Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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When I was thirteen, my family moved to the other side of town. In my old neighborhood I’d hung out with a gang of troublemakers who didn’t let anyone push them around. I figured I could fit in with the same crowd in my new neighborhood, and for the most part I did, except for one guy who kept giving me dirty looks. He didn’t seem like the stereotypical bully, but when he smiled at me, there was no humor in it, just malice.
A few weeks later he made a snide comment as we passed in the hallway at school. After that, if I wasn’t paying attention, he might sneak up and tap me on the shoulder, then sucker-punch me when I turned around. One time he asked me for a light, and when I reached into my pocket for my lighter, he socked me in the face and laughed as if he’d created a new game. It got to the point where anytime someone brushed up against me in the hall, I’d flinch.
One day I saw my tormentor coming down my street, and I went into my house and got a knife. I stood behind a curtained window and watched him walk by. I pictured myself running out there and plunging the blade into his chest. A few minutes later I let the knife fall from my shaking hand. I was sweating. I couldn’t believe I’d been contemplating murder.
Matters got worse when my mother found out what was going on and went to talk to the bully’s parents. The next time he saw me, he hit me so hard I almost blacked out. He stood over me and said, “Maybe your mommy can come help you now, you little pussy!”
Then one day I heard that he had been in a car accident. He was in a coma.
When he died a few weeks later, I wasn’t sad in the least. If anything, I was relieved. For a long time, whenever I thought of him, that old fear would rise up in me, and I’d remember how much I had hated him.
A few years ago my nephew was killed in a car accident. He was like one of my own sons, and his death hit me hard. It also made me think of the boy who’d bullied me. It occurred to me that his family had gone through what my family was now experiencing, that he’d been someone’s son. And, for the first time, I was able to think of him without hate in my heart.
I’m hosting my annual holiday dinner for my old high-school crowd. One of the women in the group, Paula, has never really liked me. When we were freshmen, she once told me, “You know, you don’t have to try so hard.”
As an adult Paula has become a staunch environmentalist, and tonight at dinner, looking for someplace to toss her spinach stems, she asks if I have a compost pile. She asks me this every time she comes to my house, and my answer is always no. She stiffens slightly, then shrugs and tosses the organic matter that might have enriched my non-existent vegetable garden into the trash.
This dinner is special because two of my friends and I recently traveled together to a foreign country with an astonishing level of poverty, and now we’re sharing photos and video of the trip with the group. I like to think I have a good eye, and I carefully composed each picture I took. Another friend made the video. She was new to using the equipment, and we laugh at the shots of her knees and the blurry landscape outside the car window. She apologizes for the poor quality, and Paula says, “Well, I personally prefer that kind of video. It’s real, at least.” She has made no comment about my photos, although I suspect that now she has, indirectly.
When we come to the footage of a school we visited, we tell everyone how one boy declared us rich and demanded that one of us put him through college.
“Good for him!” Paula declares.
“Not really,” I respond, explaining that if the government were to get wind of any one student being subsidized by a foreigner, the school would lose the funding it has taken thirty years to obtain.
“I admire that boy,” she continues, giving me a challenging look. “He’s doing exactly what he needs to do.”
I feel a surge of anger. This is what Americans are like, the teacher at the school said to me: they impose their concept of individuality on other cultures.
Paula starts lecturing us on the importance of raising outspoken kids.
“Well,” I say too sharply, “I disagree.” She gives me a disapproving look. The others are quiet. I’ve ruined everything.
After the meal Paula needs to leave. A hard rain is falling, and she doesn’t own a car. I offer to drive her to the train station. When we arrive, I apologize for snapping at her.
“Oh,” she says airily, “it’s not as though I’m harboring any feelings against you.” There is silence as she collects her belongings. Then she turns to me and says, with a thin smile, “Most people don’t really know how to disagree.”
It’s clear that I am “most people.”
We hug goodbye, and I drive off convinced that I handled the situation all wrong. It’s a familiar feeling and not unique to when I’ve spent time around Paula. And suddenly I realize that the real bully is inside me. It’s the dark voice that hounds me, insisting that I’ll never be good enough. It’s the voice of my father as he’s beating me; the voice of the nuns belittling and humiliating me; my own voice chiming in agreement.
