Sometimes things happen that you think you’ll never be able to live down.
But is that really true?
She stood, anger still flowing off her in waves. He had a difficult time meeting her eyes. He tried and failed. He started to speak, but stopped. He looked agonized.
My mom said, with rising inflection and hard, uncompromising anger, “The apology?”
Mr. Johnson gave up. I could see it. He turned to me. “I’m sorry, Keith. I hear so many lies from the kids that are sent to me I sometimes don’t realize not everyone is making something up. Your mother is right: I didn’t look into what you were telling me. I will, now, and if I find what you told me is true, I’ll withdraw the detention.”
My mom harrumphed, but didn’t object. What she did do was say, “And, most importantly, if you want this incident to go away, you’ll find a way to protect Keith from all the bullying that will result from the rumors you helped get going. Keith has to be made whole, or we have no deal at all. He has to come out of this intact. No bullying, no rumors, he has to be protected. That’s your job. How you do it is up to you, but that’s your job. Keith will tell me how it’s going. If he’s getting hassled, then we’ll find out if you’re right in thinking there’s no merit in my claims. Of course, we’ll find it out very publicly, and even if there is no merit, think what the notoriety and the coverage in the papers of the lawsuit will do for your career as a public educator. Think about testifying. Think how you’ll answer when I ask you why you had a practically naked teenager in your office alone with you, and why you made him sit there and talk to you instead of being allowed the common decency of getting his gym gear and getting dressed first. And why you then made him sit out there in the office where anyone coming in could see him without any clothes on. Every adult in this community will read about it in the morning paper every day, and it will be drawn out, that I can guarantee. But that’s just every adult in town who reads the paper. It’s the adults on the jury you have to worry about. It’s amazing, absolutely amazing, what pictures a good attorney can put in the heads of jurors, given circumstances like these.”
Mr. Johnson paled. I simply looked at my mother in awe. I knew she could be awfully strong. I hadn’t realized what a good lawyer she could be. Now I was seeing it.
“I think I can do what you want,” Mr. Johnson said, all signs of his hot temper how missing from his voice and demeanor.
“Good,” said my mother. “And the quicker you start, the better. This school has to know that teasing or bullying Keith is a non-starter.”
Then she left Mr. Johnson’s office without looking back, and I was right on her heels.
When we were out in the hallway, my mom walked me to where there were no kids, then said to me, “You’ll be OK now, I think. If you aren’t, you go see Mr. Johnson. He’s a bully, I can see that clear as crystal, but it’s in his best interest to help you. He doesn’t want you complaining to me. So do that if you have to. But try your best to not have to. You’ve got to stand up for yourself, Keith. And this is a good time to figure out how.”
She looked around, saw no one looking in our direction, and then gave me a really quick kiss on the cheek. I could have blushed and complained, but did neither. I liked it and what it meant.
But as I saw her walk off, my stomach started tightening. I was on my own, and the entire school thought I was an exhibitionist who jerked off on the bus and then streaked in the hallways. An exhibitionist bus-wanking streaker.
I turned and started down the hall, toward my homeroom. We all went to homeroom first thing, were checked in for attendance purposes, and heard any announcements the school had for us. It was only a fifteen-minute period. Then it would be on to classes. I passed some kids on my way, but they just looked through me as usual. One nice thing about being a nonentity at school was, very few people even knew my name. So, if they’d heard about a kid named Keith who’d run down the halls naked after spewing seed all over his bus, they didn’t relate him to the scrawny looking nerdy kid walking past them in the hall.
I made it into my homeroom unrecognized and unbothered. Here, though, everyone knew me, or at least knew my name. Here, I’d get a taste of what was in store for me, what I’d have to put up with when people knew who I was.
Except it didn’t work that way. I walked into homeroom, and a lot of kids looked up at me. Even the teacher, Mr. Banton, stopped talking to the kid in front of him and looked at me. The whole room fell silent. Then, before anyone could say anything, the loudspeaker in our room blared into life.
