I suppose we all go through life bearing the scars of high school.
The obvious purpose of school is to get an education. The current purpose of school is to pass standardized testing, but that's an issue for another essay. The hidden purpose of school is to teach socialization, and that remains both the most rewarding and most crushing part of the school experience.
I've recently had reason to think back on this time of my life. I've been back to the high school a few times to pick up the girls after Marching Band, and Joe, an acquaintance I haven't seen since graduation, recently unfriended me on Facebook, all of which led to various reflections on that time of my life and how much I really, really wouldn't want to experience it again.
"We might be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us." –Magnolia (1999)
I was certainly never part of the in-crowd in school. I suspect that for much of my time in school I was completely oblivious to even the existence of the in-crowd, but the more I became aware of it the more certain I was that I didn't want anything to do with it. Through the parental grapevine I once heard of some trouble a student in the year before mine had with classmates. Her name was Rebekah, I may be spelling it wrong after this many years but so what, and I'd interacted with a her a bit some years before in middle school; we were both in Math Counts, and while it was fun I can assure you that there is nothing about "Math Club" that enhances a student's social standing. She had apparently reached this same realization, because by the time we were both in high school whatever redeeming characteristics she may have had were carefully hidden under the carefully constructed artifice of the perception-obsessed social climber.
The story as I heard it, simple as it was, came from a brief conversation that my mother and her mother had at some point. Her mother told the story of how she "had to" buy a largely new wardrobe for her daughter because she had purchased some items of clothing for her daughter to wear to school, and she was focused on such silly adult concerns whether or not the clothing fit and choosing items that weren't garish, but didn't take into account what brand manufactured specific items. Her daughter wore some clothes from the socially-unacceptable manufacturer to school one day, and came home in tears insisting she wouldn't wear those items ever again. Her—I'm going to go with "social clique" rather than "friends" here—her social clique pretty much immediately identified the offending clothing and gave her grief about it for the entire school day, so much relentless scorn and abuse that she was reduced to tears. Her mother promptly bought other clothes so that she wouldn't have to endure that sort of abuse again.
My take on this incident was a bit different. While I understand the desire to keep your children happy, doesn't this send the clear message that mockery over clothing brand is acceptable, that these individuals were focusing on things that were actually important? From where I was sitting, my bigger questions were: Why would you want to impress these people? Why would you still want to hang out with people who reduced you to tears? Why on earth would the approval of people so shallow and petty mean jack to you?
I never bothered to ask her, never had any reason to and never expected I'd get a reasonable answer back. By the time we were both in high school and she'd fully sunk into that world, she'd see me in the halls and toss out one of the insulting nicknames that I like so many others got stuck with over the years and then she'd laugh, this forced fake cackle that couldn't have been more artificial if she'd been reading the script right off a sheet of paper rather than reciting the script from memory, because that was what was expected of her to stay in good standing with her "friends."
I couldn't even get mad at her. We honestly didn't know each other at all, I hadn't spoken a word to her in three years, and she still acted like this toward me. The role she was playing was so utterly artificial that I couldn't even be bothered to care. This was one of the earliest times I truly understood the phrase "beneath contempt."
In a lot of ways, middle school was worse than high school. A combination of kids getting older, going from spending all day in the same room with the same 25 classmates to having a different teacher and classmates for each subject, and a district that at the time had two elementary schools so suddenly half the people in your grade were new to you led to a very unsettled time for students. For students in the district the passage from fifth grade to sixth was the biggest time of change in all of grade school. A lot of new faces, a lot of jockeying for standing, and a lot people trying to prove themselves however they could. The result was not pleasant for people like me who had no interest in playing the game, people like me who just wanted to be left alone. High school, while hardly idyllic, was in many ways an improvement. Cliques and hierarchies were largely set, and people were a bit more set in their routines, and a lot of people became more interested in themselves than in others.
I first met Joe all the way back in kindergarten, but we rarely had classes together and in fact weren't even in the same school for several years, so pretty much my earliest regular memory of Joe is from eighth grade, when he thought it the height of wit to grab at people's arms as he passed them between classes, the goal being to make them drop their books in the hall. (I assume there was a "them," but maybe I was the only lucky one.) If you do drop your books, you can imagine what fun it is gathering everything up in the middle of the hallways while everyone in your grade walks past kicking your books and pens and homework everywhere. I think I only dropped everything once and it all went straight down so it wasn't too bad. I learned to keep a better grip on my books. Later I learned to walk close to the lockers on the wall rather than in the middle of the hall so he couldn't reach me. The first time Joe saw me do that he laughed. Apparently that was amusing.
This was also the era of gum in the hair. I've pretty much always had long curly hair, and it was around this time that certain people decided it would be funny to take balls of bubble gum and try to get it stuck in my hair. I was victimized by that several times, at least once by Joe, another time by Vito Forlenza. I remember borrowing a pair of scissors from the science teacher in eighth grade and cutting the gum out once. Fortunately my hair was always such a mess that no one ever noticed the damage. Jim Noone used to do the gumball thing to me on the school bus. I'd see little pink gumballs flying past my head, and on one notable occasion I turned around just as he was about to throw, the gum clearly visible between his thumb and forefinger. He froze at being caught, a little wide-eyed, then put a calm expression on, ran his hand back over his ear like he was brushing back his far-too-short-for-the-gesture-to-be-necessary hair, then put on an annoyed face and snapped, "What?!" I still haven't decided if the gum or the unbelievably ludicrous pretence of innocence was more insulting.
To make things worse, I lost arguably the best friend I'd ever had up to that point in my life midway through seventh grade. In retrospect I understand how and why it happened a lot better, and I honestly have to take the majority of the blame on myself. David Dudzinski and I met in second grade and were largely inseparable for years. In elementary school he was indisputably the smartest person in the class, with me generally acknowledged as being in second place, and we got along very well. Here's what geeks we were: In middle school there was a field day once a year, essentially a full day of recess, with cooking on grills, and softball competitions, and so on, just a single day for nothing but fun, but on our sixth-grade field day Dave and I went up to the computer lab and spent about an hour helping Mr. Heffers run cables for the new PC lab that was set to replace the old Radio Shack TRS-80 microcomputer lab that had previously been in place. That same year, in Mr. Drahus's math class, we sat on opposite sides of the room, and when we would get bored because we had blitzed through fifteen minutes of classwork in under five minutes, for a time we took to playing catch with an imaginary ball, tossing it back and forth while everyone around us was doing long division. One time Dave's aim was bad and I had to get out of my seat to retrieve the imaginary ball from under someone else's desk. We got a lot of odd looks and just didn't care. We were having fun.
Dave was scary smart, and never slowed down. One major difference between us was that as I got lazy and complacent with schoolwork, he just got more driven and pushed to do more. In social studies we once had to do reports on various countries. Dave got England and wrote something like 50 pages and covered everything important and more. I got Poland, and I summed up everything noteworthy about the country's one thousand years of existence, their history, their culture, their political influence, absolutely everything, in maybe eight pages, with as much as one full page dedicated to any given topic. Dave's grade may have reached four figures. Mr. Caputo gave me an 85%, and that was damned generous of him. In time, Dave was valedictorian and his speech was recorded because he was attending the national finals of the Chemistry Olympiad. The top four students in the nation went to the international competition in Beijing, China; I hear he finished fifth. He later attended Penn State and he apparently at least double majored, there were rumors of more but I doubt the credibility third- and fourth-hand reports; from there, he attended Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School and is now an MD. It's not much of an exaggeration to put him at the same level as Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap.
But all of that was in the future. At this point, we were grade school friends. We got along and discussed things and visited each other's houses, and we were close enough to talk about things that maybe aren't so major now but were big back then, the sort of things that we knew without ever saying it out loud should never, and would never, be discussed at school, where other people could overhear. I remember being invited to his birthday party in seventh grade, me and several others, and we all had a great time overall. At the end of the day I was sitting in front of his house, waiting for my parents to show up to drive me home, holding a stack of newly-purchased baseball cards, I think they were Score, not Topps, and Dave joked about sneaking a few good cards out, so as a I joke I started counting them. He laughed and asked, "Has our friendship really come to this?" I just smiled and kept counting as part of the joke, because of course there were none missing and we both knew it. At the time the question didn't seem prophetic.
Obviously I'm not in his head, and he may have a very different story here, but when I look back what I see happened is that, with how bad things were with school in general at that point, how put-upon I felt, I was spending a lot more time with him, someone I knew wouldn't judge or abuse, more or less retreating from the rest of the school, always around him, to the point where he'd simply had enough. I honestly had no idea how much of a pest I must have been until one day before science class. We would drop our books off and then go down to lunch, and then have science class afterwards. We were in that three minute span in the classroom and I went up to him for I don't even know what now, and he snapped, "Jesus Christ, I wish you'd just go away! I'm so sick and tired of you!"
