There are several occasions over the last 40 years where the animal within the human species snarled at me, and even tried to bite.
More than one of these instances occurred on the island of years known by most as middle school. Both of these episodes had all the trappings of herd, or pack, behavior, and both were occasions of ugly violence, shocking in both their suddenness and ferocity. The following describes one of these events.
A boy I’ll call William was gigantic. He towered over all the other students, including me, and I was considered among the tallest in my grade. He had a shock of blonde curly hair that lifted off his head like fire from a rocket engine. He wasn’t the sharpest saw in the workshop, we all knew, but he was uncommonly kind.
A gentle giant. Always enthusiastic, never offended by the onslaught of insults from all the kids desperate to prove their mettle at the expense of someone else. He ebulliently became kind of a good-natured mascot — which itself was a problem, but not near as horrifying as what was to come.
I was always kind to William. His size inspired in me a kinship of sorts, as we were always looking down on the swirly hair licks and bald spots of the kids and teachers around us. The publisher of this Web site, Mr. Mizer, was once one of the tall kids, as well.
I had other reasons to play nice. When his family relocated to Humboldt County, they moved into a house on Humboldt Hill just two overgrown yards down from mine. His mother and my mother spoke. His dad and my dad may have even shared a beer or three.
Any crime committed by me against William would have been made immediately apparent to my parents, who abhorred bullies and asshole kids in general.
As did I. The real reason why I liked WIlliam, and never bullied or made fun of him, was because I hated unkind people, and for the most part was too busy trying to ward off insults myself to make anyone else’s life hard. I was the bullied, never the bully.
William, like most newcomers, enjoyed a semester-long honeymoon period where the kids pretty much left him alone. They snorted at his size and the slow drawl of his speech, but they kept their hands and worst insults at bay, biding their time.
Such indulgence was short-lived, however. The incident mentioned above happened one afternoon as I and several classmates waited for gym class to let out. A dozen or so of us were gathered on the benches outside the Falcon gymnasium, performing the various social rituals we’d been perfecting since kindergarten, when we heard terrified screaming, followed by a sick sort of syncopated chanting.
Around the corner, from the back side of the gym, a running mob of students burst out into the courtyard where kids would often eat their meals. In the middle, wildly darting this way and that as if desperate to escape, William seemed to drive the chaos forward.
My first thought was that they were playing some sort of a game. I quickly realized, however, that William at least was having little if any fun at all.
The crowd of kids buzzed around him like a swarm of hornets, each one diving in at different times to land a kick or punch, to grab the collar of his day-glo green T-shirt and rip it down the back until it hung on him in tatters.
As they reached the center of the courtyard, William’s feet flipped out from beneath him and his sneaker — it was a white Nike, the black swoosh clear as day in the catacombs of my memory — flipped end over end and landed yards away from me. It was massive, and the sight of it somehow made me suddenly sad, desperate to hide my face and turn off the ugly film playing out in front of me.
The kids pounced, screaming and gnashing their teeth, kicking and flailing while William cried and used his heavy arms to ward off as many blows as possible. That is, until Mr. Mitts, aboard his ridiculously obvious toupee, trotted into the courtyard with an anxious secretary following not far behind.
I had always hated Mr. Mitts. Not sure why. He was almost certainly a decent fellow, one who had dedicated his life to educating children and being an upstanding member of society. He was also scary, and prone to fits of righteous indignation.
But after the kids had scattered, turned to sudden dust amid the swirling cloud of graded worksheets and broken pencils, Mitts restrained himself from chasing after those kids, from seeking immediate retribution and working instead to offer William comfort and compassion in the midst of such errant ugliness. Doing so, he earned my permanent respect.
He knelt down by the scuffed and bleeding boy. He brushed William’s matted hair out of his eyes, and held him while he wept in deep, aching sobs even as the bell finally rang and the courtyard soon filled with the curious and disrespectful stares of the student body.
I don’t know what happened to the kids who attacked William. William himself stopped coming to Zane Junior High, and seemed to just disappear himself over the next few weeks. Most likely, his rightfully concerned parents sought a means to both strengthen and soften their boy’s social life. Zane at the time wasn’t the place for this kind of endeavor.
I’ve never heard anyone else tell of this story, though there were several other kids around. Maybe it’s just better to forget. But as the election fades into the past, and I see the various tribes we’ve all adopted, the various languages we all speak and the lack of respect we share for one another, and I grow sad all over again. It’s the same sad I felt staring at William’s sneaker, white as an orchid on an ocean of blacktop.
We’re all those wild-eyed heathens, stomping a fellow student for not being normal enough, for standing tall but stuttering, for acting overly effeminate in a culture obsessed with its masculinity. We’re all guilty of those same kinds of crimes whether we ridicule other races, other beliefs, other genders, others period.
This was almost 30 years ago. How different are we now? How much do we change from when we’re middle schoolers demanding conformity or else to when we’re middle-aged voters demanding we all think and act the same, in the name of some great country we’ve all imagined but have never allowed to exist?
Not much, it seems to me.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.