Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Pariah

This Christmas was a proverbial comedy of errors, replete with mistaken identities, clogged toilets and — as is generally the case in my family — unintentional (but altogether hilarious) innuendo.

There were presents, too. Food with family, and friends. The usual array of festivities you need to make any holiday complete. But the one memory that seems to cast a shadow over everything else — the thought that enters into my head every time I catch myself laughing about the rest of the weekend — is a 150 word obituary.

***

I was at a friend's home when she turned to the obits in the local paper, pointed at a picture, and said "Do you know anything about this?"

I recognized him right away, before my eyes even had a chance to graze his name. The same features I'd last seen in a pudgy 12-year-old boy had become more defined as he thinned out, but were otherwise undeniable.

"Jesus," I said. "What happened?"

No one seemed to know. And the usual "passed away / survived by" closing remarks didn't offer any clues either.

***

I was a "move in" at a rural elementary school in the second grade, and — anxious as I was — I was lucky insofar as it didn't take me too long to make a couple friends. It also didn't take me long to determine the hierarchy of "coolness" that governed this particular playground. Part and parcel of that is determining the kids at the lower rung of the monkey bars.

At this particular school, and in my grade, there were at least 4 kids that were taunted without mercy — terrifying odds when you consider there were only about 80 kids in the mix. But of those four, there was one in particular that suffered the blunt of the ridicule. He was the overweight kid who wore sweats and tattered t-shirts every day. The kid with grease stains around his neck, and an indiscernible odor that prompted much of the taunting.

He was, for all intents and purposes, a playground pariah.

At least the other three kids came to school clean, and in freshly washed clothes. At least they had one or two friends to talk to. But this kid... well. I don't recall seeing anyone ever really talk to him. Teachers included.

Even the ridicule was ridicule by exclusion. You know what I mean... he was the last one picked in gym class. The kid no one sat with at lunch. The kid no one talked to, but the kid everyone made fun of.

"Don't sit there!" kids would yell in the cafeteria. "That's [his] chair!" or "[He] sat there yesterday!"

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the cafeteria, he was sitting alone, huddled over his school lunch.

This went on for days. Weeks. Months. Years, even, until finally he just... disappeared.

***

Rumor had it his parents finally caught wind of this torment, and so moved him to another school for junior high. Rumor also has it the agony continued at his new school, with the teasing culminating in actual pushing and shoving (if he was ever physically bullied at our school, I never heard about it).

But these are just rumors and, the truth is, I haven't the foggiest idea what became of him. But I'd be lying if I didn't say I often wondered. I thought of him a lot, actually, often recollecting that blank stare on his face as he waited for his name to be called (dead last) by a team captain. Or that look on his face when someone would say something about his smell just loud enough for him to hear as he'd walk past. Or the way he'd wait dead last in the line at the drinking fountain, knowing what a hubbub it'd be if someone had to use it immediately after him.

***

And where was I in all of this? Was I one of his tormenters? Did I sit around and watch? Did I ever step in to help?

Did anyone ever step in to help?

I didn't do much, that's for sure. I can recall shrugging my shoulders and sitting promptly in "his" chair after someone told me not to. And I tried talking to him on occasion, but with no success. He'd just... stare back at me, his eyes hinting at suspicion that any conversation was prelude to a cruel trick.

I don't blame him, really. He had no reason to trust me, or anyone. None of us really went out of our way to help him and so, by default, everyone was to blame.

Students, parents (his and everyone else's), teachers, school administrators. No one really gave him a chance.

***

I mean, if my eight-year-old brain could rationalize that a kid coming to school dressed like he was probably had even bigger problems at home, where were all the adults in all of this? I'd like to think he was getting more help behind-the-scenes, but there was certainly nothing that I could see — aside from free school lunches and reduced book rent, I mean.

Beyond that... where was this kid going for relief? Who was encouraging him to set goals? What made him laugh?

It's a question that has long bothered me — but even more so these past few days.