I was stunned, and he immediately apologized for his reaction as I retreated. I tried to scale back and give him space but what he said was heartfelt and the damage that led to it was already done. Our friendship evaporated pretty quickly after that, and the next year he, like so many others, went through an open abuse phase. "Hey, I'm your best friend. PSYCH!" followed by shared laughter at my expense with his audience.
Abuse from people you've filed under "Friends" in your head is so much harder to take than abuse from people you've filed under "Irrelevant."
At one point I tried to put my thoughts together regarding him and wrote out a letter to him to try to sort things out—this was back before I learned late in my time at college that not all issues could be resolved by talking things through. In it I asked what it was that caused the rift between us, which was pretty stupid as he'd already let the cat out of the bag on that front, but hey, I was emotional and thirteen, what the hell did I know? I thought he was just looking for a more popular crowd, which may have had some truth to it, but I was oblivious to my own role in his decision. I finished the letter and felt good about it, but when I re-read what I'd written, it just sounded so desperate and needy and pathetic, and I realized that not only was that not who I wanted to be—I sure as hell wasn't going to be Rebekah, desperately clinging to approval from others—but if that's what I would have to do to even hope to fix things between us, it simply wasn't worth it to me. I didn't have a lot going for me but I still had my pride, battered though it sometimes was, so I crumbled up the letter and threw it out and accepted that the friendship was over.
Things settled over time and we were able to talk a bit, and one time at college he saw me before class and flagged me down with a genuine smile at seeing me and we had a nice chat, maybe ten minutes of small talk and catching up on things before heading to our respective classes. In the end, we were friendly, but we were never friends again.
Friends drift apart. Not all friendships last, and there's not always someone to blame for it. People drift apart through graduations or life changes or just because. Despite what some people think, that's not a bad thing. Friends come and go, often without clear reason, and that's okay. Still, I have long accepted that, to the extent that blame can be assigned in this case, it's mostly on me. So much of the time in grade school, I just wanted other people to leave me alone.
After I was around so much, Dave just wanted to be left alone. I can hardly fault him for that.
Not a single one of us, not me or you or anyone you've ever known, has ever been the saint they believed they were at the time.
I was not without my own idiocy, and not just on that front.
The desire to fight back, to stand up for yourself even if it means fighting fire with fire, matching unacceptable behavior with unacceptable behavior, really becomes a driving motivation. Rest assured, giving in to that urge can feel good for literally minutes. Also, it rarely ends well.
Tired of the grief I was getting from one person, I went right up to them, intending to give them a piece of my mind, and what I recall falling out of my mouth were the words, "You're the biggest asshole I know," spat with much more invective than the words themselves warranted. I knew it was stupid as I walked away even without the laughter the followed me.
There was also the period of ink on the lockers. I had seen someone smear the combination dial on a classmate's locker with Vaseline and he could barely grip the thing to turn it to get into his locker—he was stunned when he came back to school on Monday and discovered that the cleaning staff doesn't scrub down all the lockers—but when I got into this the substance of choice was ink.
I think it happened to me four times before I finally retaliated, and Joe was largely involved in this one as well, though I don't believe he was the only one. I can attest that when you're actually—what's the word I'm looking for here, vandalizing, I guess?—when you're actually vandalizing the person's locker, it actually feels good to be taking action. But there is a saying about mistaking action for progress. Whatever I felt I gained at the time I lost because, frankly, behaving that way just felt wrong. And with the small number of people involved, it's not like it was any secret who was doing what to who, and it just escalated things. Responding in kind was never productive.
Around the time of the stupid and deservedly destined to be forgotten ink wars, there were a few times when I discovered a mess in my locker. Someone was splashing or spitting liquid into my locker through the air vent slots at the top. Not water, either, that'd be too easy. It was tea or juice or soda, something that left a sticky mess behind, running down the inside of the locker door and getting on my jacket and textbooks.
I had to resort to taking a sheet of paper and taping it over the air vent. I did notice one day that it was discolored a bit, like it had gotten wet and then dried, but it kept everything contained, so I considered that a victory. A few days later Joe saw the paper taped in place when I was getting my books in the morning, and he commented on it, eyeing it thoughtfully. When I dropped my books off before lunch that same day, there were little tears in the paper, like someone had tried to poke at it through the slots with an ink pen.
With Joe around, this was daily life. You never knew what little indignity was coming next.
At least Joe rarely got into physical violence. He did, once or twice, reach out and grab a pinch of my hair and yank. I'd yelp and grab at my head and he'd laugh, because that was funny to him. He also had a very brief (as far as I know) period of swatting people with an open palm, which was more disconcerting than painful, though if he got you in the chest right it could slightly knock the wind out of you. He did that to Jason once and Jason responded by yelling, "I have heart palpitations, you bastard!" and kicking him as hard as he could. Joe laughed that off, but as far as I know he promptly dropped that one from his list of amusements.
On the school bus I once executed a perfect trip on someone who had annoyed me, then instantly felt so bad about it I apologized and helped him back to his feet, passing it off as an accident. He never suspected it was intentional, so... That was a win, I guess? I just don't have what it takes to act that way toward someone. I can't treat people that way on any sort of regular basis. I can't take joy or amusement from it. I don't feel good meeting bad behavior with bad behavior. I can't maintain the contempt for others or the sheer bloody-minded determination it takes to act that way all the time.
But that's me. I can only be myself, and that sort of abuse isn't me, and I take some pride in that. I am not a saint, I am not perfect, I am not blameless. I've never pretended to be. But at least I don't actively abuse others for my own amusement. I've been on the receiving end of that too many times to do that to others.
There's a reason it's called the Golden Rule.
There's the classic image of monsters under the bed, all red eyes and claws and tentacles and sharp teeth, hiding in darkness. That works as metaphor, but the real monsters don't hide in darkness. They're in plain sight, dressed as normal people, looking like normal people, doing normal things, walking beside you at the mall or sitting next to you on the bus or in line behind you at the ATM or sitting in the theater watching the same movie as you. They're not obvious or overt like we want to believe. They're not identifiable by ethnicity or religion or political affiliation. People don't even know they're there.
You don't recognize true monsters as such, even as they consume you.
As bad as I felt I had it at times, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I still had it better than many others, and that I managed to avoid the attention of the worst of the bullies. Some people were the targets of violence on a regular basis. One kid on the bus, Gregory, had this problem. He didn't help himself, though. He'd been ganged up on when he got off the bus more than once. One day he was in the bus in front of us for various reasons, and he smiled and flipped everyone the bird. The next day he was back on our bus, and those same people ganged up on him off the bus again. I don't approve, but how goddamn stupid do you have to be to taunt the animals like that?
The worst I ever saw anyone have it, though, was Bruce. I never knew his last name. He lived near me and got on and off at the same stop. The bus stop was a huge one, sometimes having 30 or so kids getting on or off at once, so when moods turned dark, things could get ugly fast. We were also a trouble stop, and the bus drivers wanted to avoid it. The trailer park—technically mobile home park—had about 450 lots, and though they were never all full at once, that still meant a LOT of kids. Trailer parks have reputations that are, like most things, accurate but often overblown. In middle school a new kid was added to homeroom one day, Danny Dougle I think his name was, and I remember Brian Godlewski excitedly telling James Fath, "Oh god, this is great! He's even worse than us!" One day Danny found out I lived in a trailer park, and he immediately spun to me and asked, "What are you, some kind of scumbag?" And he wasn't even being mean about it. To him, it was a perfectly legitimate question.
But this was years earlier, and I didn't understand the reputation, even as I saw evidence of it. As I recall, Bruce was only around for one year. He was in fourth grade and I was somewhere behind him, I don't remember exactly. Usually when I saw him, he was in tears. I don't blame him. The one that stands out in my mind was on the school bus in the morning, at school, before drop-off. Sometimes kids would tear up the seats, ripping the covering or pulling out the padding or whatever. On this particular morning, the driver had discovered more vandalism, and other kids, close to a dozen of them, fingered Bruce as the culprit. Bruce stood there in the aisle of the bus, tears on his face, a fourth grader, facing an imposing driver who asked him if he did it.
"No," he said, both desperation and resignation in his tone.
"So you're telling the truth and all these other kids are lying?" the driver said, not believing it for a second.
"Yes," he nodded, in the same tone.
"Come with me," the driver said, and turned to escort him to the principal.
