How does a high school freshman
who feels insignificant and invisible
respond to life in his new school?
We lived in a second-floor apartment over an accountant’s offices. It was Mom and Pop and my sister Angie. And me of course. Jason McCaffrey. Angie was three years younger than me, still in elementary school, whereas I was now in high school. Just. I was a freshman, with all that entailed.
We didn’t have much money. Dad had been injured on his job and couldn’t work outside the apartment. Even though he was smart and educated, he couldn’t get around much on his own and was stuck at home because we couldn’t afford the kind of van he’d need to travel in. It was a major undertaking for him to go anywhere. He did some phone solicitation work. That was a terribly frustrating job, especially now when so many people let their answering machines screen their calls. He brought in very little income, but he did maintain some of his pride by doing what he could to help out, and Mom gushed over his check when it arrived each month, no matter how small it was.
I was proud of him. He kept an even disposition and tried hard not to be depressed. That took an inner strength I really admired.
Mom was a cook at a small neighborhood restaurant. She’d taken the job out of necessity. The restaurant was downtown, like our apartment, and did a much better lunch business than dinner. That meant she was able to be home for us before it got too late most every night. She didn’t make much money, either, but we got by.
Dad had been a supervising engineer at a metal-working plant. He was a bright guy and had always been happy and energetic and a great dad. Since the accident, he’d sunk into himself more and more when our financial situation deteriorated; Mom had had to go to work. We’d had to sell our house and move into the small flat where we now lived. He felt he wasn’t doing his job as a man to support his family. I told him he was doing everything he could do, and that I—that all of us—were proud of him. Proud that he hadn’t given up, that he was still the head of our household, and that he was keeping his spirits up. After that, if he was depressed, he didn’t let us see it.
He’d been hurt saving one of the men on the shop floor. The man had been standing under a load of sheet steel that a crane was moving. The load came loose. Dad pushed the man out of the way, and he’d been hit instead. He’d never be able to walk again, and had also lost the use of his left arm. The company’s insurance helped some, as had Workman’s Comp, but the hospital costs had been enormous, then the therapy he’d needed had been still more, and the insurance had maxed out long before all the bills had been paid. Workman’s Comp was the only thing that kept our heads above water. Just barely above water. That was why we’d had to sell the house and take the equity we’d built up to pay down the hospital bill. There were still debts, but you can’t get blood out of a stone. Dad said that a lot. Mostly at the end of each month when the bills arrived. Mostly with a wan smile on his face.
But we did okay. Mom was able to bring food home from the restaurant most days, so that was one cost that wasn’t too bad. Clothes—well, if Mom and Dad were making do, making it through the day with their heads held as high as possible, how could Angie or I make a fuss over wearing second-hand clothes? It was harder for her than for me. She was 11, and girls in her class were beginning to notice who wore fashionable gear and who didn’t.
My life had changed considerably in a very short period of time. I’d gone from a middle class kid to a poor one. While I’d never been a life-of-the-party sort, I’d had friends. Somehow, being poor, I’d lost a lot of self-confidence. I didn’t speak up much any longer and sort of let life wash over me instead of participating in it.
I was a freshman boy in a fairly large school. I wasn’t noticed much, which was good, because if I had been, I’m sure I’d have been teased. If you didn’t wear the right clothes or have the right stuff, you’d get singled out. It didn’t happen much to me, but I kept waiting for it to. How you reacted to teasing depended a great deal upon who you were. If you decided any teasing about your clothes meant more about the character of the teaser than the teasee—oh, wait a sec. Is that a word? Well, it should be. If ‘teaser’ is a word, why isn’t teasee?
Sorry. I get to wondering about things like that. Especially words. I read a lot, and I like words. Interesting ones. My current favorites were chimera, oxymoronic, contumelious, protean, and uxorious. I’d play games, trying to put them all in the same paragraph in a story I’d be writing. Maybe it made me a snob, wanting to know words other kids my age didn’t, but maybe not, too. Maybe it gave me something to be proud of. I didn’t have many things like that. However, I’d learned not to use such words when I was around other kids my age.