“Attention. All students and staff. There will be an assembly today instead of first period classes. Everyone please go to the auditorium immediately following the bell after homeroom. Thank you.”
We had school assemblies now and then when the principal had things to say to all of us kids and wanted to do it face to face rather than over the loudspeakers in the classrooms. Sometimes assemblies would be for giving awards to kids who’d earned them, sometimes it would be for a speaker of some kind, like a policeman talking about not doing drugs or a college recruiter talking about taking the SATs and getting applications in early. Stuff like that.
At our school assemblies we sat with our homeroom groups, with our homeroom teachers in charge of us. When everyone was seated and the kids’ buzzing finally stopped, the principal didn’t get up in front. As was pretty usual, the principal wasn’t even here. Mr. Johnson was in charge, instead.
“There was an incident yesterday that many of you know about, but rumors have escalated it into epic proportions. You deserve to know what happened. So—”
And then he looked at my homeroom teacher and said, “Mr. Banton, please bring Keith Perryman up here.”
I couldn’t believe it! I was going to have to go up on stage and face the whole school? I must have gone pale, and I know I was starting to shake, but Mr. Banton stood up and beckoned to me, and suddenly I was on my feet and sort of stumbling and then Mr. Banton had his hand around my upper arm and I was being escorted—or perhaps dragged—to the front of the auditorium and up the stairs and then I was standing next to Mr. Johnson. I was sort of out of it, things seemed blurry, and my heart was patty-caking about three times faster than normal. I could hear the sound of my blood roaring in my ears.
Mr. Johnson turned to look at me, then turned back to the kids seated in front of us. Their faces were lit up now, their eyes eager. This was better for them than being on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl.
“OK,” Mr. Johnson said. “The best way to do this is to address all these rumors, to talk about what happened, and to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. I’ll talk about what I heard, and then if anyone in the audience has any questions, you can ask them.
“We should start at the beginning, I guess. The rumor was that a boy was masturbating on his bus on the way to school. That boy was Keith Perryman.” Mr. Johnson stopped and half-turned to me and gestured at me with his hand.
“That isn’t what happened. Is it Keith?”
I shook my head. My throat was way too dry to speak, and anyway, I hated trying to talk in front of people. It always made me think everyone would laugh at me and see how stupid I was. Even in class, when I had to speak, it was really hard for me. In front of the whole school, just the thought of it was terrifying. So I shook my head, but at the same time started to realize I would have to say something eventually, and probably talk about things that I didn’t even want to think about.
“Right. Keith didn’t. Would you like to clear this up, Keith, tell them what really happened?”
I shook my head again, and shook it pretty violently. I began to think about what might happen if I just ran off the stage.
“Well, I’ll tell them then. We all are mature in this room, and have had Sex Ed and learned about puberty and changes boys go through and things like that. So you’ve all heard about wet dreams. That’s what happened here, wasn’t it, Keith?”
I just looked at him, shock on my face. How could he say this?
He watched me for a moment, saw I wasn’t going to respond, and turned back to the assembled kids and teachers. “I guess Keith doesn’t really want to talk about it, but the thing is, it’s OK. Many boys have wet dreams. They used to be called ‘nocturnal emissions’ because they usually happen at night when the boy is asleep, but if it happens during the day when the boy is asleep, he still has no control over it. Which means no one should blame him for it. For what he did. On the bus.”
He looked at me again. I was close enough I could read his eyes. He was enjoying himself, and I felt like curling up in a ball on the stage.
“All right, that was what happened on the bus, and none of the rumors you’ve heard about him standing up and doing it, or dropping his pants so everyone could watch, are true. So let’s move on.
“The other rumor that’s been floating around is that Keith streaked—that means ran naked—down the halls during class break. Did you do that, Keith?”
I shook my head really hard again. If this went on much longer, I’d have a severe headache to go with my terminal case of embarrassment.
“No, he didn’t. Can you tell us what you did do, Keith?”