The thing is, I am positive that Bruce didn't do it.
The other kids hated Bruce. They absolutely hated him, and I never understood why. Here's an example, just one, of how bad things were for him. I've referred to people being attacked off the bus. Most of us have seen it at least once. This happened to Bruce. A lot.
And it was never just one person doing the attacking.
Picture, if you can, this poor scared fourth grader, who knows what's coming because one or two kids blocked him in his seat so that he couldn't make a break for it, so everyone was waiting for him off the bus. He finally steps off, last kid off the bus, fear in his eyes, and is faced with probably two dozen kids who have formed a semi-circle against the bus, caging him in. They're all elementary school students, first through fifth grade, some smaller than him, some bigger, all hostile. He tries to walk away as the bus leaves, but the sharks have him surrounded. One or two even circled around the bus to cut off the escape route, because this is entirely premeditated. Before he can get too far, they're grabbing at him. He twists away but they get a grip on his jacket and pull him back. "No, please!" he cries, knowing it's futile but pleading anyway, because there's nothing else he can do. One or two kids grab each arm, and now he's really trapped. Surrounded, restrained, nowhere to go, no way to defend himself.
One of the attackers spots a big sturdy stick on the ground, and picks it up, and advances toward Bruce, who starts panicking and fighting like mad to get away, for all the good it does him.
And I walk away, because I don't want to witness this, and what the fuck am I going to do against two dozen kids with bloodlust in their hearts?
Mom heard about the incident later. "There was a lot of blood," she recounted.
I never talked to Bruce, never knew anything about him or what he did. Maybe he provoked the other kids, like Gregory flipping off the other bus, and maybe he didn't, but even if he did, it's not like he was convicted of murder or anything comparable. What could this kid, this poor scared fourth-grader, what the hell could he have possibly done to warrant that sort of attack?
There's nothing. There's no way that was deserved, no explanation you can offer, no filter you can view that through to make it defensible. It was twenty on one and the twenty were armed. It was a bloodthirsty mob. It was brutal and savage. It was violent and bloody.
It was a bunch of elementary school kids.
I'm not sure I'd believe that could actually happen, except that I saw it with my own two eyes.
Maybe there was no reason for it. Maybe Bruce did nothing wrong at all. Maybe it was completely arbitrary.
Wouldn't that make it even worse?
So I knew that as bad as I may have had it, there was always someone worse off. I felt bad for him, but there wasn't a thing I could do, and I was scared that if I made too many waves I could end up being the next one ambushed off the bus by two dozen aspiring monsters, a thought that absolutely scared the shit out of me. I don't know that I could have handled living with that sort of terror hanging over me. I learned early in life the benefits of being invisible, and I got good at it, and I never ended up in a situation like that.
Bruce did, regularly.
He disappeared that summer. Families come and go, and his went. I have no clue where he ended up. I hope things were better for him there. I don't see how they could have been worse.
But I still remember him crying as the bus driver led him off, the kids who framed him yelling and clapping and cheering behind him, proud of getting another one past the adults and that much more confident about successfully doing it again next time, as he was escorted to the principal's office, knowing damn well that no adult, not the driver, not the teachers, not the principal, would ever, ever, ever believe a single word of truth that came out of his mouth.
What kind of an adult do you think Bruce grew up to be?
When it seems the world and everyone in it is against you, when you have no support and are being discouraged on every front, it's so hard to keep your chin up, to hold your head high. It takes a certain mindset to pull that off, and it's not easy to have that level of belief in yourself, to look into your heart and know, despite everything you're hearing and everything you're told, that everyone else in the world is wrong and you are right. Truly, to stake out that position and hold it against the entire world, you have to be just a little bit crazy.
Fortunately, "just a little bit crazy" has never been a problem for me.
The details of how this came about are lost in the mists of time, but some of my friends, or friendly acquaintances, talked a bit about some sort of kart racing that they did from time to time, the exact details of which I have since forgotten, and one day Joe extended an invitation for me to come along.
This surprised me, and I think my hesitancy and perhaps even suspicion was less than appealing, but in the end I agreed. Times were set, rides were arranged, and I was ready to go.
The scheduled time came.
The scheduled time went.
Half an hour later, I get a phone call from Joe, and he doesn't sound like himself. Quiet and hesitant and barely audible, it was like pulling teeth to get him to say anything. I've never heard him like that, before or since. There wasn't much rhyme or reason to what he said or the information he gave, but the one thing that was clear was that he couldn't make it and the excursion was cancelled. I had already gathered as much, but at least someone did bother to tell me.
My reaction was twofold: I was disappointed, and at the same time I was relieved.
I had wanted to go, but there was some part of me that spent the entire time leading up to that call worrying that there was something else going on, some hidden agenda that I wasn't privy to. Frankly, the invitation was so uncharacteristic that I was concerned I was being set up. The fear that I was going to be made a fool of in some way never quite faded, and with the event cancelled, I at least knew that wasn't going to happen.
Feeling like you just dodged a bullet is not the normal way to react when plans get cancelled, is it?
A few days later a mutual friend quietly pulled me aside and told me that Joe was out with friends that night and whatever he told me about why he couldn't go out was a pack of lies.
I appreciated being told, but really couldn't be bothered to care.
I was on the high school baseball team in tenth and eleventh grade. I would not describe my talent at baseball as being anything special, or indeed adequate. In the years since I've read in a Bill James book a comment someone in the early 20th-century made about the fielding prowess of an outfielder. I don't recall it verbatim, but the comment was that you'd be better off with a wooden Indian from a tobacco shop in the outfield because there was always the chance that the ball would strike the Indian and bounce back toward the infield and hold the batter to a double. That was a bit closer to my talent level.
I spent a lot of time in the outfield during practice catching fly balls, during which time I progressed from butcher to merely appalling. One time we had a practice going where the team was going through different situations, and there were like seven people in the outfield. It wasn't a realistic game situation, but it was important for the infielders to practice situations and know how to react. During this, one batter ripped a single up the middle. I was running over to cut it off when, from behind me, Bobby Skasko called, "I got it." I was maybe three steps from the ball's path and nearly would have had to jump over it to miss it, so I scooped it up anyway and tossed it back in. Bobby was thrilled, in the sense of making a vague threat of physical violence, something calm but ominous, along the lines of, "If you do that to me again, you'd better watch your back." Something like that, I forget exactly. Really made me feel like part of the team.
In two years on the team I played in one game, a junior varsity game played on a Saturday morning. I played two innings in centerfield without anything hit toward me, and in one at bat I struck out on three pitches. After the game assistant coach Falzone told me that I wouldn't be playing any more unless I got my hair cut. I always wondered if I'd have gotten a different speech if I'd hit a home run in my one at bat. I also wondered why they would never just come out and tell me I wasn't good enough. At least that reason would have legitimacy.
Coach Kolmansberger hated my long hair and was adamant that I get it cut. I asked him why one time, and got a bunch of generic "Is that a baseball player or a guitar player" crap. That was in 1993, the year the Phillies made it to the World Series but lost when Mitch Williams gave up the famous home run to Joe Carter. Mitch did his best to get Carter our, he really did, but his hair was just too damn long.
Still, while I was hardly overflowing with respect for Kolmansberger I had a bit more respect for him than I did for Falzone. The incident that has always stood out in my mind was a home game where Bobby Skasko got the start in centerfield. This was rare; in eighteen games in tenth grade I think Kolmansberger only started ten different people. There were the starters, and then there was everyone else. But Bobby had talent and showmanship and on this day he got the start.
Unfortunately, it didn't go well. He badly misplayed three fly balls in three innings and got pulled. He had such a look of misery and embarrassment on his face as he got benched. After the game, as we were walking back into the school, Kolmansberger was yelling at him, but he was making salient points as well. If you're going to wear sunglasses during the game you have to wear them during practice, you need to concentrate on being a ballplayer rather than just looking like a ballplayer, that sort of thing. Bobby just took it, clearly trying to fight back tears. There will be no mockery from me about that. A high school kid gets a chance to prove himself, messes up badly, gets chewed out in front of the team... It's a natural reaction. I'd been near tears myself more than once in school for various reasons. When emotions run high, these things happen.
Kolmansberger had finally had his say and wrapped up, and Falzone was there, lurking on the edges, and when he realized Kolmansberger was done, he decided it was time to put his own two cents in.
"Maybe you think you're better than you are, but you're not!" Falzone snapped, and then moved to catch up with Kolmansberger.
That statement was so ridiculous and pointless and gratuitous that I nearly broke into open laughter, which would have been a disaster. You don't laugh when a teammate is getting ripped by the coaches. But that sentence...