But anyway, I felt anyone who teased someone for wearing clothes that weren’t the best brand or the newest fashion was simply a lout. Worthy of my contumely—not that I’d ever be bold enough to show that. (Hah! I used one; well, sort of. Is that a variant? There’s so much about English I’m not sure of. But I love words!) Because, how many 14-year-old boys buy their own clothes? Damn few. Sure, they’ll tell their moms what they want, but what they get depends on a whole lot of things that are mostly out of their control. I wasn’t the only boy in grade 9 who didn’t dress well or even close to fashionably. That’s just the way things worked. If you were teased, it was up to you how you reacted. My way so far had been to ignore the provocations and to laugh along with everyone else. If they saw they weren’t getting to you, they left you alone, usually.
Funny how things work, though. I never once heard one of the kids who dressed like I did complain about their clothes or talk enviously about what other kids had. Kids who had nice clothes but not the very best—those kids I did hear bitching about it.
Teasing and bullying were prohibited at my school. The same way rough stuff in gym class was—and fighting, too. That’s what it said in the school handbook, so it had to be true.
That’s a joke.
There was a lot of bullying going on at our school. Some of it was physical; some was more mental and psychological. Some kids just felt they had to put other kids down in order to show their superiority or because they wanted to be noticed or didn’t have a lot of self-esteem, or, well, who knew all the reasons? All I knew was that it went on all the time. Handbook or not.
Like in most high schools, I imagine, the staff either didn’t know about or didn’t want to know about some of the things that went on. Life was easier for them that way. Sometimes fights broke out and someone got hurt. Sometimes there were other repercussions after the fact. But if none of the adults in charge knew about what was going on, they couldn’t be held responsible, and so they made a point of not knowing. That seemed to be the way of the world at our school. Everything that happened wasn’t just witnessed by students; adults often saw it, too,, and if the staff wasn’t going to get involved, the students felt it would be safer for them not to say anything, either.
This didn’t work very well for those on the lower rungs of the social ladder. If some boy got beaten up, but who’d done what to whom couldn’t be verified by an adult, well, nothing could be done. That’s what the principal said. Of course, we’d been told he had assigned all the adults working at the school to be on the lookout and to monitor the hallways and cafeteria and bathrooms and outside grounds. But it was amazing how little any of these people saw. Amazing. But it did make their lives easier. Just not ours.
I saw some of this. It went on, and no one seemed to care if some kid got beat up or if homework was stolen or money taken or if a kid was disparaged on the Internet to the degree he couldn’t show his face at school or ended up doing something much more tragic. I keep using the masculine pronoun here, but it affected girls as much as it did boys. Maybe more so, as girls tended to be more tribal and often more vicious and had less conscience. It seemed that way to me, at least.
I was on the lowest ladder rung simply because I was a freshman. I was 14 and wouldn’t be 15 for a few months yet. Kids my age often have idealistic feelings. They’ve already learned that the world isn’t fair, but while they’ve learned that lesson, they still have enough child in them to wish it weren’t true, to be angry that it wasn’t true. They wanted to live in a fairytale world where good kids prospered and bad kids were caught and punished, where all adults were kind and caring, where bad people always met with their own personal comeuppances.
I saw how the world really worked at high school. I was a nobody there. I was small, I’d been a little shy when we had more money and a lot more shy now because we didn’t, and I’m sure in everyone’s eyes I was inconsequential. Easy to overlook. Easy to dismiss. I was just background noise.
That was the collective thought; it wasn’t mine. I believed I mattered, and my personal existence was just as important as anyone else’s. I did understand I was still a kid and, as such, had a lot of maturing to do. But I didn’t feel insignificant. And I did not think my beliefs were insignificant, either. I hated the fact that bullies got away with screwing up the world I lived in. I didn’t see why the world couldn’t be fair. And I thought a lot about that—but didn’t do anything about it. How could a pipsqueak like me do anything about anything?
OK, by now anyone reading this knows one thing for sure: I am, and was, a grade-A, certified, full-fledged nerd. Well, it came with the territory, I guess. We didn’t have much money, very little for things that most boys had. I didn’t have a cellphone, for instance. Nor a computer. Nor any video games. This left me out of the loop. Those were things other boys had and expected every other boy to have. What they talked to each other about often hinged on their common experiences. What games they played, what movies they’d seen. Me, not so much. Movies cost money. So did games. I wasn’t in the loop.