In the summer of 1966, after eight years overseas, my family returned to live in Buffalo, New York. I was just shy of eleven years old and had no real memory of New York State, where I’d been born and had lived for the first three years of my life. My education had taken place mostly in Great Britain, where I’d worn a blazer and a schoolboy hat.
My attempts to fit in at my school in Buffalo were complicated not just by my English accent but also by my brown skin. My white father had married a black woman in 1954. He had traveled ahead to Buffalo by himself and purchased a house in an all-white neighborhood, neglecting to mention the race of his wife and children to the seller. In England, West Indians had been called “darkies,” but that was the extent of my experience with racial prejudice.
A bully named Jimmy was known throughout the school as a hothead. I remember seeing him drive a stolen car backward down the street just to show off. He was one of a group of boys who used to taunt my brothers and my friends and me. One day Jimmy came to the basketball court where we liked to play and attacked me, whaling away with both fists while I lay on the ground. I was practically eating the gravel while he rained punches on the back of my body and head.
When he finally stopped, I walked away crying. Feeling that I’d been the victim of a crime, I located a pay phone and called the police to tell them I had been assaulted. I was shocked to hear the officer on the other end laugh.
It turned out that the joke was on Jimmy. He had hit me with a little too much force, and my head had been a little too hard. The next time I saw him, he was wearing a cast on his right hand. I hope that when the weather gets cold these days he can still feel the pain. I still feel mine.
My father engaged in a refined method of child abuse: he made many demands and rules, and if we broke those rules and did not admit our wrongdoing and beg forgiveness, the consequences were brutal. I lived in fear of him.
I am speaking of my heavenly father, not my earthly one. I was constantly afraid of doing something wrong and displeasing God, and I was filled with shame over the thought that his “only begotten son” had had to suffer and die to compensate for my horridness. I felt unworthy of his love.
Maybe one reason I struggled so much with my relationship to God is because my earthly father was a kind, hardworking farmer who never went to church. He had a roaring laugh and loved to shock his kids by reciting off-color ditties. I never once doubted that this father loved me, because I experienced his love on a daily basis. Although I was often told that my heavenly father loved me, I had also been told that he was a jealous God, and I had the Bible, his very word, as proof.
As I entered my fifth decade, weary of living in fear, I grew brave enough to confront God directly. That’s when I experienced the Divine Mystery for the first time. I realized that humanity had boxed in and humanized that which we cannot comprehend; that the real God cannot be the paternalistic deity I had worshiped.
I had always been taught to love my neighbor as I loved myself — a worthy goal. Yet I hadn’t been able to love myself while I’d lived in fear of a vengeful God. To treat my neighbor that way would have made a bully of me. If all neighbors treated each other like that, the world would be full of bullies.
Oh, wait: it is.
Fulton, New York
In 1949, when I was nine and my sisters were three, our mother got remarried to a major in the army, and we went to live with him at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. When we arrived, our stepfather had made my siblings and me a packing-box playhouse out of two large wooden crates. It became my private sanctuary where only the invited few could enter. A tomboy, I scoured backyards and alleys for scrap lumber to add to my castle.
A neighbor boy named George would often bully me into playing with his whiny six-year-old sister, a brat with a pouty face who looked like Shirley Temple. George was two years older than I was and big for his age. Whenever his shadow filled the playhouse doorway, my stomach was in knots.
One day, when he showed up clutching his sister’s hand, I told him emphatically that I was not going to let her play with me. George took a menacing step into the doorway. “I’ll wreck your playhouse,” he said. And he swept his arm across a table where my little sister was playing with her tea set. The teacups crashed, my sister wailed, and I charged at George, arms flailing.
He fell backward out of the playhouse, his mouth open in shock, and the next thing I knew, I was on top of him, punching him anywhere I could. I felt free! After weeks of cringing, I was beating up the dreaded George. Tears streamed down his face, and I taunted him as I landed another blow to his chest.
Finally George ran to tell his father, his sister scurrying behind him.
Later I faced my stepfather, who stood straight and tall in his starched uniform.
“Girls do not beat up boys,” he said.