Here's a high school kid who is nearly in tears. He screwed up and he knows it. He just got chewed out by the head coach and everyone on the team saw it. And then there's Falzone, making his asinine comment. Never mind how stupid what he said was, never mind that it makes no sense—by definition no one is better than they are—never mind that it provided no useful information or advice to the person he directed it to. Here's an adult, a grown man, just waiting for a chance to pounce on the wounded, to get his own cheap shot in, not being helpful, not being constructive, just taking full gleeful advantage of an opportunity to belittle a kid who made a mistake. Whatever respect I may have had for Falzone completely evaporated that day.
What chance did kids have against bullying when even the adults in charge engaged in it?
Of all the lies that parents tell their kids—"I promise I'll be there to protect you forever," "Crime doesn't pay," all the nonsense about Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and various gods—the most incorrect and most harmful is this: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me."
Other people can use sticks and stones to beat you up.
Only words can make you beat yourself up.
Just a number.
It's an approximate number, which varies slightly from source to source based on the guidelines set. Some go with 4,000, some 4,600. Others have similar numbers. We'll go with 4,400, middle of the road.
4,400 is the estimated number of young people, generally defined as ages 10-24, who commit suicide annually.
Yes, there are suicide statistics on kids as young as ten years old.
Bruce was ten.
4,400 people who choose to take their own lives rather than go on. It's the third most common cause of death among youth.
Just a number, just a statistic.
Every one of them is a life.
Among youth, about one in seven consider it. One in fourteen attempt it.
Thankfully, I never made it to the second group.
Now, let me interrupt myself here—I don't want to overstate how this applies to me. If the scale goes from zero for "Never even thought about it" to ten for "The barrel of the loaded gun is already in my mouth," I'd barely be at one. The thought would wander into my head, and I'd reject it pretty much immediately. Things were bad, but they could be worse. And I knew in my heart that of all the paths available to me, suicide was by far the most stupid, the most pointless, the most misdirected. It doesn't solve anything. It doesn't address the problems or the grief. It doesn't fix what's broken. It doesn't make anything better. It doesn't prove anything to anyone.
In Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore interviewed Matt Stone, of South Park fame, about the shootings at Columbine a few years earlier, and Matt made this observation: "You wish someone could have grabbed them, and said, 'Dude, high school's not the end of— a year and a half or a year was it [until graduation]... You're done. It's amazing how fast you lose touch with all those people."
That was something that I never lost sight of. High school is the beginning of adulthood, not the end, and ultimately there would be little left of this stage of life other than a line or two on a resume that might get glanced at in passing before the job interview. In the long run, what your high school classmates think of you doesn't mean shit. Nothing that happens at high school, no matter how big and important and world-shattering and life-changing it seems at the time, is worth dying over. Yes, there were people I disliked, and yes, there were people I wanted to get away from forever.
But that would come naturally. It's called "graduation."
So the thought would drift into mind in my darker moments, and maybe for a moment or two I'd listen to what it whispered in my ear, but I always punted it pretty quickly. I never thought about it for any significant length of time. I never seriously thought about it at all. I never attempted it, never planned how I'd do it.
I did wonder how people would react if I did.
I wondered if anyone else would feel guilty. I wondered how I'd be remembered, or if I'd be remembered. But then the thought would come that I wanted to be remembered, and not for that. I would give people a reason to remember me. Not sure I've provided it yet, but I'm still working on it. I'm not done yet.
We've all heard the phrase "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Committing suicide means the bastards won.
I'd take my lumps, I'd lose rounds here and there, but with every fiber of my being I was determined to never, ever let the bastards win.
I knew I'd never be part of the popular groups.
4,400 young people a year.
I'd never be part of that group either.
People say everything happens for a reason. This is true, if we accept "Some people are abusive assholes" as a valid reason, or if we accept "God does cruel and hurtful things because he has to" as a valid reason.
People say everything happens for a higher purpose. This is bullshit of the highest level.
People say that whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger. This is the same sentiment phrased differently, meant to either provide comfort for those in bad situations by suggesting that something good will come out of the crap they're going through, or to be used as a justification by the people causing that crap to suggest that their hurtful actions are somehow benefiting their victims.
The truth is, some things happen for no reason at all. There's no guiding hand, no predetermined goal, no answer to be divined at the end of the ride.
Some situations will come up where all you can do is ride out the storm.
When it comes to reputations, people don't have a lot of control. Obviously I can't say for certain what other people thought of me. It's tempting to say "Not much." I clearly wasn't well liked, but I know there was some sort of odd respect for me. I had a reputation for honesty, and for having a rather squeaky clean character, the extent of which I wasn't truly aware of until one time in homeroom with Joe and Jeff and Ed when I used the word "bullshit" in regards to something and all three of them immediately forgot about whatever they were doing and looked at me in shock. If homeroom had a soundtrack, that would have been the moment where the needle dragged across the record and fell into silence. I couldn't believe how much that shocked them. I fear if I'd dropped a "motherfucker" on them one or more may have dropped dead. But I didn't curse much. I did for rare emphasis, but it wasn't part of my regular vocabulary. I've loosened up a bit since then, but I still don't overly rely on expletives to communicate. I certainly didn't drop them on people at random.
Well, except for one incident that I'm truly not proud of... But I'll address that one at another time.
But that seemed to be a large part of my reputation. Quiet. Honest. Not one to make waves. Objective. That seemed to follow me into adulthood. When some people at my first full-time job were upset about a coworker's behavior, the supervisor specifically asked my opinion, openly stating that I generally stayed out of the politicking and other such bullshit and could give an unbiased answer. (That supervisor was fired a few months later for gross incompetence, however, so take that with a grain of salt.) I was myself, and the hell with people who didn't like it. But it wasn't something I tried to take advantage of. What's the purpose of being a good person if you're going to exploit it to do bad things? I was never a nice veneer hiding something more horrible underneath and I was never a full-time actor pretending to be what was expected of me. I was who I chose to be, and never made a secret of it, and people could like or hate me for me, not a constructed mask.
There were three times in my life, just three, that I recall consciously taking advantage of people's perception of me to get away with things I should never have gotten away with. Two were in high school, and Joe was peripherally involved in one.
I can't claim to be at all proud of the first one. My parents' work schedule being what it was, for just one summer both parents worked first shift and there was no way my sister and I were going to be left home alone for nine hours at a time, so we were in day care for much of the summer.
So we were in daycare, along with Brandon Labar, who was in my grade and lived within walking distance of us and was a friend, so it wasn't as lonely or uncomfortable as it could have been. But there were, obviously, lots of other kids, and they were all younger than us. The daycare didn't accept kids above a certain age, and I was right at the upper age limit, unlike just about everyone else.
I don't remember exactly what led to it, but one day a kid named Giles was really annoying me. It was something stupid like throwing balls of paper at me, I don't recall exactly. I was in a mood over some damn thing and asked him to stop. Several times I asked him. He wouldn't do it.
(Jesus Christ, why the hell are there always jerks who insist on bothering people who just want to be goddamn left alone?)
At some point he did it again, and I snapped. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. I had simply had it with other people's crap and was done with quietly tolerating it. I turned my full attention to him and stood up.
And give him credit, he knew instantly that he was in trouble. The look in my eyes must have been something to behold, because his eyes went wide in shock and then fear, and then he did the smartest thing I ever saw him do: He turned and ran.
Now, I easily have two to three years on this kid, and I've always been tall for my age, so I caught up with him fast. In my head I knew I didn't want to throw him to the ground and punch him or anything like that, so without even thinking about it as I caught up with him on about my third step, I simply reared back and kicked him in the ass absolutely as hard as I could.
This was no glancing blow, either. I got him from behind, right between the legs, so hard that I lifted him about a foot off the ground. He tumbled to the ground and looked up at me, tears already forming in his eyes, pain and hurt on his face.
I turned and sat back down and calmly resumed what I had been doing as if there had been no interruption. After all, I just wanted to be left alone.
My kick was witnessed by two other girls who were, with me and Brandon, the oldest kids in the place, and they reported me, shocked and disbelieving at what I had done, and the only reason, literally the only reason I got away with it was that the people in charge simply could not believe that I would do such a thing. I was rather surprised myself, but I just pled ignorance—the look of disbelief that graced the other girls' faces after THAT claim was so impressive and genuine that I still can't believe it didn't convince the people in charge.
Ultimately I didn't even get a slap on the wrist. Giles learned an important lesson that day, though whether that lesson was "Let sleeping dogs lie" or "Authority figures can't be trusted" I couldn't say.