I had to use the computers in the library at school or the main city library when we had assignments that required a computer. As such, I couldn’t look up some of the sites I heard other boys talking about. I couldn’t see what they saw, learn what they learned. Sure, we had Sex Ed. I’d had it last year. But from what I overheard, Sex Ed and some of the free porn sites on the internets were about as similar as cotton balls and steel wool.
So what did I do with the time other boys spent with their phones and computers and games and other things I couldn’t afford? What I did either made me a nerd, or I was a nerd because of what I did. The chicken-and-egg sort of conundrum. What I did was, I read. A lot. We didn’t have money for books, but you don’t need that. All you needed was access to a library. And we lived downtown. Which was where our town’s library was located. And there was the one at school, too.
I’m coming to a point here, just taking a bit of time getting there. I’m pointing all this out to explain why I did what I did. I probably wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for all the time I spent in the library.
That was where I read a little about Plato and Aristotle. See, I was curious about the world and why we were as we were, why good people didn’t get rewarded just for being good like I thought they should; at the same time, bad people often benefited or at least weren’t punished for their badness. Seemed to me I might find a rationale for something like that by reading a little philosophy. And the underpinnings for that started, for us Westerners, with those two guys and another dude, Socrates. Plato learned from Socrates, and Plato was followed by Aristotle. Those latter two were quite a pair.
Plato had his head up in the clouds more than his buddy Aristotle. Maybe buddy is the wrong word, because while Aristotle learned at Plato’s feet, he was independent enough to see things differently. Plato was more abstract, Aristotle more practical. Plato thought man’s purpose was to reach for truth and understanding, which would illuminate his soul, but that it was the reaching itself that mattered. Aristotle lived more in the temporal world and thought that we’d be better off learning how best to survive in that world rather than living with our heads in the clouds. He thought we should try to understand our world and our individual place in it. Plato was more into spirituality and leaps of faith and intuition. Aristotle was all about logic and material reality.
Well, that’s what I got from reading about them; so much of it was over my head, mostly, so perhaps my interpretation of it was a bit askew. Hey, I was 12 when I started reading that stuff. Give me a break! I read some sentences three times without getting much of anything from them other than a headache. And I was disappointed that I really didn’t get an answer to ‘why’ in the good vs. evil fracas—why nice guys can be called good even when they aren’t and mean guys can always be called evil, which I know isn’t always true. I mean, I’ve actually seen nice guys sometimes do mean things and mean guys, less often but occasionally, be nice. Absolutes don’t seem to work with people, but there is one thing that seems to be true: the good guys often get left standing umbrella-less in the rain in a foot-deep puddle while the bad guys are riding past in a limo.
That life wasn’t fair really bothered me. I thought about it a lot.
Which perhaps explains why I did what I did. For you fellow Aristotelians, this event happened and was what motivated me to do something.
This has just been background. I’d like to call it ‘foreplay’, but malapropians might squawk.
Marcus Gainer was a kid something like me. Well, he was poor. That was the main similarity. I was kind of normal for a kid my age in looks, even if a bit shorter and lighter than most. He had a sort of awkward appearance like some 14-year-olds exhibit, looking like he still needed to grow into who he’d be when older. Gawkish is probably the word. Nothing on his face seemed to fit. His nose was too long, his ears too big, his neck too narrow, his eyebrows too bushy. The effect would have been comical if it hadn’t been so, well, almost grotesque.
His main problem was he was sensitive about how he looked. Some kids would have carried it off by just accepting they would look different in a year, probably in six months, and ride with the punches. Marcus couldn’t do that. Every remark he got, and he got them constantly, hurt him, and he let it show. He had a couple of disparaging nicknames and they were thrown at him everywhere. Goof-face was one of them. The other was scatological, and that was used even more. I even heard some of the girls using that. No one who knows them at all will ever call most girls our age nice; it’s ill-suited to their nature.
Marcus didn’t have any friends, any more than I did. You might have thought that would have brought us together, but it didn’t. Besides his looks holding him back, he wasn’t very bright. There wasn’t much I could have talked to him about, and in any event, he probably avoided me as much as I did him. I was known to the scant few who knew me well enough to label me at all as a bookworm, a teacher’s pet and a nerd. Why would he want to associate with me?