More head shaking. I’d decided, somewhere between the second and third shaking session that, no matter what, I wasn’t going to say a word.
“No? OK, what happened is, Keith went to the boys’ room, took off his pants to clean where he’d stained them and then was trying to dry them over the hand dryer. What happened then, Keith?”
OK, so my vow of silence was going to last about thirty seconds. But I wanted to say this. If I did it right, it would end up just the way I wanted it to. I was surprised I could think clearly enough, given my present circumstances, to see even a short way into the future.
I spoke up then, and my voice was only a little shaky, and only a little higher pitched than I wanted it to be. “I was drying my pants and two upperclassmen came in, grabbed my pants, stripped me of my underpants, and left me like that.”
That caused a general titter. Mr. Johnson’s glare ended it.
“Who were these kids, Keith? Did you know them?”
I nodded, the first time I’d done that.
“Good.” He smiled at me. “Tell us all their names.”
Hah! It had worked just like I thought it would. Here was my chance!
“Yes, I knew them. Know them. But I’m not telling you who they were.”
“Huh? You don’t want them punished?!”
“Why not? They yanked your underpants off! They stole your clothes and left you like that! They put you into a terribly embarrassing position. A lot of kids have nightmares about being naked in school, other kids seeing them and laughing. Why don’t you want to get them in trouble—get them suspended or expelled?”
It was funny. He had turned to me to ask that, and it was as though he had forgotten he had a whole school listening to him. I hadn’t forgotten that at all.
I tried to sound very mature, maybe even courageous, but I don’t think I pulled it off. I wasn’t either of those things. But I tried. The fact I was shaking so much probably diminished the effect I was after, but I couldn’t help that. Public speaking just wasn’t something I’d ever be comfortable with.
But I had to speak. In fact, I wanted to speak, and that helped. It also helped that Mr. Johnson had asked me a direct question, which gave me the opportunity to answer him back, him and only him, pretending to ignore everyone else. I didn’t really fool myself, but I tried. I knew we had an audience, but directing my words just to him made it easier, somehow. “I don’t tell on other kids,” I said, forcing myself to speak loudly. Then I turned my eyes from him and scanned the crowd. They were all very quiet. I looked back at an unhappy Mr. Johnson.
He looked pissed. It suddenly occurred to me that he’d been attempting to use me. I could guess that he was totally pissed at my mother for talking to him as she had, and he’d come up with the idea of getting back at her by thoroughly humiliating me in front of the entire school, showing the school I was a tattletale in the bargain, but doing it in a way that made him appear to be on my side and doing her bidding. That he was angry now probably was because he saw it wasn’t working exactly as he’d thought it would.
“Well, let’s move on. You say the rumor you were running naked through the hallways was something else that was false, but you were naked after the boys had taken your clothes and left you standing in the boys’ room? What happened next?”
I was going to have to do more talking to the assembly! I hated it. But I couldn’t avoid it now. In as strong a voice as I could muster, I faced them and said, “I wasn’t naked. I still had my shirt. I took it off and covered myself as much as possible, which wasn’t very much, and tried to run to the boys’ locker room while no one was in the halls so I could get my gym clothes. The bell rang when I was only partway there. Then a teacher saw me and pulled me into his classroom.”
Mr. Johnson started to jump in at that point, but I got an idea and didn’t let him. I kept speaking. “He took me to your office for the second time that morning and I told you what had happened again and you didn’t believe me again. You wouldn’t let me get dressed, either. My mother had to come in and straighten you out. She did, got you to apologize, and that’s why we’re having this assembly.”
Mr. Johnson’s face turned so red I thought he was going to explode. He seethed, looking at me. I stared back at him with no expression at all. Inside, I was sort of surprised at what I was feeling. It was something I almost never felt about myself: pride.
I saw something nasty, something evil flicker in his eyes. He turned to the crowd. “OK, does anyone have any questions for Keith?”