Wait a minute. Did he mean I had to let someone push me around just because I was a girl?
“Girls do not beat up boys,” he repeated.
I learned two lessons that day: The first was that bullies are cowards. If you stand up to them, they will back down. And the second was that, because I am female, I should not be too strong, and I should always let the boy win.
Happily, I have remembered the first lesson and ignored the second.
Anne Sisler Latta
San Rafael, California
In kindergarten I was a member of the I Hate Alba Club.
I did not hate Alba. I don’t believe I ever spoke to her. Her clothing was not up-to-date, and her hair was short and black, but it was mostly her heavy accent and halting English that attracted our scorn. Looking back, I realize she must have been from Eastern Europe. I wish now that I had gotten to know her and invited her to my apartment to play Barbies and have Ring Dings and milk.
The other members of the club and I should have known better. We were all Jewish, like Alba. At the age of six we’d heard about the gas chambers where our distant relatives had recently been murdered. We’d peeked at the strange and terrifying numbers tattooed on the arms of neighbors as they’d reached for a quart of milk in the grocery.
Alba did not stay at our school long. She is not in any class photos. I don’t know why she left or where she went. I take no comfort in the fact that the I Hate Alba Club was not my idea. Indeed it feels worse that I was a follower, silently complicit in the cruelty.
In the late 1940s, after my family moved from Nebraska to Southern California, we started spending Christmas with my father’s cousin Margaret and her son, Dale. My mother stressed that Dale was going to art school in Los Angeles and soon would be leaving for New York City to become a window decorator. For weeks after the holiday she would mock him, flouncing around with a limp wrist and saying, “Isn’t that delightful!” — a word he was partial to.
I was only ten, but I already knew that I was like Dale, even though I didn’t understand exactly what he and I were. Not wanting to appear suspect, I kept my wrists stiff and never used the word delightful. In high school I dated girls, which wasn’t too difficult; petting in the back seat of the car was as far as any of them would go.
In college I was “shy.” On visits home from graduate school I would lie to my mother about dating girls. She always grilled me for details and asked to see pictures of them. I couldn’t relax around her. Often I would catch her looking at me with suspicion.
After getting my PhD, I ended up back in Los Angeles, which is where I met my life partner, Jeff, in 1981. Clearly I needed to tell my parents. My dad hit it off with Jeff immediately, but my mother always used her “public” voice with him: a bit too loud and overly polite. And she made me promise never to tell any of our relatives about Jeff and me. Before she died in 2004, my mother became increasingly distant because of the “shame” I had brought upon the family.
I grew up in a time of intolerance, but the only person who ever bullied me for being gay was my own mother.
Santa Monica, California
By the time I got to the University of Oregon in the late sixties, I’d worked and attended a local college for a couple of years and was nearly twenty-one. All first-year students were required to live on campus, and most of my dormmates were eighteen-year-old freshmen.
Sarah, a popular girl on my floor, started dating Ben, who soon began eating with us regularly in the dining room. I noticed that Ben rarely spoke at meals and seemed especially reluctant to talk to me. Was he just shy, or did he not like me for some reason?
One evening I found Sarah alone in a study alcove at the student center, and I asked her if Ben had a problem with me. At first she held back, but after I assured her I could handle the truth, she opened up.
“He knew you a long time ago,” she said. “He thought you’d recognize him by now.”
I felt certain I’d never seen Ben before, but I guessed that maybe I’d hurt his feelings when I was drunk.
Sarah laughed. “Not unless you drank in grade school,” she said.
She explained that Ben had moved to my neighborhood after his parents had divorced. He was in fourth grade, and I was in seventh. The first day he rode our school bus, I loudly pointed out his patched jeans to the rest of the kids and tagged him with the nickname “Patches.” This daily humiliation went on for nearly three years, but Ben never told his mother about it. He knew she couldn’t afford to buy him new jeans, and he didn’t want her to feel any worse than she already did. But he had never forgotten how mean I’d been.
I didn’t remember him at all.
