Here’s a little story. Back when I was in high school, well over 45 years ago, my best friend was Bill Foster. Bill and I lived only a couple of blocks away from each other, so we walked to school together and we walked home together.
One day near the end of the school year (1969 I think), I was waiting after school to meet Bill, in my usual spot near his locker on the ground floor. I was standing there, idle and bored, and it was probably for that very reason that I took the mechanical pencil from my shirt pocket (yes, I was a nerd already) and began to color in the numbers stamped into the medallion on Locker 36, the one next to Bill’s locker.
Bill arrived less than a minute later. He dropped off his books, collected his stuff, and we headed out the pale-green double-doors of the school.
As I recall, right after we had crossed the street in front of the school and had taken only a few steps down the sidewalk, someone grabbed me by the shoulder, turned me around and punched me in the face. I instantly went down to the ground, then the person kicked me in the head and started shouting at me about not fucking around with his locker. When I turned to see who it was, all I remember was that the guy was practically spitting and that his hair was flying and beating his own forehead in its fury.
I also remember the heel of his shoe — it was hard rubber. (It was the pre-sneaker era.)
The ringing in my ears made his shouting sound like a drive-in movie speaker turned up full-blast and covered by a pillow. But I couldn’t move or respond, let alone comprehend. At some point, the guy stopped yelling at me and walked off.
I don’t remember how long it took me to collect myself, a minute or so maybe As the fog in my head subsided and I regained a sense of my surroundings, I saw Bill standing there, no doubt as shocked as I was, trying to attend to me and help me get back on my feet. Eventually, we resumed our walk home and we reviewed what just happened.
Bill had to tell me who my assailant was, as I had seen him in school but didn’t know him. The person was someone from Bill’s homeroom — our school assigned homerooms and lockers in roughly-alphabetical order. I think Bill and I decided on our way home that he was a person I should avoid in the future, and I made sure that I did.
In 1969, in our little Pennsylvania town, like every other city and town in the United States in our generation, there were no anti-bullying laws. Scores could be settled as soon as the adversaries stepped off school property. Across the street, school authority vanished.
And parental authority? In even a small city like ours, one’s parents were unlikely to know the parents of your friends let alone those of your adversaries. Even if by chance they did, it was doubtful that your parents’ intervention would settle anything. More to the point, what high-school kid wants to involve his parents and admit to his powerlessness?
So kids like me (I know I wasn’t the only one) took these kinds of hits from life and, with the support of their friends, moved on.
• • • •
Or at least I thought I had moved on. The injustice, the imbalance, of my being beaten up because I pencilled in the numbers on someone’s high-school locker door, stuck with me. In fact, it stuck with me well into my sixties, as evidenced by my internet search last month on the name of my high-school assailant. This was an idle, thoughtless activity on my part, much like the one that preceded my long-ago assault.
My search revealed that my assailant died in 2008 after a “courageous battle with cancer.”
According to his obituary, he was an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan. He enjoyed playing with his dog and gardening. His obituary mentioned numerous surviving relatives, including his wife of the past ten years.
It is hard for me to describe how small I felt after reading his obituary, but that is why I am writing this post. His obituary felt like a second kick in the head.
I had been harboring so much dislike and resentment for so many years against this boy, for the injustice he had inflicted upon me. And now the object of my resentment was no longer a boy, and not just that, no longer alive. Suddenly, the thought of holding a grudge against a dead man was repellent to me.
Justice was not served by his death. I instantly felt sad and ashamed of myself, because after all these years I still had not processed or put into perspective what had transpired that day in high-school. That part of me, the victim part, was still a child.
I hadn’t let my assailant grow up and I hadn’t let myself grow up.
• • • •
I joked with my wife this evening that my blog was 60% political, 30% entertaining and 10% Wonder Years, referring to the late 1980’s television show about a suburban boy self-consciously coming of age. I am a bit surprised that my own wonder years have extended into my sixties, but perhaps better late than never.