And Giles never bothered me again.
The second was in high school over, all things, a deck of cards. To pass the time during homeroom and study periods in high school, we had taken to playing pitch. Decks of cards were theoretically forbidden, but we quickly learned what teachers were strict about it and which simply didn't care and would tend to congregate in the study halls of whatever teachers would let us play. Some of the best time and biggest laughs we got in high school came from these games; I'll spare you the recounting of individual hands..
One day, for whatever reason, we were without cards. I didn't have my deck—it had been confiscated by the principal, Mr. Costello, and I got it back from him at the end of the day with the promise I wouldn't bring cards again, so I left my deck at home for two or three weeks just to play it safe. I don't know why no one else had their decks. Joe had one, but he'd left it in his car. We both had regular classes first period, but mine had a substitute so Joe struck on the brainstorm of me going out to his car and getting the deck so we could play later that morning, since we both knew the substitute I was going to have generally ran classes like a study period. I'd ask to go to the restroom, run out to the car, get the cards, and we'd be in business.
It occurred to me even at the time that it was his deck of cards but I'd be the one getting in all the trouble if something went wrong, so I'm really not sure why I agreed to it, unless it was me simply taking the path of least resistance. He gave me his car key and midway through first period I got permission to go to the restroom and I went out to Joe's car on a dreary, drizzly morning and got his cards.
And as I walked back into the school, damn if Mr. Costello wasn't walking across the lobby, eyeing me strangely.
He'd clearly seen me, so there was no point in pretending otherwise. There was certainly no point in trying to sneak in another door or anything like that. A guilty look would have done me in. So I did the only thing I could. As I entered the school, I looked right at him and casually said, "Hi, Mr. Costello," as if it was the most natural thing in the world for me to be strolling into school 45 minutes late. He came to a stop and looked really baffled and said hello back, eyeing me strangely as I kept pace and walked back to the classroom as if nothing was wrong.
I never heard another word about this incident.
The last was the only completely premeditated one, and it came from knowing who I was dealing with, because I wouldn't have attempted this with just anyone. In 11th grade I took AP Literature, which was taught by Mr. Sassi. He was not the most on-the-ball teacher I ever had. His tests were at least fifth-generation photocopies of manual typewriter sheets, complete with double strikes and sometimes entire lines X'ed out. Mike Zuba talked about how his corner of the room did the tests as a group and he once handed a test in written in three different colors of ink and multiple handwritings after Mr. Sassi wandered to the back of the room and found him with no papers on his desk at all, and he still got a 91%. I don't know how exaggerated that recounting was, but with Mr. Sassi it certainly wasn't impossible.
At the end of the year we had to do a term paper. I had an idea in mind, but came to the conclusion that writing the paper was pointless, because I honestly didn't believe he'd read the whole thing. His class was one where people tended to get the same grades on everything they handed on. He wasn't as bad as Mr. Deice, who I was told by multiple people was once provided with word-for-word identical papers by Michael Lello and Ross Fee because they wanted to test his grading, and Mike got a 92% while Ross got a 79%. Still, there was a certain sense of futility in putting the effort in. Mike Zuba's sister had been valedictorian a few years earlier and Mike said he was just going to hand in her paper with his name on it.
I decided I wasn't even going to do that much.
There were some teachers I never would have attempted this with, but in this case I was confident. People handed in the papers over a span of time, so Mr. Sassi periodically read out the names of students who had handed their papers in. One day he did this, and obviously he skipped my name, and then asked if he missed anyone. I said nothing. That day after lunch I raced to my next classroom, because it was along the hall that everybody returning from lunch had to pass through. I waited until I saw Mr. Sassi in the crowd and then flagged him down and told him that he had skipped my name even though I'd handed my paper in. He looked confused, then asked me what my paper was about. I told him the subject I had originally selected before I had decided not to write it. He looked thoughtful and said he wasn't sure but that kind of rang a bell and he'd check his records again. I thanked him and he continued down the hall to his class.
That was the sum total of work I did on my term paper.
I got a B+.
See, as horrible as school was at times, it wasn't the relentless black pit of despair I've been painting here. There were moments that were good, things that I can look back on and smile. And as bad as things sometimes were, as much as the bad is still there somewhere inside me, I choose to focus on the good.
I remember a game of pitch where it was me and Jeff Haddick and I think Ed, and we needed a fourth, so a freshman in the study hall, I have no idea who he was, joined in, and he was winning late in the game, and he commented, "Imagine if a freshman beats all you seniors! Imagine how mad you'd be!" to which I instantly responded, "Imagine your lifeless body washing ashore miles down the Susquehanna River several days from now," and then we took a long unscheduled break because all of us except the freshman were laughing so hard we were nearly crying.
I remember us turning Donnie Collins' over-the-top silly articles written just for fun in 11th grade Journalism class and scaling them down into actual articles published in the actual school paper in 12th grade, such as the one about the school budget including funding for a 96,000-seat domed stadium for the football team, a firearms test range in the courtyard, vending machines in every classroom, and nearly $20 for textbooks and supplies, which is probably more sadly accurate than we realized at the time. The best part was all the students who stopped us in the halls and asked us if the things we claimed in the article were true.
I remember universally-reviled chemistry teacher Mrs. Roberts, who once took 21 points off me on an eight-question test for a single problem which I had the correct answer on, who failed her entire Honors class on the midterm, every single student, and how much absolutely everyone hated her, including parents. She and the principal had a meeting with Mike Lello and his father where she said, "Your son has learned plenty in my class," to which his father responded, "The only think my son has learned in your class is that he should have taken zoology!" Mr. Hogan heard us trashing her one day and asked who we were talking about, and when we told him he sneered, "Oh, the Shark Lady," and left us to continue trashing her. I heard one female student, barely five feet tall, saying "I want to stomp on her little head," and another student, cheery and non-violent, once announcing, "I want to see her in pain." It was reassuring knowing that it wasn't just me, that I was far from alone in how much I despised her.
I remember Mrs. Roberts giving a rapid-fire badly-explained summary of how she solved one of the problems in our chemistry book, and asking if we had any questions, and David Lentowski, sitting behind me, the person who once described his perfect definition of hell as being stuck in Mrs. Roberts' double-period of chemistry with five minutes left in the class but the clock never ever moves, tapping me on the shoulder and whispering with a helpless laugh, "Yeah, I got a question. What the hell are you talking about?" and then me sitting there for the next five minutes desperately trying to keep a straight face because open laughter would get me in so much trouble.
I remember one of the two times I left school early, once skipping out on a study period and once skipping a band concert, I forget which one this was, but I didn't want to get flagged down by a teacher asking why I was leaving, because I didn't have permission. Dave Lentowski, who may or may not have had permission to leave early, agreed to give me a ride at least to get me off school grounds. We got in his car and backed out of the parking space, and out of nowhere Mike Krzak ran up and leaped onto the hood on got down on his hands and knees and started growling at us through the windshield. Dave said, "What the hell? Get off my car. Get off my car!" But he was laughing so hard in disbelief that his words didn't have much authority behind them, and we stayed like that, watching Mike growl at us, until a teacher, I think Mr. Turco, asked Mike what in the world he was doing. Mike got off the hood, looking guilty, and as soon as he was out of the way Dave gunned it and we got the hell out of there.
I remember sitting in homeroom and some student came in and talked to Mr. Hogan for a bit, just random silliness, and then he left, and Mr. Hogan looked out at us and spat, "What is it about me that attracts idiots?"
I remember watching a video in Mr. Schwartz's Civilizations class and in the middle of it he randomly walked up to the VCR and pushed a button and the video stopped and the tape ejected, and he remarked, "Oh, so that's what that button does," then pushed it back in and resumed the video and sat back down without another word.
I remember that same class where we were supposed to take notes on the current events summary that was aired on Mondays on the internal school tv system, usually taped directly off CNN, and me and Marcy Morreale would spend the class passing the same paper back and forth, him writing about important current news stories like "Lance Ito kicks everyone's ASS," and me writing back about important current news stories like "Increased cattle mutilations in Florida, Wyoming, Eastern Kentucky traced to alien pranksters from Andromeda Galaxy; President urges tolerance." This class counted toward our GPA. We both got A's.