The Dalles, Oregon
I lived with a bully for fourteen years. When I think of it now, I sometimes feel embarrassed that it took me so long to leave, but I was trapped in the role of loyal spouse and good Catholic girl. On two occasions the abuse was physical, but the verbal and psychological abuse were worse. I lived under constant threat that my husband would take our two children back to the Middle East with him, and I would never see them again. Then one day I found what I believed was proof that he was planning to make good on his threat, and I devised my own secret plan to escape with the children.
On one of our last nights together as a family, a couple from my husband’s home country were visiting for the evening. My husband and the couple were seated at the kitchen table while I stood at the counter preparing food. The conversation was mostly in Arabic, a language I spoke well, as I had lived and worked in the Middle East for six years.
On the other side of the room from me was a large potted plant. As I was chopping onions, I glanced up and noticed that one of the leaves had started to turn yellow, and I decided to cut it off. I stepped purposefully toward the plant with the large kitchen knife in my hand, so focused on the yellowing leaf that I was paying no attention to my husband, who was sitting in front of the plant. He was paying close attention, however, to my menacing approach. When the woman in the couple saw this, she burst out laughing, and I noticed for the first time the look of sheer terror on my husband’s face. He thought I was going to kill him!
That’s the moment I learned that my abusive husband could be afraid of me.
Though my brother Wright was four years older than I was, I always felt protective of him. Wright had bad eyesight and wore thick glasses. He also had tunnel vision and could not see anything that wasn’t right in front of him. In early adolescence he developed severe acne that covered his face. His extreme anxiety made it hard for him to relate to people. When bullied or teased, he would fly into a rage, which only attracted more of the same treatment.
After he’d graduated from high school, Wright would ride his bike around town, and teenagers would yell at him from car windows and sometimes run him off the road. They did it just to see Wright pick himself up and wave his fist and ask God to curse them.
One night when I was a junior in high school, I had a date with a boy. When he picked me up, he came in and met my family, including Wright. Once we were in the car, my date was silent for a moment, and then he made a confession: he had once run Wright’s bike off the road. “I didn’t know he was your brother,” he said.
At the time I admired the boy for his honesty. Now I wish I’d said, “You must have known he was someone’s brother.”
South Pasadena, California
The nuns at my elementary school in the 1950s were notoriously strict. Our classrooms were crowded, with forty to fifty students in each, and maintaining order required discipline. It never felt personal until fifth grade, when Sister Grace arrived.
Sister Grace was all fake smiles and chilly charm. She gathered a coterie of girls from upper-middle-class families and gave them most of her attention. The rest of us she mocked — for our threadbare uniforms; for our inadequate school supplies and used textbooks; for our lunches of the previous night’s leftovers. Sister Grace ignored the slow learners, made fun of the Puerto Rican girls’ accents, and had nothing but contempt for Italians, whom she referred to as “our little immigrants.”
“What’s wrong with your hair?” Sister Grace asked me one day. “Don’t you have anyone who cares enough about you to comb it?” She picked up the mop of dark, unruly curls that ran halfway down my back and held them up for all to see. My classmates laughed nervously, grateful not to be her target that day.
My face burning, I explained that I had three older sisters and only one bathroom at home.
“I see,” she said, turning to her favorites with a grimace. “Then maybe you should consider shaving it off.”
That night I lopped off my curls with my mother’s pinking shears. The hair landed in a heap on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my older sister, who raced to tell on me.
“What have you done?” my mother whispered in horror, as though I had desecrated a holy shrine. She loved my hair.
Starting to cry, I told her what my teacher had said. My mother sat down on the bed beside me and drew me into her arms. Then she turned my head from side to side to inspect the damage and directed my sisters to get her the good scissors, a comb, and a glass of warm water.
All my classmates loved my “poodle cut” and gushed over it. Sister Grace said nothing.
Midmorning our classroom door opened, and there was my mother, accompanied by the principal, Sister Francine. Sister Grace fluttered about, chirping in a high, shrill voice. My mother pointed out to the principal the seating arrangement: all the fair-haired and fair-skinned girls were in front, while the Italians and Puerto Ricans were in back, along with me.
When Sister Grace saw my mother’s auburn hair and green eyes and heard her brogue, she said, “Why, Mrs. Pimental, I had no idea you were Irish!”
