Like a lot of people, I’ve used the internet to track down old friends from my high school days, and I’ve been tracked down, too. Most of the time, we’ve exchanged pleasantries, caught up a bit, and forgotten about each other, at least for a while, but sometimes we’ve actually reconnected, sharing pictures of our kids and promising to visit when we have time. It never occurred to me, though, to use the web to find an old nemesis, until I found My Bully.
It wasn’t even my idea. My wife and I were having brunch with friends we met through our children. School is a favorite topic among parents of pre-schoolers, and this time our conversation turned to bullying, our fears of it, and our memories. It was then that I started to tell The Story of My Bully, because that is how I’ve thought of him for over 25 years. Over that time, he has become for me one of those narratives we make of our lives—a pivotal scene in my personal movie fraught with lessons and missed opportunities.
The story is probably a pretty familiar one. At 13 I arrived in eighth grade at a new school, a big public junior high, after leaving a small, sheltered day school where everyone, including the teachers, was on a first name basis, and the toughest kid was a girl named Gabby who we all heard had beaten up a boy in her neighborhood. I was a fairly big kid, soft, goofy, and completely ignorant of the unwritten social rules and unspoken hierarchies of my new school. The first week was scary: liberal doses of teasing, a nasty homeroom teacher who never smiled unless someone got in trouble, and even a little anti-Semitism, but the worst part, by far, was Scott.
Scott was tougher and meaner than anybody I’d ever known. He wasn’t a particularly big kid, but he carried himself like he was. His shoulders slouched with menace; his blond hair framed a pale face with icy blue eyes over a mouth in a permanent contemptuous sneer. At least that’s how I remember his face. I’m a teacher now, and if I saw that face today, I might see it differently. Maybe I’d see fear, insecurity, neglect or pain, but back then I felt like a bug under his magnifying glass. He wore flannel shirts over concert T’s, and his jeans were perfectly faded and torn. The first words he ever said to me were “fight me.”
And he said them over and over and over, for several months, almost anytime he saw me without an adult around. He’d back me up against a wall, shove me, taunt me, insult my mother, call me anatomical names, trying to find the button that would set me off. I had no idea why he was doing it, and I only have theories now. Maybe he wanted to prove his toughness to the class of 1983, the mean kids and burnouts in our two-grade jr. high—a class everyone said was full of rotten apples. Maybe he saw only my size and figured he’d add to his reputation for fearsomeness if he could break me. Maybe he smelled fear and weakness, recognized it in himself, and hated it enough to want to pound it out of me.
He’d picked a tough quarry, as it turned out. At 13, I’d decided I was a pacifist. The year John Lennon was assassinated I made a makeshift shrine to him on our mantle and played “Give Peace A Chance” constantly. I had a poster of Martin Luther King on my wall, and I decided on passive resistance as my best strategy. I politely told Scott I wouldn’t fight him, that I wouldn’t meet him after school, before school, or any other time, and that while I certainly agreed with him that he could kick my ass, I didn’t intend to give him the chance. I suppose I was proud of myself for turning the other cheek, but it didn’t stop him, and I dreaded walking in the halls or going to the bathroom. I learned to deal with him and the inevitable copycats who pushed me around, and I kept my tears of frustration and misery pretty much to myself at home.
It all ended with a rubber band and a tightly balled up piece of paper (we called it a “paper wad,” and in Scott’s hands, it was like a rubber bullet from a riot gun) that supposedly missed its target and hit me in the neck, just below the right ear. Things had begun to calm down between me and Scott; he’d started to move on to other game—in this case a kid in our grade stricken with horrible acne, worse fashion sense, and a love of disco who was called “The Boog,” a permutation of his last name and his appearance (and not, as he hoped, because he liked to Boogie). If my life-movie was about a kid with a lot of moral courage, I’d have stuck up for him, finally spurred to action to defend another, but it’s a real-life movie, or close to it, so I kept my head low and breathed a little easier each day.
So I wasn’t expecting it in music class when, with our teacher’s back turned and his comb-over on display from behind, I heard a loud “pop” and felt a stinging pain in my neck that knocked me right out of my chair. I put my hand to the spot and felt a welt rising and red heat spreading out across my neck. Scott was standing over me in a second, but he looked worried, and he was apologizing, kind of desperately, as it turned out. “I’m sorry, Matt! I’m sorry. I meant to hit Boogie! I was aiming for Boogie!”
Something snapped and I lunged at him. Since I was a little kid, I’ve had this bizarre habit of biting on my index finger whenever I get really angry. I’m told I look like a lunatic, and I must have scared the hell out of everybody in the room, Scott most of all. “Get that psycho away from me!” he yelled, backpedaling, and more “I’m sorry. I missed!” It didn’t make me feel much better to know he meant to hurt somebody else like this, but I did feel a little better for having scared him, and he never bothered me again.
Or anybody else at my school, before long. He’s not in my tenth grade yearbook. He didn’t make the trip with us to the high school, heading off to reform school, I think. I’d like to say I never thought much about him again, but that would be a lie. I’ve thought about him often, replaying those scenes, staging conversations I wish I’d had, and most of all, imagining myself, just once, responding to “Fight me” with, “Yes. Now,” and cracking him in the nose as hard as I could. If I’d done that, I told myself, it all would have ended very quickly, and somehow, things would have been different. It’s not that high school was miserable. I figured the place out, carved myself a niche without giving up who I was, and even got elected junior class vice-president after a very funny speech, but deep down I’ve always suspected my pacifism in the face of Scott was really half-cowardice, and I’ve wished that I’d given myself the memory of, just once, standing up to a bully.
So I thought about him, but I never knew what happened to him until that conversation, when I finished telling The Story of My Bully and my friend, Reid, said “we’ve gotta find this guy.” He took out his laptop and we did a people search, finding a man who was the right age and lived near where I grew up. We Googled his name and found his obituary.
He had died just a month before at the hospital where my sister was born and where I used to go to get sewn up when I fell off or onto something. The death notice didn’t say how he died, but it did give me some insight into who he’d become.
Whoever had talked to the reporter had called Scott a “trash picker” who liked to pull old machines and gadgets off of junk piles and find something useful to do with them. He had a wife who, with a little more Googling, I learned had been chased by the cops in her car, drunk and with their kid in the back, and then had to be tased twice when she was arrested. He had another kid on the way. It also said he sometimes rescued wounded animals, trying to nurse them back to health. An address was listed to send contributions to an education fund for his children.
I wondered if I should send a check, and wondered, too, what to say in my note. “From the kid he picked on”? “From an old friend”? Perhaps, “I knew him in high school.”
But I didn’t. I think I know him better now. I can see him, I tell myself, growing into middle age, trying his best to make something useful and functional out of the scraps that life let him find. I see him trying to nurse birds and squirrels who had been hurt because they happened to be standing in the wrong place when something big hit them or rolled over them. Perhaps he did this for penance. Perhaps in sympathy. It doesn’t make me like him, but it does make me wish that whatever made him my bully had left him alone.
I never had any doubt that my life had turned out better than Scott’s, and I assumed that, at some point, he’d gotten what he deserved. It’s clear to me now that he never did.