I remember the accelerated PACE class being taught in seventh and eighth grade by Mr. Caputo, who with elementary school teacher Ms. Biga were the two best teachers I ever had, and how there was a stretch where the girls in the class kept interrupting the class by asking inane questions and going on pointless tangents, to the point where some of us boys decided to make our opinions on the matter clear. I forget whose idea it was initially, but me and Dave Dudzinski and Mike Lello prepared, and we got some of the other boys in the class onboard, and one day, and when the girls starting asking some dumb questions (actual verbatim example: "So, like, if a boat is sinking, shouldn't you like go to the highest point of it and everything?"), in an eyeblink nearly half the class was holding up sheets of paper over their heads that read "SO WHAT?" and "WHO CARES?" in big bold letters. This went on for weeks. Judging by his laughter I think Mr. Caputo found it hysterical but was too good a guy to throw the girls under the bus by openly admitting it.
I remember the school cafeteria serving hoagies with lunchmeat of such low quality that I pulled it off the bun and just at the cheese, lettuce, and tomato, and then Jeff Haddick and I played Frisbee with a baloney slice, still sitting in our chairs, until I airmailed it over his head and the baloney landed right at the feet of Ms. Mundenar, who angrily picked it up and stormed over to us and right past us and over to the next table where she stood over them and chewed them out for playing around yet again and wasting food and she had had it with them and they'd better stop messing around or she wouldn't be so lenient next time. I think the main reason the people at that table didn't get madder at us over that incident was that they could tell we were just as surprised as they were.
I also remember a plan to get back at Joe a bit in my own non-abusive manner that fell through due to, of all things, a seating arrangement. We were in the National Honor Society, and they had their big annual induction ceremony and dog and pony show, and it had a lot of unwarranted gravitas. Senior year it was run by Mr. Riccetti. During rehearsals he would read the induction ceremony wording that the students were supposed to repeat, and they had a hell of a time hearing him, and he finally announced, "On the night of the ceremony, repeat after me. If you can't hear what I say, fake it." Pragmatic and practical, everything the previous year's guy, Mr. Waszczak, wasn't. I appreciated that.
After everyone said or faked the appropriate words, he would announce, "Congratulations. You are now members of the National Honor Society." Joe sat right next to me in alphabetical order, and I planned, at that moment during the actual ceremony, to lean over to him and whisper, "Big fucking deal." Remember I once derailed an entire conversation with a single expletive, and it wasn't an F-bomb. Me saying that in the middle of the ceremony would have been like David Lentowski's comment to me in chemistry times a hundred, and Joe would have been front and center before the entire audience and he'd have to sit there and try to keep a straight face. It would have been beautiful. Unfortunately, we were a bit too front and center. The seats were split with a walkway in the center, and we ended up on opposite sides of the gap so there was no way I could do that. Sometimes things just don't work out.
So there were a lot of good moments too, moments I enjoyed, moments I look back on fondly, and I really feel that needed to be made clear. As with all things, there's good and bad, and ultimately we focus on what we want to focus on. The negative is still there, but I mostly focus on the positive.
Not long after that came graduation, held on the football field. My main memories of that were Dave Dudzinski's valedictorian speech being pre-recorded; Mr. Costello interrupting the ceremony because there were beach balls being bounced around and he wouldn't tolerate that, which is further evidence that no matter where you go or what you do you will find there is a balding graying fat old white man in a suit who will tell you you're not allowed to have fun; and the ceremony's ending, which was supposed to consist of the graduates forming two lines and walking over to the helium balloons and encircling the net they were under, then releasing the balloons to end the graduation, only some genius put Mike Panunti and Nabeel Hamad in the front of the two lines, which in this context is a lot like putting Beavis and Butthead there, so the moment the lines started to form they both broke into a full sprint across the football field to try to be the first to release the balloons, which were all disappearing into the sky before a quarter of the students had even begun to queue up.
That night, in a nice gesture that was largely motivated by trying to keep the new graduates sober and off the street, the school arranged an all-night party with music and games and so on. I kicked ass at the blackjack tables to the point where Mr. Calabrese, who was dealing at one table, stopped bothering to count the photocopied money and was simply handing me stacks of approximately equal height. At the end there was a raffle, and I won a really warm blanket with a faux Indian pattern on one side that I still have; it's sitting behind me as I type this. I said goodbyes to various people I wanted to say goodbye to. I specifically remember Roxane Policare saying she'd miss making me laugh in Civilizations class—a number of us found that entire class to be a riot and we had kept each other amused a lot of the time. As I recall, I got a ride home with Steve Lukasik. I got in his car and we drove away and the last event of high school ended. I'd never see most of my former classmates ever again. The thought was melancholy but it still made me smile.
As glad as I was to be done with school, I wasn't ready yet for it. I went home and didn't even go inside. I tucked the blanket, still in its plastic packaging, behind the heating oil tank and walked from my home in the barely-post-dawn sun through the back trails in the woods that have since been bulldozed, past the culm bank (Boney pile? Slag heap?) of mining waste from decades earlier, across the Eighth Street Bridge and all the way to the Midway Shopping Center, where I ate a breakfast of pancakes at McDonald's and tried to absorb that high school was over, that grade school was over, that this requirement that had been expected of us for thirteen years, back to the point when we were just five years old, was over. The future was wide open, and anything could happen.
It was a bit overwhelming, actually.
College followed. I went to Penn State, and from time to time saw a few of my former grade school classmates who also attended Penn State. The group of guys I was with my first semester in the dorms was brilliant. College seniors said they'd never seen a dorm like ours. It was great and I loved it. At the end of the semester I was voted strangest person on the floor, which I took as high praise. This really should have been a clear fresh start for me.
But what I realize is that I'd spent years, literally years, trying to be invisible, and those habits didn't break easily. I didn't even realize they were still there for the longest time. I didn't go out much. I didn't meet people. I didn't get involved in things. I was largely a cipher, drifting through college without being involved. My social skills were still shit. I went to the dorm Michael Lello was in and called him from the dorm lobby to see if he was in and I'd end up talking with him on the phone for 30 minutes instead of simply going up one floor and saying hi. This happened on at least three separate occasions. He must have thought I was an idiot.
I remember a few years into college, once I became aware of my social problems, talking with Kaitlin, a friend who I only knew online (and while I don't regret my online friends at all, the fact that my best friends in college were on the internet says a lot). She encouraged me to get involved, to go out and meet people and do things, and I remember telling her point blank, "I don't know how." How ridiculous, how sad and pathetic, is that? But it was true. I've learned a lot since then, grown a lot since then, but at the time social interaction largely eluded me. So many opportunities at college that I let slip by.
And I'm not directly blaming Joe or anyone else for this. I simply didn't take advantage of the resources and the opportunities that were available, and that's all on me. But I had learned to live and act a certain way to survive high school, and I couldn't simply flip a switch and behave differently once I had a clean slate in a new environment. I let the scars of high school hold me back once I got to college.
I wouldn't want to go back to high school, wouldn't want to live those years over. But I really wish I could go back and take another crack at college.
I learned better social skills, made a new set of friends, got out and learned to live life a bit, things I should have been doing all along but had to learn later than normal. I periodically exchanged emails with John Dziak, who was 100% correct when he told me I'd never forget how to spell his last name if I could just remember the phrase "Dead Zebras In A Kiosk," but for the most part high school and the people I knew there were a vague memory best left forgotten. I had written a story once that never came together and was never finished, but the main character was a thinly veiled me, and it started with not-me unenthusiastically attending his 20-year class reunion at a friend's insistence and making a comment about wondering why he was willingly exposing himself to people he was thrilled to get away from forever back in 1995. That was pretty much how I felt about it in general. It was a closed chapter in my life and I was happy to keep it that way.
Then one day, that changed with a friend request on Facebook from a former high school classmate. Of all people, it was Joe who sent the request.
I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to reopen that door. I sat on the request for several days, possibly more than a week. Good memories and bad, people I would like to catch up with and people who could drop dead and I wouldn't have cared a bit. When I wrote the line about the reunion in my story, I was thinking specifically of Joe. Did I want to risk the shit I'd had to deal with for years?
In the end, I accepted the request. Through all the various factors, what it eventually came down to was the understanding that it had been over a decade and he could very well have matured since high school. Most of us do, after all. And we weren't in real time so not only could he not throw gum at me but if he was still an unrepentant dick I could just unfriend him and he'd be out of my life again. From there we interacted, not very regularly but we got along okay. He never threw the old nicknames at me, which I took as a sign of increased maturity.
See, it's pointless to spend your life carrying petty childhood grudges, carrying anger about shit that happened decades ago. Grudges don't harm the person you hold the grudge against. That person probably doesn't even know, much less care, that someone is holding a grudge against them. Holding a grudge just hurts yourself. You chain yourself to the past, a tether to something that is purely negative, and you carry all these harmful feelings, anger and bitterness and hostility, and if you do it too much the harmful feelings consume you and you lose what's good in yourself to this petty nonsense that doesn't matter. It's over. It doesn't matter anymore. Honestly, it probably didn't matter that much back then.