My mother asked if she would have treated me any differently if she had known. Sister Grace blushed, and the principal signaled for her to step outside the classroom. My mother smiled, blew me a kiss, and left.
After that, the mockery stopped, our desks were rearranged, and Sister Grace never spoke directly to me again.
Three years later, at graduation, I was awarded a medal for excellence and a scholarship to one of the best high schools in our diocese. Afterward Sister Grace came over to extend her congratulations.
“I always knew you had it in you,” she said. “You were such a pleasure to teach.”
Santa Rosa, California
© James Carroll
My dad was a quiet, gentle man. During the week he worked at the bank, and on the weekends he made wooden toys for disabled kids. He never spanked my two sisters and me nor even raised his voice. If Mom tried to start a fight, he would just walk away. But Dad was also a man’s man. He always had a cigar in his mouth, played poker every Friday night, and spent his vacation at the racetrack.
The summer I was five, a girl named Cathy moved in down the street. She was older and bigger than I was, and for some reason she began picking on me. Every time I went outside to play, she would slug me in the arm — just hard enough to hurt a little. One day, however, she hit me so hard I ran home crying. Dad was working in the yard, and when I told him what had happened, he hugged me.
The next morning, when I was on my way out to play, Dad called me over and said he was going to teach me how to box.
First he showed me how to position my feet so I had a firm base to stand on. Then he told me to put my fists up, and he pretended to throw a left at my head. When I covered my face with both hands, he gently reached under and tapped my stomach with his right. “That,” he said, “is how you fake out your opponent.
I practiced this move until I had it down pretty well. Then we walked to Cathy’s house and found her in her front yard.
“Put up your fists,” I told her. “We’re going to box.”
When she did, I gave her a fake with my left, just as Dad and I had practiced. She covered her face, and I punched her in the stomach with my right.
Fifty-five years later I clearly remember the impact of my fist against Cathy’s body.
She never hit me again.
It’s 1957, and my mother and I are driving to Goldman’s Delicatessen, as we do every Sunday to get kosher corned beef, pastrami, and fresh rye bread. It is a cold, clear morning in January, and the streets of Washington, DC, are almost empty.
We pull up to the curb in front of Goldman’s. Barney Goldman and his wife are both Holocaust survivors. They don’t ever talk about it, but Barney’s tattoo is visible when he wields the huge cleaver that divides the beef carcasses into rib steaks.
My mother goes inside the shop, but I decide to wait outside by the parking meter alone. Three boys come around the corner, and I know immediately, in the way scrawny kids always know, that they mean trouble. When they get to me, they stop. The one who appears to be the leader thrusts his face about six inches from mine and says, “Hey, are you a little Jew boy? Huh, are you?” He has been eating something white — maybe Turkish Taffy. There are white specks of it on his lips and chin. He pushes me against our car. I’m scared, but for some reason the only thing I can focus on is the Turkish Taffy.
Suddenly my mother comes through the door of Goldman’s shouting, “You get away from here!” I’m terrified that the three punks will attack her now, but to my surprise they disappear around the corner almost before the words have left her lips. Then I see Barney Goldman standing in the doorway behind my mother, his apron covered with blood and a cleaver in his hand. My mother comes over to me to make sure that I am not hurt. When she goes into the deli again, I follow her. Barney is back behind the counter as if nothing has happened.
Grass Valley, California
In eighth grade I was surprised and flattered when a popular ninth-grade boy asked me out. I said yes, and we met on a Saturday at a classmate’s house and spent an hour or so just hanging out. The following Monday morning at school, a ninth-grade girl named Jane confronted me and accused me of going out with her friend’s boyfriend. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” she yelled, her fists clenched. A crowd gathered. Suddenly I was sitting on the floor. She had knocked me off my feet, just like in the cartoons.
I later figured out that I had been set up. Even the boyfriend had been in on it.
Jane and her gang continued to terrorize me for the rest of the school year. I didn’t know how to stand up to them. I became depressed and even made a half-hearted attempt to slit my wrists at school. I ended up in the nurse’s station with my arms bandaged, thoroughly miserable.