No, he was all alone, like I was. He was also a great source of amusement to those among us who like to take advantage of kids who don’t know how to respond to taunts and jibes—to those who had little conscience and were sociopathic enough to enjoy making others miserable. OK, so I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about some boys, either. But most boys are better than that. Only some of the girls are.
Anyway, I hated to see him being mistreated, but what could I do?
The event I wanted to highlight was this. One day I saw Marcus coming out of the boys’ bathroom. He had a huge wet spot on the front of his jeans. He came out blushing, and was followed by two of our well-known bullies, twin brothers in 11th grade, Tom and Frank Browner. As Marcus hurried away, Frank yelled after him, “Hey, Fartface. How many times do I have to tell you? You’ve got to take your dick out of your pants before pissing. Or did you try and weren’t able to find it?”
This was followed by Tom saying in a voice loud enough to be heard across town, “He was trying to find his dick. I saw him trying for five minutes, his hand going back and forth in his pants. Maybe that isn’t all piss on his pants.” Then he made a jack-off motion with one hand, his other pointing at the retreating Marcus.
I’d been down the hall from this a ways, and Marcus was walking toward me and away from the boys’ bathroom. I was looking right at him. And I could see tears in his eyes and on his cheeks.
How many high school boys want people to see them crying? None, that’s how many. And seeing the humiliation on Marcus’s face really pissed me off. It was that, witnessing his misery, that made me resolve to do something about what went on at this school. Because I saw one of our teachers, Mr. Grant, standing in the hall, pretending to be looking the other way. But he’d been there when Marcus had come out of the bathroom, and he’d been there when the Browners had called out at him. Mr. Grant had seen and heard that bullying. And now he was looking the other way. He was doing nothing about the Browners. Ignoring them. Letting it all happen.
I was pissed, and determined, too. So much so I didn’t even take note of the click I heard behind me. But when I heard it again, it registered. I turned around and saw a kid I knew standing there, right behind me and looking where I’d been looking, holding his cellphone. He had an expression on his face that was probably like the one I had on mine. But then, seeing me looking at him, he smiled.
I knew who he was. His name was Stuart. I only knew that because I knew the names of most of the kids in my grade. I didn’t really know him personally, though I did know as much as a person can from just seeing other students and watching them interact with each other.
He was someone most kids knew. Stuart Fong was good looking and personable, and good-looking, outgoing boys were up the social scale about twelve notches from where I was. He had an American mother and Chinese father and he seemed to me to be a perfect blend of the two. He was popular because he was so attractive but also because of his great personality.
He saw me, saw my face, and said, “Looks like it bothers you, too.”
“Yeah,” I replied, my anger overriding my usual reticence.
“I think we should do something about it,” Stu said.
I heard that ‘we’. I heard it loud and clear. And my nerves started jangling; I wasn’t expecting to be talking to anyone, and a cute boy? I was unprepared. But I was still mad enough to answer him. “Do what?”
He gave me a look. “Hey, you’re supposed to be the genius. You’re the one to get the ideas. I’m just the sidekick who goes along with your scheming. I’m only back-up, you know?”
“You are? I am? What are you talking about?”
He giggled. A giggle is a long way from being mad—which he’d been a moment before—but that’s what he did. “About what we’re going to do about it. Duh. Follow along here. You’re the smart one.”
I didn’t feel very smart. I felt out of my depth. I was talking to one of the popular kids, and he was acting as if I was his equal. I had no time to think or figure this all out. “You’re saying we, you and I, should do something about the Browners?”
“Well, maybe,” he said, sounding more uncertain. The Browners were scary. “That might be harder—and risky. Mostly I was thinking about doing something about the staff not protecting the students.”
“Really? Because that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about. And seeing what happened to Marcus, I’d just made up my mind what to do. You wanting to do something about this, too, well, it’s serendipitous.”
Oops. That just slipped out. I was hoping he hadn’t noticed. But when I saw him take a half-step back and open his eyes wide, I knew he had. “Whoa!” he said. “I guess everyone who says you’re smart isn’t lying. What does that mean?”
“Serendipitous? It means finding joy or happiness where you didn’t expect to. Like it’s serendipity, you wanting to do the same thing I do.” I didn’t add, wanting to do it with me, but wow, I was sure thinking it.
“So what were you going to do?” Stu was talking to me like we were and had been friends. We weren’t and hadn’t. This took some getting use to for me. Jason the loner—friends with Stu Fong, the popular guy everyone liked. Stu was looking at me, sort of like I was in charge here. Not a look I’d seen before.