I've got people on my friends list that I have ugliness with in my past. There's one person who made some cruel comments about a car accident my father had which I was a passenger in the car for, who, when I confronted him about his comments, literally was open-mouthed and speechless in pure shock, then recovered and spent three full minutes lying through his teeth that he'd completely forgotten about it as soon as I'd mentioned it. I'm sorry if I'm overly cynical, but when you spend all day with someone and call them two hours later to tell them you were in an accident on the way home and the car ended up on its side, you don't just forget that. I once seriously pissed him off by making an insensitive comparison between him and someone else that clearly offended him. Hell, one of my best friends in the world is Steve Shives, and we've literally gone months at a time without talking to each other on multiple occasions because of shit that went down between us, though we've both matured a lot since then and those days should remain forever in the past. I'm sure other people have memories of me acting improperly or behaving insultingly that I was never even aware were an issue.
But shit happens, and if you're mature you don't let these little things tear you up. You forgive and, well, clearly not necessarily forget, but you put it in its proper perspective and you accept that neither you nor your friends are perfect and you still get along with them. But if someone hurts you or takes advantage of you, even if you forgive, you should never forget, or you open yourself up to be hurt or taken advantage of again. If you let some elementary school incident stand in your way, you're an idiot. Forgiving is important. But forgetting is a mistake.
Forgiving is not always easy, but as long as both parties learn from what happened and don't keep making the same mistakes, all is good. That's the nature of friendships. That's largely the nature of human interaction in general. And in that spirit, I didn't see the point of refusing the request based on things that went down a decade earlier. I haven't forgotten, but I'm not letting those memories make my decisions for me.
So I accepted Joe's friend request, and from his friends list I found other people from high school I decided to send friend requests to, and others I wouldn't friend unless human lives depended on it. I'm back in regular contact with a lot of good people as a result of this and I don't regret my decision at all.
To err is human, to forgive divine.
Except... Sometimes, to forgive is to err.
It went south quick. I blame 9/11.
On the twelfth anniversary of 9/11, I posted a fairly long post about remembering that day and comparing the drums of war then to the drums of war from those who wanted to bomb Syria. I was reflecting on 9/11, and parallels that still exist today.
And there's Joe, responding to me, and his second sentence is "There's no denying the hoax of that day." Without getting into detail on this, I should make clear that I feel conspiracy theorists are generally pretty sad, but the whole 9/11 "Truth" movement in particular is insulting and offensive. Planes hit buildings, thousands of people died, and there are those who insist that the US government killed them, that the planes didn't have passengers but the passengers died elsewhere anyway, just an appalling mishmash of incoherent nonsense that doesn't really provide any alternative picture. Joe's clearly onboard with this. He's not making any actual argument. He's just saying that the existing picture we all believe is wrong.
We went back and forth, and a few videos were posted, I'll spare you the details. Steve Shives, who has addressed this issue as well, jumped in as well, but Joe just kept offering insights like "The facts are out there. Its not too late" and "The media is so controlled its not funny. Like I said, this DEEP. And not for everyone" and of course the all-time classic, "It was physically impossible to bring those towers with a single plane. And explain WTC 7!"
Um... Massive unchecked fire damage and gravity?
Anyway, that thread petered out, but I made a snarky reference or two in other places to conspiracy theories and some other extreme conservative nonsense.
About a week later, I posted an image with the central point that Congress is making its decisions about guns based not on the people who are getting shot and killed, but rather based on who's contributing to their campaigns. Joe had a comment on that as well.
"You sound like one of those wacko conspiracy theorist people," he said.
"No, no I don't," I responded, but he was unmoved, so I posted, "Okay, we'll do this the hard way," and decided to spell it out. My response was nearly 800 words and covered in some detail, mostly clearly spelling out, the correlation between campaign contributions and how those who receive those contributions vote. It explained cause and effect, and how there is a clear causation in this matter, on gun control and fracking and other issues that shouldn't be at all controversial but are anyway. It explained the importance of presenting a clear argument in this manner to make a point, as opposed to asking random questions with no coherent central theme. It explained how "wacko conspiracy theorist people" fail on all these fronts, and they will continue to be known as wacko conspiracy theorists until they can meet these criteria and satisfy basic logical rigor.
This was all a bit too much for Joe to handle, or at least too much for him to bother with trying to handle. Instead:
"LOOK WHAT I CAN DO! Have fun typing all that out?"
And that was it.
I was a bit annoyed and that came across in my response, because his response so entirely missed any of the points I was making that I can't be sure he even read it. My response basically advised him to try to address the issue with facts instead of name-calling.
His response back to me began with "Wow. You're no fun," accused me of being condescending toward him, added, "you're just being dick," stated my treatment of him was "unacceptable," and wrapped up with "I'm disappointed in you. Not that you care what anyone has ever thought about you, obviously."
And then he unfriended me.
I posted a response, and I sent it to him as a message on Facebook as well. I won't go into it all, but this was the last paragraph of what I sent him:
"I do find it interesting that you accuse me of being condescending after I responded to your post that consisted only of "LOOK WHAT I CAN DO! Have fun typing all that out?" And I do care what some people think of me, but not everyone. If I cared what everyone thought of me, I would never have made it through high school. Think back on high school and various interactions that went on between classmates and ask yourself which people were being dicks and which people just wanted to be left alone. For how little respect I got from most people back then, if I was driven by what everyone thought of me, I'd've broken, or turned a gun on myself or my classmates, or some other terrible outcome. Fortunately I was smart enough to understand something that some people never figure out: It doesn't matter what most people think of you, it only matters what you think of yourself. And I knew I was better than what most people thought of me, and I got through, and I am still proud of being myself and being someone I can think positively of. And if that involves deriding conspiracy theorists, I'm okay with that. And if it involves being considered a dick by conspiracy theorists, fine, conspiracy theorists have already shown how much their opinions are worth by being conspiracy theorists. And if you think that makes me no fun, well, Joe, what can I say. I'm not here for your amusement. Never have been."
I wondered if he'd get it, if he'd read between any of the lines at all. I was a lot more open than I expected to be, but it wasn't in neon lights. It was subtle. Would any of this get through? I hoped it would, but I didn't expect it.
The first sentence of his response to me could break the irony meter.
"You sir," he wrote to me, "are acting like an ass."
A few other highlights?
"Lumping me in with whatever it is that has you so damn personally pissed off at every conspiracy theorist that ever lived is what's bothering me." Yes, Joe, because you being a conspiracy theorist is why I'm so damn personally pissed off.
"First of all, back the fuck off." Advice given but never taken.
"And the only real reason I even entertained the idea of responding to this message is because through it all I value friendships regardless of how distant or physical in nature they currently may be. I treat people how in return I would feel comfortable with if I were treated the same by that person." Wait, you treat people like—You mean that—What? Would you want to be treated like—Wait, WHAT?! What the FUCK?!
By the time I got to "Its clear I held you in higher regard than you could have ever thought of me," I was numb to the whole thing.
"Fuck this," I decided, and didn't respond, and that should have been the end of it.
Long out of college, away from all the people who I was so glad to leave behind, able to choose to simply walk away from people are cold or cruel without getting in trouble for truancy, having recognized some of my more glaring social deficiencies and having spent years building a wiser me, I feel free of the past.
One day, for reasons lost to the mists of time, I was talking with Shannon Sisk about where I grew up, and how the front of the park now has a swimming pool behind a chain link with a locked gate, and knowing it was the sort of thing that easily could have happened back in the day, I mentioned in passing that I wasn't sure what I would have done if that had existed when I was there, waiting at the bus stop, and someone had thrown my backpack over the fence, where I couldn't get it.
"Ah," Shannon observed. "A victim's perspective."
I wanted to deny that, I still do, but I can't. He was 100% correct. A person who looks at a swimming pool and has that thought is looking at things like a victim. I did that. I do that. I don't even realize it.
I came to look at things in that way so I could anticipate what was coming and prevent it from happening. Once you've been made a fool of so many times, you work at avoiding it. You look at settings and situations and people and you process it all in your head, and while other people do that to determine the best social connections or who will tell the most entertaining stories or whatever, you do it to figure out where you risk getting hurt for someone else's amusement and you move in the other direction. You don't start out wanting to view everything that way, but the alternative is to walk into the abuse whistling, so you do. And then it becomes habit. And then it becomes instinctive. And then it's your natural mindset and you can't think any other way.