Ninth grade was better because the gang of bullies had moved on to high school. But I also knew that I’d be entering high school myself the following September, and I worried those girls might kill me. So I chose to attend vocational-technical school instead. I was unhappy and cut classes often. There was never an opening in the commercial-art program, the only vocation that interested me. I started doing drugs and drank a lot.
Recently two classmates from junior high found me on the Internet. When I mentioned Jane, they both said they’d been bullied by her too. At our fortieth high-school reunion last fall, I heard similar stories. I found out Jane was still living in the area, and I drove home wondering if there was such a thing as a class-action suit for bullying. I was also curious to know whether Jane’s home life had made her so mean.
Sometimes I still want to hurt her back, but most of the time I just feel sorry for her, and for myself. I’ve been victimized more than once since then, including being gang-raped. More than forty years later I am still learning how not to be an easy target.
The Stantons were notorious in our neighborhood. Arguments, fistfights, and police visits were regular events at their house. I’m not even sure how many Stanton boys there were, because at least one was always in juvenile hall.
Lance, the youngest Stanton, was two grades ahead of me in elementary school, and rumor was that he had been held back twice. So when I was a nine-year-old third-grader, he was a thirteen-year-old fifth-grader. I steered clear of him and all the other Stantons. If I had to walk down their block, I stayed on the other side of the street.
One day after school I passed the Stantons’ house with a grocery bag full of baseball cards I was going to trade with my friend Dickie, who lived nearby. I got by their place without incident, but as I turned the corner onto Dickie’s street, there was Lance, blocking my way and looking pretty pleased about it.
“What’s in the bag, kid?” he asked.
“Nothing!” I was terrified but determined not to let him take my collection. I had spent most of my short life amassing those cards, which I would study for hours.
Lance demanded to see inside the bag.
“It’s just a bunch of boring old baseball cards,” I said, but that didn’t satisfy him.
Lance was probably faster than I was, so running would have been no use, and fighting him seemed like a hopeless plan. Defeated, I handed over the bag. He looked inside and whistled at how many cards it held.
I asked for it back, but Lance ignored me and reached into the bag to pull out a single card. I recognized the front: Carl Sawatski of the 1961 St. Louis Cardinals, a run-of-the-mill left-handed catcher who’d had his best season ever that year. Lance was reading the back of the card.
“What was this guy’s batting average?” he asked me.
I answered instantly — and correctly — .299, and then demanded my cards back.
Lance shook his head in admiration and said, “That’s amazing.” He put the Sawatski card back in the bag, handed it to me, and walked away.
Years later I learned that Lance had been arrested for murder.
El Cerrito, California
In the 1950s girls were not allowed to wear pants at Blessed Sacrament Grade School, even during the worst Kansas winters. And no matter how cold it was, unless there was a blizzard, the nuns marched us outside for recess every day. We trooped across the street single file, stepping over crusty piles of slush and ice.
The boys in my class persecuted the girls by pelting their unprotected legs with balls of ice. The girls screamed and hid behind bushes, but some liked the attention. The more popular ones cried for help and were “rescued” by boys trying to win their favor.
I usually spent recess hanging from the monkey bars with a couple of friends. One day my friends ran for cover as a small group of boys gathered around me, massaging their snowballs into ice, ready to let me have it. “Aren’t you going to run?” one asked. I shook my head and turned my back, steeling myself for what was to come.
The projectiles hit my bare legs and back like rocks. A large one struck my head and fell inside my coat. I shivered and crossed my arms, waiting for more, but nothing happened. As I’d hoped, the bullies had moved on to more interesting prey. No one bothered me for the rest of recess.
At last I’d found an application for the lesson I’d learned at home: don’t flinch.
There was a guy in prison named Timmy. He was slow. He moved slow, talked slow, and thought slow. Timmy liked to make greeting cards, tracing cartoons and patterns onto paper and coloring them with pencils. His workmanship was not too good, even though he worked diligently.
Timmy drew these cards to sell for a stamp or two. Sometimes the other inmates made fun of him. They would call him “stupid” or “retarded,” but Timmy was always polite to everyone and never said anything back. He just quietly worked on his cards. I bought a few now and then, but not many, because I could make my own and wasn’t rich.
Selling anything to other inmates is against penitentiary rules. They call it “trafficking and trading.” (They always make things sound worse than they really are.) One day Timmy was called to the major’s office. When he got back, he returned to working on his cards.
