I know that you will probably find this hard to believe about someone who does something as cool as BLOGGING, but when I was a kid, I was a complete dork. At recess in elementary school, if people did things to me that I thought they shouldn’t be doing, I would let them know that I was going to go tell the teacher on them–I didn’t want to ACTUALLY be a tattle-tale, so I would go inside and hide in a bathroom stall, wait a minute or so, and then come back out and tell them they were in “big trouble.” I was the sort of kid who stepped on grapes in my classroom at lunch–Then, for something I thought was attention (but was probably closer to disappointment and pity), I would eat that squished grape. In 2nd grade, I called my teacher “Mom” on multiple occasions…. An error that was made even more embarrassing by the fact that my 2nd grade teacher’s name was Mr. Schaaf.
All I really wanted was to be accepted–to be one of “the cool kids.” Unfortunately, I had no idea what it meant to be cool. As far as I could figure out, it had something to do with Guess Jeans, Air Jordans, and attempting to fend off body odor. In 6th grade, a friend told me I had B.O. and I was like, “No way–I shower every day!” He informed me that showering alone was not going to cut it, and told me I needed deodorant. I got my hands on some Speed Stick “Spice Scent” and slathered it on my pits to the point that my shirt became so opaque that you could see all four of my armpit hairs from the outside of my Nike Basketball T-shirt. It was every bit as sexy as it sounds….
Before long (not too coincidentally, it was probably shortly after I stopped smelling like a spice rack and got my hands on the chick-magnet that was Drakkar Noir), I started to feel a little bit cooler. Even though the memories of being a complete dork were fresh in my mind, I had no problem fitting in with the group when it came to making fun of people. I could look around and learn–Learn when to talk, when to stay silent, when to joke, when to be serious…. I was always a witty kid, and that wit, combined with adolescent cruelty, made a particularly potent way of humiliating those classmates who were lower on the social hierarchy than me. And at the little, small-town, Christian school I grew up in, there was no one who was an easier target than Billy.
I couldn’t tell you what Billy was really like, because even after going to school with him for about nine years, I never really got to know him. I don’t think I ever saw him without his glasses. He was thin and gangly. He was hyper and silly. He was socially awkward, but for most of his youth he seemed sort of happy in his role as our geeky classmate. Once, during a Camporee or a Jamboree or some crap, I and some other “cool” kids decided to do something kind, so we let Billy be in our tent. We decided to do a sort of service project, so we offered to give Billy “cool lessons.” I don’t remember the specifics, but it was horribly demeaning. As Billy got older, he seemed less okay with his role as the butt of our jokes. We were terribly cruel, but we told ourselves that it was his own fault for being such a spaz. His compliance with our cruelty came to an end in eighth grade–He did something or said something that resulted in a few people laughing at him, and he kind of snapped. He flipped over a desk with someone in it, and he ran out of the room crying. We acted like a great injustice occurred when our Religion teacher directed his anger at us when it was Billy who had flipped over a desk, but really, we knew the teacher’s anger and disappointment were pointed in the appropriate direction. Billy left our little Christian School that year and fled to the local public school, hoping to find…. I don’t know. A place to fit in? Something like love? Or even kindness? Some secular acceptance? Something different than what he was finding with us–That’s for sure.
The next year, there was a new kid to make fun of. I remember one of the first things I ever wrote that I was genuinely proud of was a short story about Billy (only all the names were changed). The story was in first person, and it told of taking part in the bullying that chased this poor kid away from our “Christian” School, and how we all felt bad about our role in it. The story ended with kids the following year making fun of a new kid because of things that were different about him. It ended with someone saying, “He looks like a monkey!” followed by words showing my complicity in the process: “Yeah,” I said. Unfortunately true-to-form, I was more taken with the praise of my peers pertaining to my writing prowess (that’s some private school alliteration, right there) than I was with the lesson my story hoped to teach.
I thought of that story recently as I watched the trailer for the movie BULLY–One of the kids that the movie follows reminded me of the Billy of my youth. Bullying is basically just cruelty where there is an imbalance of power. I never really thought of myself as a bully. I was a follower. I was the kid who would stand around and watch, and wait for a chance to say something “funny.” But I was also the kid who knew exactly what it felt like to be left out and made fun of…. So I was the kid that should have known better. But I was a scared little kid, whose desire for acceptance was greater than my desire to do the right thing. And Billy, and many other people I’m sure, paid for my cowardice. We were lucky that all he did that day was flip over a desk.
Jesus said that “when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” At some point in my life, something changed in me. It was something that understood what Jesus was talking about when he talked about “the least of these.” It was a change that understood those words with my heart rather than my head. Whatever…. I don’t know what my point is. I guess I just wanted to write about how sorry I am. Last week while I was talking to some fourth graders about bullying, a little girl started crying. And she didn’t stop. I said, “Baby, are you alright?” and she started weeping. Loudly. I looked to a teacher and made a “What do I do?” face, and she said, “It’s the subject matter.” I tried to continue to talk to those kids about how bullying really hurts people–all to the soundtrack of this little girl’s sobs–but as I spoke, I had flashbacks to those days in school. I saw myself being left out, but wanting a friend so bad. I saw myself laughing and pointing at a kid whose only sin was not knowing how to make friends. I saw myself, and I saw Billy–both of us wanting attention and not being sure how to get it. And my eyes welled up.
So God, give us the strength to love the unlovable–even now. Give us the wisdom to teach our children to value kindness and compassion over acceptance and approval. Give us the courage to speak when it is easier to stay silent. Soften our hearts until we hold “the least of these” as dearly as we hold “the cool kids.” Remind us how fragile we are, and forgive us when we forget (or pretend to forget) the fragility of the people around us. Show us how to love!!!
And forgive me, Billy, for every thing I did and did not do to make your childhood more lonely or awkward or miserable that it should have been. I am so sorry.