Since Shannon's observation, I've tried to stay consciously aware of this sort of thinking. Fifteen years after leaving high school, I still catch myself looking at the world the same way I did back then, wondering how others would abuse a given situation for no other reason than to get a cheap laugh at my expense.
Free of the past?
Well... It's a nice dream, at least.
No matter where you go, there you are.
Still, I know that in the grand scheme of things, I'm one of the lucky ones. What I've been through is minor compared to what others have endured. I've never lived in fear for my safety. I've never feared for my life or had to fight for it. I'm never been ambushed by a dozen people at once. As a white middle class male, I've never been targeted by racism or sexism. I've never been sexually assaulted. Circumstances have never forced me to take on the responsibilities of an adult at the age of a child. I've never missed a meal because there was no food in the house and no money to buy any. And even when my family has annoyed the piss out of me, which we all experience at some point, I've always had the comfort of knowing they're there and they care for me and if I ever truly need anything, they will bend over backwards to help me.
I did have a major cancer scare once, but tests on the tumor came back negative.
The point is, I clearly have perspective on this and know that there are people who would beg to have my problems.
But abuse doesn't have to be physical, or severe, to be real and damaging. I won't elevate one type of suffering over another, but I will say that long-term abuse adds up just as surely as night follows day, and just as happens in other situations, sometimes the abuser doesn't even realize they're an abuser.
So, what is this all about? Well, Joe, let me explain. As much as I intended to let this matter die, I kept sending private messages in Facebook, and each time I did, the list of people I've exchanged messages with and the start of the most recent post with them was visible, and I got to see the beginning of your final message to me again and again and again.
"You sir, are acting like an ass."
And each time I saw that it nagged at me a little more, until I finally had to deal with it. I re-read your indignant self-righteous utterly oblivious response to me, and slowly, I began to see the hypocrisy in it. Hypocrisy upsets me more than most anything else in the world, and it set me off here even before I recognized it for what it was. I started to write out some random thoughts, trying to deal with this, and what I wrote eventually assembled itself into the nearly 15,000 words up to this point. And I decided, hey, nothing to lose, you're already done with me, so I might as well address this and deal with it and get it all off my chest once and for all.
"We might be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."
I imagine at this point, assuming you've gotten to this point, that you're feeling rather put-upon. I'm sure that you feel like you've been cast in a bad light, feel like you haven't done anything to deserve this. You likely feel that I'm singling you out for public ridicule, making you look bad in a public forum. You feel like I'm mocking you. I'm sure you feel my entire treatment of you has been unfair.
Gee, that must feel terrible.
Not a single one of us, not me or you or anyone you've ever known, has ever been the saint they believed they were at the time.
But this isn't about revenge. I made clear that I'm not comfortable with responding to abuse with abuse. That just perpetuates the cycle and nothing ever improves. I would never put this many words into writing something just for revenge. That's not what's going on here.
Let me continue with a few other things that this is NOT about.
This is not about your opinions on 9/11 or who killed who on that date. In the context of our interactions, I don't really care about 9/11. Your opinion is your opinion. It would be nice if you didn't lack either the capacity or the willingness, I'm not sure which, to defend your arguments and opinions, but that's fine. My oldest stepdaughter believes there was something more going on that day than what actually happened. Doesn't make me judge her the way I judge you. She doesn't deserve it the way you do.
This is not about you unfriending me. Friends come, friends go, even easier online than in real life. I'm flattered that you think of me as a friend, or at least thought of me as one, until I showed any sort of resistance to you or your opinions. That was intolerable to you. So be it. I said what I felt. I'll still sleep well tonight.
You don't recognize true monsters as such, even as they consume you.
There were incidents throughout school that, in isolation, were much worse that any incident with you. One classmate got annoyed at me for something and decided to knock me down. And when I tried to stand up, he'd knock me right back down. He didn't hit me or throw a punch, but he put me on my ass at least a dozen times in a row. He could've put me in a hospital without half-trying. It was so humbling and demoralizing that I must have looked a wreck, because a few minutes later Dave Stoshick came up to me and, with genuine concern in his voice, asked if I was okay. (I wouldn't have guessed he'd do that either, but I was hardly immune from underestimating people. I was so embarrassed that I brushed off his concern rather brusquely. He never offered his concern again.) I was nearly knocked down the stairs at school many times. I've taken punches. I've been attacked off the school bus. If you compare that to having gum thrown at me, there's no contest. But I still had to find a way to deal with this, from you and from others.
Fortunately, "just a little bit crazy" has never been a problem for me.
And I know you're not a completely bad or horrible or worthless person. I've seen your compassionate side at times, seen you care about other people. You're hardly the sociopath that so many of our classmates behaved as.
So why do I focus on you? Why is what you did so much worse than what any of these people did? Why do you warrant this?
Because they never mixed in overtures of friendship with the abuse. Because they never made any pretense. And because they lost interest in me over time. You were relentless, and your focus never wavered, and even when we got along there wasn't a week that went by without you doing something that would make me wish you would just grow up and leave me the hell alone. You were in homeroom with me every year. You were the one person whose abuse I could never escape from.
Only words can make you beat yourself up.
And even that doesn't truly explain it. So, let me boil it down to one single, solitary sentence, and we'll see if this makes the point. For all I saw, all I went through, all I endured...
You, Joe, were the prime mover, the primary cause, the one person who by a significant margin did more than any other in driving me, even for the barest of seconds, to think to myself that "Maybe, just maybe, being dead would be better than this."
What have I ever done to you that can compare with that?
Some situations will come up where all you can do is ride out the storm.
And I was willing to allow that you had changed, just as you suggested of me. I was willing to allow you back into my life even after you made me doubt the value of my very existence. I was willing to extend the hand of friendship once again and say, hey, those were different times, and we're all adults now, and we don't have to be defined by grade-school spats. We can move forward.
And then you decided you couldn't deal with me anymore, because I'm no fun. Because I defended my arguments when you couldn't. Because I stood up to what you said to me. Because I wasn't properly considerate of your feelings.
Sometimes, to forgive is to err.
I chose to give you a second chance after what you did to me. You chose to kick me to the curb for questioning your conspiracy theories and not being properly polite about it.
I wish I'd had access to an unfriend button in high school. I wish I could have just clicked a button and made you go away, simply eliminated you and all the other assholes from my life. I wish peace had been as simple as a click of a button. You have that option now. I didn't have it then, and you made me miserable for your own amusement for years.
But it was all in good fun, right? You weren't serious about it, right? You didn't really mean it, it was just a nice laugh between friends, nothing to dwell on, a little bit of amusement and on with the day and no hard feelings, right?
No harm done, right?
Fuck you, Joe Gorzkowski. From the bottom of my very soul, fuck you, and fuck everyone like you.
"LOOK WHAT I CAN DO! Have fun typing all that out?"
It wasn't easy, it hurt, it brought back a lot of things I had buried and was content to leave buried, but in the end, yes, yes I did have fun typing all that out. It was liberating. It was cathartic. And it felt great.
There are so many people whose idea of good fun involves belittling or degrading or abusing others. They make themselves feel better by making others feel worse. When they laugh, it's at someone else's expense. When they are especially happy, it's because they've made someone else feel especially miserable. They act like it's a law of physics, equal and opposite reactions, one person up because another person down. But that's nonsense. This is not a law of science. No one has to behave that way. There's no reason for it.
There is no Law Of Conservation Of Good Cheer.
Life is a journey whose destination is predetermined. Spoiler alert: We're all going to die in the end. People who spend their lives in denial about this tend to be the most miserable among us, living in denial or raging against the world or turning to religion to cling to the desperate belief that they will somehow qualify for eternal life after death.
One of the most important keys to a happy life is to accept what you have. Life is about the path you take, the differences you make and the legacy you leave behind. Some will leave the world a better place. Some will leave it worse. Some pull others up; others drag those around them down. Our choices make us who we are. I make choices to try to be the best person I can be. Some choices are bad ones. We all make mistakes. If we're smart, we learn from them, bounce back, and make better choices in the future.
I continue down the road, likely halfway through my time on earth, driving toward the inevitable sunset we all reach. For better and for worse, my past is behind me, irretrievable, unchangeable, frozen in time, the good and the bad.
The parts that are good, the things that are uplifting and positive and that I want to remember, I keep with me.
And the negative parts remain behind me, visible only in the rearview mirror. The bullies and monsters and nightmares of the past seemed so large back then, overwhelming, nearly insurmountable, but in reflection they are small, so small, and as I continue down the road they grow smaller with every passing day, more insignificant and irrelevant, details fading as they slip toward the horizon past which they will eventually disappear, forgotten altogether.