Getting hit in the back with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while just trying to finish out senior year is an indignity. It’s the kind of thing that happens when your lunch table is full of the smart and nerdy kids that all get relegated to the same social caste in high school. None of the other table dwellers deserved a food projectile any more than I did, but the target was on me.
I have to assume some of the bread and jam shrapnel flying through the air hit you as well, Tyler. I wish it hadn’t.
The duct tape they put in my hair during homeroom of my freshman year at Don Bosco Technical High School took hours upon hours upon years to pull out, strand by strand.
For the next four years, I couldn’t escape being body checked into lockers or having my book bag scribbled on with derogatory words and images I was afraid to show in public, including a nickname I was graced with intertwined with the word “fag.”
Every day, walking the halls was colored with an ever-present fear of physical assault just below the surface. Was there something I had done to wear the scarlet letter of being a loser? Or was just being a chubby, shy kid enough to draw the attention, ire, and angst of those who needed someone to antagonize? They needed their prey: chubby kids with no self-confidence. Like us, Tyler, if we were the same.
My soul started to recover in college. I bloomed, surrounded by like-minded art school kids, a life rich with friends, confidence, and a lack of fear.
When the topic of high school came up, the people in my new life were shocked to discover I had once been shy. One night, I found myself at a college house party filled with friends and friends of friends, and—unexpectedly—a guy from our high school. He sought me out, chatting me up like we were old friends excited to catch up on past times over beers in the kitchen of a kegger. He was a police cadet, he proudly told me, in training to join the thin blue line.
But I didn’t know him at all. I couldn’t remember him, couldn’t place his face, his name, or anything about him. Moreover, I couldn’t understand how he remembered me.Guys like us, Tyler, I thought we faded into the long, locker-filled hallways of the mind. I thought our names were only spoken when they dusted off their yearbooks while cleaning out an old bedroom.
I thought we’d fade into nameless casualties in their memories, vaguely recalled over braggadocious high school stories. I thought we’d surface as faceless, anonymous suckers in the tales of tormenting when “the boys” get together, while new wives looked on, judgmental yet accepting. “Oh, you guys were horrible!” they’d laugh, complicit.
This guy, this new, “old friend” that I didn’t know, drifted through the rest of the party, until he crossed a line. He became rather inappropriate with another party goer and was asked to leave, politely as not to cause trouble, then sternly when that effort failed.
The party’s focus turned to the two of us as I attempted to negotiate his departure. Our tense scene spilled out into the street, where his memories of me came into clearer view. “You were a fuckin’ loser in high school!” he shouted, “And you’re still a fuckin’ loser!”
He followed his declarations with threats to fight me, to kick my ass along with his soon-to-be law upholding pals also at the party. Now that he was the outcast, he made sure to tell anyone who would hear him how pathetic I had been in high school. How pathetic I still was.
Like most threats of bullies and drunk college kids, his huffing and puffing ran out of steam, walking away still tossing unveiled threats and insults. After he left and the hostilities were long over, I was brought back to a familiar and unforgiving Earth, transported back in time four years. My new life was disrupted by an old reality. I didn’t know that stink of being bullied, of being a target, could follow you from one place in life to another.
But you did, Tyler.
When you showed up in my homeroom class junior year, Tyler, I already knew your name. I had friends at a different high school, the only friends I actually had. None of us were high on any high school social food chain, no matter where we took our tests. We didn’t have looks, athletic talents, or girlfriends.
But they told me about you, how you were labeled a loser too, and how you ranked even below them, below us. These kids, who also got their books knocked out of their hands, who also got bodychecked into lockers at random, bragged about destroying your locker, and pushing you out the backdoor of a bus at a random stop. The rumor was you were tired of being bullied, so you left.
My class where I was at the bottom of the food chain and in pain.
You walked in, and I seized the chance to throw you to the wolves. I let everyone who could hear know that you were a loser too. At this new school, this new beginning for you, the stink of who you were, who we were, hung on you. I told them that you were a loser before you were able to get a foot in the door.
Kids, teenagers especially, are skilled at these kinds of venomous ambushes, shortsighted, cruel, and without empathy. I picked on someone else the first chance I got. I called you a loser, and mocked you for any reason I could find.
There is a bitter high school commandment that chubby nerdy kids in the honors classes are going to be bullied no matter what. But that doesn’t excuse or pardon my cruelty. I put you in the crosshairs, Tyler. I wanted someone else to be the loser. I wanted someone else to be the target for once, and to take the heat off of me.
The worst part, Tyler, is that it didn’t matter. Those bullies still found me. They still knocked my books out of my hands, as they did you. They still slammed me into lockers, as they did you. They still teased and mocked me for things I don’t even remember now but can still feel the pain of. It never stopped. Their senior thesis of bullying crescendoed just before graduation, in the form of thrown PB&Js at the bullseye of my back. You walked in two years before that, and I had tried to get them to aim for you. Instead we both sat at that table, bread crusts and dots of jelly scattered like buckshot across us both.