ever forget.
For the record, that’s an argument against home-schooling.
I find it amazing that the attribute David first notes in his assessment of his fierce and overpowering enemy isn’t size or ferocity or tonnage. After all, Saul was a giant, an all-pro tight end, the kind of physical specimen just about anybody would want for a king.
We don’t know a great deal about David’s pecs and abs, but we know he was a mouse as a boy. But then, with buff Saul threatening one’s life, most of us would be bloody scared.
Just exactly what he meant by “their teeth being spears” isn’t exactly clear, at least to me; but the next simile is transparent. If their “tongues are sharp swords,” what he’s telling us is that his enemies cut him to shred with their words, which is itself imaginative language since no one actually bleeds when people say bad things about us. But it’s almost hard to say that, isn’t it?—“no one bleeds when people say bad things.” We all do. Okay, not literally. But we all do. Everybody had a nemesis. Some still do.
It’s not sticks and stones for David, it’s words. And maybe he’s right: the worst we can suffer is a shard of something hateful cutting through the tender fabric of our own very human heart.