That was, as you've likely surmised, his obituary in the paper.

***

And as my friends and I read it, one recalled how his name continues to be a legend at our former school (she has reason to frequent there). Kids still antagonize one another by proclaiming that "he" once sat in the same chair, and that now they have "his" cooties (yes, apparently the word "cooties" is still in style).

That same friend has also found out that "he" most likely killed himself. Or at least, that's the word around town. He lived and died in another state, so everything is speculation. I think that was everyone's first suspicion, really. Not cancer, not a house fire, not anything else that would've come to our minds for someone else. Rather, for him, our thoughts turned to "suicide" in unison. That that was our immediate assumption speaks volumes.

But no matter how you look at it, he's dead... after less than three decades on this planet.

I can but hope he had some moments in his life that were far better than those I'm sorry to have witnessed.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I fogot how bad it was. I forgot about the drinking fountain, but I remember the fear I had about using it. I forgot about the chair we weren't supposed to sit in after him. I'm aware we should have "known better," but come ON! Where were the advocates for him? What did the teachers do when we acted that way? I really feel the fear of being the new target was too great to stand up for him openly. I know that doesn't make it right.

I think it makes me most sad that he took it. Every comment, recoil, and dirty look. Why did he take it? Why did we? Who will the next "legend" be? What if it's one of my kids, or yours?
xoxo

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

It always bothered me that he took it, too, but I think that possibly said something about his character. He never resorted to violence. I mean, I can't recall him ever getting into trouble for anything.

The thing that bothers me most is something else that you mentioned: the complete and total lack of adult intercession. Did he have a counselor? Was the principal letting his parents know what was going on? Was anyone offering him any guidance? If so... it clearly wasn't working.

Anonymous said...

Take it from someone who knows: If you react with violence to these taunts, you will end up in more trouble AND the taunts won't stop. (Granted there is the small concilation that you bloodied a nose or blacked an eye.) The target of taunting learns to keep their head down.

It was small town America. The teachers have other things to worry about and they know there is much that they can do to help. Besides, "They're kids. They'll grow out of it."
~BPP

Winter said...

I can't email you from work, (they blocked aol mail) But I'll try to later tonight about this post..

It brought me to tears.

James Burnett said...

May your former classmate find peace in the next life. I don't have kids yet, but I hope to Hell when I do they'll just be nice. I know I wasn't always nice to troubled classmates. If Karma exists, I hope she gives me a mulligan.

disgruntled world citizen said...

What more can I say?

=) said...

It's sad because if only we knew then what we know now. Would he still be treated the same way? Sadly I think sometimes the answer is still yes, just not in the outright way of the playground. I know that after every bullying convocation I have sat through with students they always say, "OK, I get it, I won't do that anymore." They don't. For about a day. Then it is back to trying to make themselves feel better by making someone else feel worse.

Anonymous said...

It was a heart attack. He had even been married.
I went to my husbands class reunion this fall and nothing had changed. The one guy that they all made fun of in school was still laughed at behind his back. I think at 8 we did not know any better (we did but it was harder when you are younger) but now there should be no excuse. I am scared to death about when my child has to start dealing with this. I sure hope they are not the one made fun of, but it will be almost just as bad to find out that they were involved in picking on another kid.
Have fun with the mistakes in this

Anonymous said...

anon- Is this a guess, or fact? Not that it makes it better because he's still gone, but I guess there would be less guilt that way.
xoxo

Anonymous said...

My cousin was a freind of his and that is what her was told by family I assumed.

Eli Edmundson said...

What an intensely sad story. I think we all have people in our lives we could have been nicer to, sometimes even as an adult it is hard to reach out to people who are painfully awkward or have bad hygiene. I remember one girl no one would be kind to because she would latch on to you if you did, she didn't know how to give distance but desperately needed friends. I wonder if interventions for this would work, I guess nowadays we have talk shows that send these kids to fat camp but I'm sure the majority of children never get much help from adults. Too much sadness in the world to think about, it's overwhelming.