A few days later Timmy was called to the major’s office again. This time he did not come back. They put him in solitary confinement. Timmy hanged himself there with a sheet.
Timmy’s fellow inmates may have teased him, but it was the so-called good guys who were the real bullies.
As a sixth-grader I was a skinny runt. When my friends and I played football, they were careful not to land on me. The guys affectionately called me “Peanut.”
Howie, on the other hand, was huge for a sixth-grader: five foot ten and probably 180 pounds. He and I were friendly to each other at recess and in the cafeteria. Maybe we felt some connection because both of us were such an unusual size.
One day I was walking home alone from school and took a shortcut through an athletic field. Ahead of me I saw Howie talking to a couple of his buddies. Of more immediate concern to me, however, were the three high-school hoods with slicked-back hair hanging out behind the bleachers. As I passed, I could smell their cigarettes burning.
One of the hoods asked where I was going. I sheepishly said home and kept walking.
“Hey, ain’t you that little Peanut?” a greaser asked. Another confirmed that I was Mary’s little brother.
One of them, a boy the others called “Mikey,” bet his friends that he could pick me up with one arm. He stepped in front of me, forcing me to stop.
I flashed Mikey my friendliest smile and admitted I was pretty light: only about sixty-nine pounds.
“Goddamn!” he said. Then he held his arm out at a right angle and told me to grab hold of it. He promised he wouldn’t hurt me. I figured if I played along, they’d let me go. So I reached up with both hands, grabbed Mikey’s forearm, and pulled myself up off the ground as if he were a chin-up bar. He kept his arm straight out as I hung there.
Finally I let go and dropped to the ground. The others laughed and slapped Mikey on the back. Relieved, I started to walk away, but Mikey caught my arm and directed my attention to Howie, who was now headed in our direction by himself.
“Hey, Peanut, you see this big kid coming? Ain’t he the one they call ‘Baby Huey’?” Baby Huey was a gigantic, simple-minded duckling in the cartoons.
I said his name was Howie, not Huey, and he was a good kid.
Mikey said with menace in his voice that it sounded like Howie and I were buddies.
Afraid I was losing favor with these thugs, I lied and said Howie wasn’t my friend. In fact, I didn’t even like him.
When Howie approached, Mikey blocked his path. I saw fear in Howie’s eyes as the three older boys fanned out around him.
“Hey, Baby Huey,” Mikey said. “Our friend Peanut says he don’t like you. So here!” And he punched Howie right in the face. “That’s from him!”
Howie’s hands shot up to his nose, and blood ran between his fingers and down his chin. Before he ran off, he looked to me for an explanation. I can still see the pain and confusion on his bloody, tear-streaked face.
My daughter, Annie, was born with a learning disability. She has difficulty understanding the nuances of speech and facial expressions. Though people often assume she is autistic, she actually loves interacting with others. She just has no concept of all the indirect communication that goes on in most conversation. So it’s hard for her to make friends.
From second grade on she wandered like a ghost on the periphery of the action. At recess she would walk from group to group trying to engage the other kids, but they usually ignored her. Once, on the way home from a birthday party, she told me that the only words anyone had said to her were “Get out of the way.”
In high school Annie was invariably late getting home because she had to hunt for her backpack or retainer, which some bully had hidden. She walked to and from school by herself and went to dances by herself and never once got to just hang out with friends.
When Annie was sixteen, she was diagnosed with Stage II melanoma and had surgery. Within six months it had returned as Stage III.
After many surgeries and treatments, my daughter is now on her second clinical trial and will hopefully celebrate her twenty-first birthday this summer. She managed to graduate from high school, and she got to vote for the first time in last year’s election.
Since her cancer returned, Annie has been seeing a therapist, who encourages her to write down her feelings. She often invites me to read her journal. In it she rarely discusses her cancer or how miserable the drugs make her feel or her fear of death. Instead she writes about being on the outside looking in and wonders if bullies’ lives are so miserable that their only source of comfort is to drag others down. Cancer is a crueler bully than any she faced in school, but it’s those kids who continue to haunt her.
San Jose, California