“I was going to go to the library and think it out. I have sort of a plan. A lot of my plans don’t go anywhere, but maybe . . .”
“OK. We’ve got classes now, but after school? I’ll meet you there.” He grinned at me, and I couldn’t help but grin back, and feel sort of fuzzy all over. I wasn’t used to cute kids grinning at me. Any kids for that matter.
I nodded, then rushed off. I was still a nerd, even if I almost had a friend now, and nerds don’t like to be late to class.
The school library was basically empty after school. It wasn’t very busy during the day, either. I smiled at the librarian when I came in, and she smiled back. We were almost friends. I was in there so frequently it was embarrassing. Why? Well, check the part of this up above where I spoke about teasing. ‘Library’ has several definitions, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it defined by the word I had for it: haven.
I’d spent the rest of the time in school that day just waiting for the final bell to ring. I was a mix of feelings, and most of them were good. I really missed not having friends. I doubted that’s what Stu and I would become, it seemed improbable, but at least we’d be spending a little time together, and such was my loneliness that even that little bit of friendliness would mean the world to me.
I sat at a table in the back. All of the tables were in plain sight of the librarian; the school powers weren’t stupid. But we were far enough away from her that she wouldn’t be able to hear what we were talking about.
Stu came in only a minute or so after I did. He saw me, grinned, and walked over and took a seat. “I weren’t sure you’d show up,” he said.
“Really? I was looking forward . . . I mean, why wouldn’t I?”
“I don’t know. I was just nervous you wouldn’t. Anyway, you said you had an idea. Can you tell me about it?”
I think I blushed. “Well, it’s just an idea. Probably not a good one. Probably just a fantasy. Probably—”
“Stop! You at least have an idea. I’ve got squat! Anyway, that’s why we’re doing this together. You tell me about it, we discuss it and see if we can make it better. Two heads are better than one, you know, although, if one of them is mine . . .” He tapered off for a second, then came back. “Damn! You’re not even looking at me! You’re shy, aren’t you?”
I took a deep breath and then another. I tried to meet his eyes. “Yeah. A little.”
“Well, don’t be with me. Just tell me what you’re thinking. I’ll bet you anything that once you start talking, you forget all about being nervous.”
“What do you know about being shy?” I said, then almost swallowed my tongue. Who was I to be confrontational with him?
I could see empathy in his eyes, which in a way made it worse. But I stopped my negative thinking and pulled myself together. I knew I got shy when I thought about myself, about how I appeared, about what someone was going to think about what I said. The best way to get past this was just to talk. So, I did. I beat him to the punch, didn’t let him answer my snarky question.
“OK, I’ll tell you what I was thinking.” I stopped for a sec, thinking how best to do this, then suddenly smiled. “You know who Socrates was, don’t you?”
He gave me a look like I’d gone crazy. I stared back, tacitly encouraging him to answer.
“Well, sort of. He was one of those old guys, wasn’t he? A philosopher. Greek or Roman or something?”
“Right. And he developed what is called the Socratic method. It’s a way to generate ideas, and then to dig deeply into them. One of it’s key tenants is asking questions that further debate.”
He’d wrinkled his forehead, but was grinning. “You talk funny,” he said, then laughed.
I looked down. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. I get worse when I’m excited.”
“It’s fine,” he said, sounding very sincere. “But go ahead. If I don’t understand something, like what key tenets are, I can ask. Hey, maybe that makes me like Socrates!”
Now I had to laugh. He’d eased my tension by not making fun of how I spoke. “OK,” I said, “I think the best way to get into what my plan is would be for me to ask you some questions. The first is, What do we want to accomplish?”
“We want to stop the bullying in the school? We want what happened to Marcus not to go unpunished? We want to make the school a safer place for all kids.”
“OK, good! And why isn’t this school doing that already? Doesn’t the school handbook say bullying isn’t permitted?”
“Yeah, but that isn’t enforced.”
We were getting there! I was leading him where I wanted him—well, us, really—to go. I didn’t know if he was aware of that, but I was, and I was excited about it. “Why isn’t it?”
That made him pause. Then he said uncertainly, “I don’t know. Maybe the teachers don’t want to deal with it.”