There was nervous tittering, and then a boy’s voice from somewhere on the left side and far back yelled out, “What did it feel like, cumming on that bus?” There was a huge roar of laughter, and I took a step back, wishing there was something I could hide behind. Mr. Johnson, probably realizing he’d made a huge mistake—he could just imagine what would happen if this got back to my mom—immediately took charge. “Find out who said that!” he roared, and the room suddenly was very still.
He looked hard at the whole room. I’d been there when he’d done that in the past, and it had always seemed he was looking right in my eyes while he was doing it. I knew why everyone was suddenly quiet.
I was still uncomfortable, though. I’d begun to hope maybe this assembly would actually work. Now I realized there was little chance of that, if the boy’s question was anything to use as a gauge of how people were feeling. They were thinking about the sex parts, not about how I wasn’t to blame. Obviously, no one was concerned at all about how I might be feeling.
I started to hang my head when I heard another voice, out in the crowd. Someone was saying something, but it was too soft, and a few kids yelled, “Louder!” and, “speak up!” There was a pause, and then I heard the voice again, and could understand it this time.
“I think this whole thing is amazing. How many of us could have gone through what Keith did, and then had the nerve to stand up in front of all of us and talk about it? I’d never have been able to do that. Keith may be the bravest boy in this school!” And then he, whoever he was, raised his arm up, yelled, “Way to go, KEITH!” and began clapping, and then, suddenly, the whole room was applauding.
I’m a wimp. I really am. When they did that, tears came to my eyes, and I couldn’t stop them. I had to, though. Exhibitionist bus-jerking-off streaker was bad enough, but exhibitionist bus-jerking–off crybaby streaker was more than anyone who was only 14 could handle, and I knew a bunch of them would misinterpret my tears.
So, somehow, I managed to stop crying. The applause slowly stopped, and a frustrated Mr. Johnson wrapped it up by making a case for no teasing or bullying anyone and especially me. He said there would be dire consequences if anyone was found doing so, that what had just happened with that inappropriate question was just the sort of thing that wouldn’t be tolerated and the culprit would be severely dealt with. With that, the assembly was over.
I climbed down off the stage and walked to where a few kids were still gathered, back where the clapping had started. Yep, just as I thought. There was Gary with a big grin on his face, surrounded by kids clapping him on the back and talking to him. He was smiling, and I could see he was enjoying the attention, but his eyes were focused solely on mine.
I didn’t have much of a problem the rest of that day after the assembly. They nailed the kid who’d asked that question, and a lot of kids saw him being frog marched to the office. We heard he got two weeks detention and a warning about his future conduct. So, with all that, kids were careful around me. At least when any teachers were around, and they were usually around somewhere.
At lunch, I sat down at an empty table by myself as usual. I had money for it today, at least, which wasn’t always the case. Mom sometimes didn’t remember to leave me any in the morning, and I often ran late, so didn’t have time to make myself lunch when I saw the money wasn’t there. Today, I was able to eat.
I didn’t fit with any of the groups at school, and wasn’t good at making friends. I was too shy to try to force myself on other kids. But today, boys kept coming up and wanting to ask about what it felt like, doing the things I’d done yesterday. Some even sat down with me. I guess being naked in school, or the next best thing to naked, really stirs up the imagination. But being stripped in the bathroom by bigger kids, or doing what I’d done on the bus, was the stuff of legend, too. Guys wanted to know all about it first hand. I could see them trying to imagine it themselves. I think they wanted to experience what I had, although both vicariously and safely. I had the feeling I might be talking about this stuff for a long time.
As guys were sitting down at my table, and I was relating yesterday’s circumstances, I was thinking. I could come out of this a much different guy than I’d been going into it. I’d been a nobody, completely invisible, and now everyone in the school knew me. Mr. Johnson made sure of that by hauling me up on the stage. Boys wanted to talk to me. Girls were looking at me. I realized I only had to adopt an air of bravado, or casual indifference, or ribald humor, or any of a number of other attitudes, and I could be a hero, and probably have a much different time in school after this. Kids would know me, and if I met their overtures with the right responses, I’d be one of them, be included in things, be sought out.
