A vast majority of the memories I share on this blog are happy. I have no qualms with telling people how much I loved growing up in my little community. I’ve been particularly reminded of this as we made our trek and relocated West. He-Man and I have been able to reconnect with several friends from high school. It’s been wonderful to see them again. It always surprises me when we meet up with loved ones we haven’t talked to in over a decade and then, we catch up with Frosties at midnight, like no time has passed at all. Or when a group of us find ourselves talking for hours over hummus while telling of our own European adventures.
It’s a beautiful thing. And I find myself remembering why growing up in Dugway was so good.
But not all of my memories are pleasant. Some, in fact, are so incredibly painful and filled with regret. For this reason, I rarely share them. At times, those memories seem too much to bare…but then again, remembering them, allowing them to change me for the better, means that perhaps, I can learn something from the experiences.
This is one of those memories. (Please note: Out of respect for the people involved, I have chosen to be more ambiguous as I have not been given permission to give further details.)
It is of a boy in my school. He was a little different than a lot of us at the time. In the nineties and in a small town, this kind of different was all the fuel thoughtless, unkind kids needed for a bonfire of ridicule.
I sat next to him during a few of my classes. He was nice to me. We talked and he didn’t look at me like I was a mutant. (I was painfully awkward in junior high so having such a friend gave me hope. Don’t get me wrong, there were many others but if an upper class-man treated you like you were okay, you just might begin to believe it.)
Over the course of junior high, he became someone I knew was ‘safe’. Case in point:
He wasn’t one of a circle of star track runners who, upon finding me sitting alone at a meet, stood there and openly mocked me because the Payless running shoes my parents could actually afford were a fraction of the price of their Air Jordans…or whatever they were.
He was not one of the faces in a gaggle of basketball players who snickered as I walked past them after getting out of a pool. This, as ‘friends’ followed behind me whispering and giggling. It wasn’t until after we passed the boys that they told me I had a huge stream of snot smeared across my face.
In my mortified, self-centered state, I wanted to die. Yet, it wasn’t until much later when I realized, my humiliation was nothing compared to what this boy endured. Mine was opportunistic; chance encounters when my insecurity was blazing. His was relentless. He never said anything, discussing why he was different. He didn’t need to. Doing so would have only provided more fodder.
Nothing seemed to stop the cruelty. I was mostly blind to it and had no idea how bad it was until a meet where our school’s track team was miles away from home. Most of the people there probably don’t even remember it. But it ended up leaving a mark on my mind that has stayed ever since.
There we were, sitting in a bus after we’d finished. Suddenly, a heaping armful of kindling was added to the flame for this poor teenage boy. A small act of fate revealed an otherwise benign detail that for wagging tongues, was enough to last them quite awhile.
Before many of us knew what was happening, it had begun. The words and gestures were flying. I looked at his eyes and recognized the loneliness. The bright pink in his face revealed a deep embarrassment made worse by the continuing insults. Many of the observers were silent, probably from shock or an inability to even know what to say or do. For me and probably a few others, it was more because being young and naive, we barely understood what was happening ourselves. Eventually, and what I suspect felt like an eternity for the boy, he had exited the bus. It was probably merciful that he didn’t have to hear the rest.
At this point, let me note, this was years and years ago. Some of you may be wondering why a teacher didn’t step in. I use to wonder to. Then I realized I may have remembered the incident differently than anyone else who was there and made a mental note of it. Perhaps the vulgarities and nasty comments from the back of the bus were not as loud as I remember them being. Maybe it wasn’t as big of a deal to anyone else. I don’t know.
What I do remember is the feeling of hopelessness and regret for not doing something more to help him feel safe, like he was okay…like he had made me feel often before. Why didn’t I have the strength? Even if it wasn’t to cuss the jerks out, why didn’t I show an outward expression of kindness when he needed it the most? Why didn’t I do more?
That is a question I consider from time to time. It has impacted my life…though, the feeling of regret has evolved into something different. It’s become a source of compassion. I never, ever want to be in a situation where another person feels isolated from the world, criticized by all who see them. I never want to be involved in a crowd of people intent on making someone else feel small. (Maybe that is why I generally hate being involved in debate.) I don’t know how others who were there were touched by the incident. I’ve never felt comfortable discussing it with other people. Besides, the vast majority of the faces of the people involved are blurred by my memory now.
I’ve wondered about him over the years. I hope he is happy, surrounded by love and people who appreciate him. While I went on to overcome my junior high awkwardness, developed confidence in high school and was very fortunate to forge life long friendships with people from that time, I don’t know what ever happened to my friend. He kinda fell off the map. I can’t say that I blame him either. He suffered greatly at the hands of many at our school.
I went on to understand that holding grudges over childish, even brutal things teenagers do will only poison myself. I’ve learned to never hold an adult too accountable for their teenage stupidity because chances are likely, the people involved in these memories would be anguished to remember such mistakes. In reality, this memory is less about them and more about me and what I have chosen to do with this valuable lesson.
How I wish I could tell him of my gratitude for his kindness to me.
How I wish I could tell him that he helped me decide who I was going to be. And it’s a person I like to see in the mirror each day?
How I wish I could hug him and tell him how much I care…that he has brought goodness to the world through his gifts, that he has touched others’ lives for the better.
These painful reminders have taught me of real regret. I don’t regret never owning a pair of Air Jordans…or whatever they were. I even don’t regret proving to the basketball team that I do, in fact, have boogers. As it turns out, I have (nearly) teenage daughters who have misbehaving boogers too.
The real regret is passing up an opportunity to make the world a better place, even if only for a second, for another person who needs it. Yes, it’s painful to take a walk down that memory lane but if I learn something more from it, perhaps it won’t be for naught.