“But aren’t they supposed to? Won’t they get in trouble if they don’t do what they’re told to do?”
“Not if the rules aren’t enforced by their boss.” He said that, and then his expression changed. He’d realized something—something that was part of my plan all along.
“And who has to enforce the rules for them to work, for them to mean anything?” I asked with a smile on my face.
“The principal! Principal Cotton! That’s what’s happened; he never does anything to stop the bullying. When someone is called in and accused of bullying or starting a fight or anything else, he doesn’t do anything!”
I smiled. Then laughed. “Old Socrates knew what he was doing, didn’t he?”
In my excitement, I failed to notice Stu’s expression changing. He was now frowning. “What?” I asked.
“But if Principal Cotton is the problem, there’s nothing that we can do about it.”
I nodded. “Yeah, that makes it harder, which is why I made a plan.”
“Oh, yeah. The one you were going to tell me about, but never did!”
He was grinning. I liked talking to him. I wondered if he was enjoying talking to me. He looked like it. Well, I could always hope that’s why he looked like this.
“OK, I just wanted you on the same page I was on when I told you what I was thinking about. It makes more sense if you know what the objective is. See, what I am going to start doing is making a notebook. In it I’ll research any bullying I see or hear about. Then, when we have enough, we can present it to the principal. He’ll have a hard time ignoring it if we do it right.”
“What does that mean, doing it right?”
“It means finding out just what happened, who saw it, what faculty or staff member saw it, what the witnesses say, when and where it happened, all sorts of stuff. And you gave me a great idea. If we can get pictures, even videos, of something happening, that’s additional proof, and much harder to ignore.”
He was nodding. “Yeah, how can he just ignore events that are well documented?” Then his face fell. “But what if he does? I mean, he’s already shown that he won’t do anything about bullying. We give him the notebook, he says, ‘OK, I’ll look at this,’ and then that’s the last we hear of it. What then?”
“We’ll have to face that if it happens, but there’ll be a lot of pressure on him. He’ll see all the people involved, the aggressors, the victims, the witnesses, everyone. I think he’ll do something. I think he’ll have to. If not, well, we can decide what to do then.”
“OK.” Stu was enthusiastic, and it showed in his body language. “So now what? How do we get started?”
“I’ll start writing up what I saw today. I’m better at writing than I am at talking to people. What you could do, if you wanted, was to ask Marcus what happened. Record what he says on your phone. Then I’ll write that up. We should interview the Browner kids, but that might be dangerous. What about Mr. Grant? Can you talk to him? And print out the picture you took with your cellphone, showing him watching Marcus walk away? I hope it has the Browners in it.”
“Sure, I can talk to Mr. Grant. I’m in his English class. He seems OK. I’ll bring you the picture tomorrow.”
“Great. All right then. That’s the plan, and we both know what to do. I’ll get started writing up what I saw now. You can maybe talk to Marcus tomorrow.” I pulled a spiral notebook out of my backpack and put it on the table.
Stu started to get up, then dropped back into his chair, looking at me. He didn’t say anything, just looked at me.
“What?” I finally asked.
He opened his mouth, then shut it again. “Uh, nothing. See you tomorrow.” He stood up then, looked like he was starting to blush, turned and left.
Then, when I was writing all about Marcus running down the hall and who was there, witnessing it, Stu came back. He stopped in front of my table. I looked up.
“I don’t know if you know, but I wanted to be sure. I mean, if we’re going to be doing this together. We’ll need to spend time together, and kids will see us. You need to know before we’re into it. I’m gay. I’m out. Not that it’ll make any difference or anything. I just didn’t want you getting teased and not know why. And if you’d rather not do this with me because of that, it’s OK.”
His eyes were really large. I could read them as though they were speaking to me. What they were saying was, ‘Please, be OK with it.’
I felt like I should stand up, so I did. It felt wrong with him standing and me sitting, talking about this. When I was standing, I said, “That’s no problem. What my problem is, I don’t have any friends. I’m really excited about this because, maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a friend now. If you’re brave enough to tell me something you think I won’t like, I guess I can be brave enough to tell you something about me that you’ll find off-putting. That I’m a nerd. I talk funny and don’t socialize well. My family is poor and some kids seem to think that rubs off if they associate with me.
