July 5, 1981
(recollection of an event from 1966-67)
Everybody laughed when the squint-eyed, blonde-haired busybody up in the front of the class said it, and I buried myself in a book trying to hide. Everybody that is but blue-eyed, dimple-faced Ellen that blushed so deep she might have died from shame.
I wanted to find comfort in my book, but the lines of text could not hold my attention even when I didn’t feel so small, and I peered over the top to see everybody whispering, chuckling at my expense.
I had suffered indignities before in grammar school from Leonard who’d made abusing me his personal project until I beat him up with his own shoe on the hill outside of church, making the school bully cry in front of everybody who had thought him so tough all those years.
This was different. I was the odd fish in junior high, that wild boy from the border of Paterson nobody really liked and tried to provoke, hurting me in ways their fists could not, beating me up with their laughter and scorn – with no way for me to fight back, tongue-tied with rage and humiliation.
Most times, I ignored them, staring out the window at the gray sky and the occasional flutter of a bird between the buildings or I cut classes where they out numbered me, those slick kids with clever tricks, who hid behind the teacher when I got angry enough to want to beat them up.
It’s hard to fight back like that, when it’s what they imply that hurts, not what they actually say.
And this time, they had said too much, and knew that they had hit me hard in a place I couldn’t get up from, Mrs. Bailey on the prowl in front of the class, waiting for me to do something stupid, to say something rash, so she could send me to the office again, and wouldn’t have to hear the snickering she knew was aimed at me, but wouldn’t stop, as if she had been one of their breed when she was their age, and hated me as much as they did, and wished she’d not inherited me as her student.
Her stare daring me to say something, and when I didn’t, she called on me anyway, as if to blame me for the snickering.
“What is it?” she demanded to know.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You must have done something to set off your classmates,” she said sternly. “What did you do this time?”
“I didn’t do anything,” I said, waving my hand towards the clutch of snobby kids who occupied the safety of the remote rear portion of the classroom, a clutch of giggling fools immune to anything I could do or say. “It was them.”
“And what did that do that made you set them off?” she asked, as I struggled to make sense of the question, and how she seemed to turn what they did into something that was my fault.
“They said I have a crush on Ellen,” I said, hurting even as the words came out of me, knowing how true it was, and how vulnerable I felt having it all hang out there, as if loving someone was a weakness they could use against me, knowing how little I could do about it, and how saying it allowed caused them to giggle more, and poor Ellen, to shrink down in her seat, wilting, dying under their gaze and mine, shrinking away to a place where I could never go, and me, thinking how I would wait outside – the way my uncle Ritchie once did for the gang that beat him up – for each and everyone of these snobs, and teach them respect the same way I had to reach Leonard long ago, because I couldn’t fight them the way they fought – but someday, maybe, when I got smarter, and didn’t feel outfoxed by other people’s words, I could fight them with words, too.