I thought about that as these boys were hanging over me, their eyes avid, wanting to talk about what happened on the bus, the boys’ room, the hallway, even what happened in Mr. Johnson’s office. I thought about being popular, and then I thought about why I was a nobody. It was who I was, and I was used to it. At this point, I guess it didn’t bother me all that much. It was my personality to recede into the background. These guys were different; they all liked to be one of a group, to play basketball with each other in their driveways, wrestle on their lawns, invite each other over for video game tournaments, or pizza pig outs, or even to watch DVDs on their TVs followed by sleepovers. I didn’t do those things. It was partly because of how shy and introverted and self-conscious I was, and partly because of the way it had been at home the past few years. Inviting someone over when I never knew what would be going on there, like if there’d be a blowup and I’d be humiliated, just wasn’t something I was going to do.
I read books a lot and really enjoyed doing that. I did a lot of exploring on the computer, and not just on those kinds of sites either, and had become very content being reclusive. That’s what I was, a recluse, and what I liked to call myself. I’d looked up words that meant someone who spent most of his time alone. I knew all sorts of them. I sort of liked the taste and feel of the word recluse. Hey, it’s a lot better than calling yourself a separatist. That makes people check you out to see if you’re wearing one of those vests that people only wear once.
Also, calling myself a recluse allowed me to dream a little. I liked the feeling I was some sort of dangerous character, like a spider, waiting in dark places to strike the unwary and wreak my venomous havoc. Hey, I’m 14. Believing in superheroes isn’t that far in my past.
Anyway, I thought about all these kids eating lunch with me and feasting on every word I said, and realized I enjoyed the attention, but that I couldn’t really pull off being like them on a regular basis. I’d have to adopt a pretend personality that wasn’t who I really was to keep them interested in me, and not only did I think that wouldn’t be possible, I knew I didn’t want to try. I was me, and I was comfortable with that. If these kids now found me interesting, it was not because I’d suddenly become someone they wanted to get to know and hang with, it was only because of yesterday’s circumstances.
But by being with me at lunch, they made me realize that I was lonely, and that having friends would be nice, but also that I wanted friends who wanted to know me and were interested in me because they saw something in me that they liked, not because I’d had an accident on the school bus or was caught semi-streaking in the halls.
I knew I’d never be comfortable in a big group of kids, being an active part of that scene. What I wanted, what would be perfect for me, was one friend, someone I could talk to and share my thoughts with, and knowing he felt the same way about me. I wanted someone I could trust. Just one person. That’s what I’d be most comfortable with.
And that made me think about Gary. He’d told me he wanted a friend, and he wanted that friend to be me. I didn’t really know him or know why he thought I’d be a good friend, but I had felt some chemistry when I was with him yesterday, briefly, and when I’d talked on the phone with him.
He’d stood up for me with my mom, and was the reason I now had a new relationship with her, if her present attitude lasted. That was Gary’s doing.
But I knew instinctively that he was different from me. Way different. Not only had he confronted my mom, he’d also spoken up in assembly, even got other kids to applaud. I never could have done that. He’d been here for one day and already he had a few boys hanging around him in the auditorium. He’d needed a friend at the beginning of that first day, but it looked to me like he didn’t need one by the end of the second. He had charisma, he had self-confidence, he was good looking, and was the sort that never had any interest in the kind of person I was. He made friends the way honey drew ants. I had all the charisma of a dead stump.
I was starting to depress myself. Thinking we could be friends was just a wishful dream I’d had yesterday. Gary wasn’t in any of my classes, and didn’t ride my bus. I didn’t see him in the cafeteria, so he probably had a different lunch from me.
I sighed and gathered up my lunch remnants. The period was about over. The boys at my table had begun to drift away as all the lewd details of my day had been broached and discussed. Now, I was alone at the table again, and it was time to go anyway.
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