“Look—I don’t care if you’re gay. Maybe you won’t care that I’m a nerd and poor and all alone.”
I don’t know whether my eyes were big, like his, but he was sure looking into them.
“I want to be your friend, Jason. I like you already. I did before I got up the nerve to talk to you. So you don’t need to worry about that. OK?”
He smiled and walked away. I was smiling so hard with my heart thumping about out of my chest that I think I broke my lips.
The next day, we met after school again in the library. We only had one class together, and I’d spent much of it looking at him. He sat a couple of rows over from me and four seats closer to the front.
I was at the same table in the back of the library when he walked in.
He was excited, bouncy even. “I’ve got that picture, and it does show all four of them: Mr. Grant, Tom, Frank and Marcus.” He handed it to me. He’d caught Mr. Grant just before he’d turned around. He was looking right at Tom as he’d been making his obscene motion in Marcus’s direction. Marcus’s coming toward the camera, his legs a blur, made it obvious he was fleeing.
“Perfect,” I said, and Stu grinned. “Even better—I got Marcus to talk to me.”
“How did you manage that?” How I envied guys who could just go up and talk to other kids. I couldn’t do that to save myself. I think it’s a matter of self-confidence. I didn’t have any. Maybe it’s more difficult to have that if you’re poor. Or maybe it was just a character defect I had.
“I smiled at him.”
Stu smiled at me, and I felt it all the way down to my stomach. Then he blushed. “I seem to have that effect on people. Especially boys. Well, some boys.” He blushed a little harder. “Maybe it’s because they know I’m gay, and that plus the smile makes them think things that they try not to think about. At our age . . . well, the smile distracts them, and I can usually strike up a conversation with them. Especially if they’re a little off-balance.”
I thought back to when I heard that click the day before. When I looked up again, he was wearing that smile. I took a deep breath.
“So you spoke with him?”
“Yeah. I got him to talk to me. I’d thought that those two bullies had caught him in the boys room and one held him while the other splashed water on his pants. It was worse than that. They caught him at the urinal. Frank grabbed him and pulled him away and he ended up pissing on the floor and a little on his pant legs. Tom scolded him for doing that and told him he was naughty and had to be punished. Then Tom took out his own dick and pissed all over the front of Marcus’s pants. Then they let him go, and pushed him out the door before he could clean himself up or put himself away. He said he was still tucking himself away and zipping up his pants when he was in the hallway. He was almost breaking down, just telling me about it, remembering it.”
Stu sounded mad, like relating what had happened to Marcus was getting to him again. I understood; it made me mad, too.
“OK,” I said. “I’ll write the entire thing up. What you and I saw, what Marcus said happened, the people who were there to witness it, what Mr. Grant did, and I’ll add your picture. Now, what about Mr. Grant? You were going to talk to him?”
“Yeah. I haven’t had the chance yet. You know, if you went with me, I’d have a witness to what he says. That would make our case stronger. Even if he refuses to talk about it, I’d have a witness to that. How about it?”
“I’ll ask him when he’d be available to meet with me for a private talk tomorrow. Then I’ll let you know when. We might have to skip a class if he wants to meet during his free period.”
“That’s no problem for me,” I said. “I’m—” I stopped. I’d been about to say I was getting all A’s in my classes, even if it was still early in the year, and that my teachers seemed to like me—I paid attention while they were teaching; not everyone did that—and that skipping a class wouldn’t affect any of that at all. But I had realized how boastful that would sound, and so I’d stopped. I continued with, “I should be able to get permission.”
“OK. I’ll phone you with the time. What’s your cell number?”
“Uh, I don’t have one.” I’d been looking at him. Now I dropped my eyes to the table. I hated this.
There was a pause. He didn’t say anything, and finally I had to look up again. He was staring at me. I didn’t know what to say. I was probably the only kid in the entire school who didn’t have a cellphone. He couldn’t possibly understand. I had to tell him.
“We can’t afford it. So . . .”
“No problem,” he said, and didn’t look at me with any sort of expression, not what I expected, like pity or disgust or even surprise. He just looked normal; he simply accepted I didn’t have a cellphone and moved on. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with or weird about me. Hell, I thought there was something wrong with me. He didn’t seem to notice.
“I know where your locker is. Just check it between all your classes. I’ll slip a note into it when and where we’ll meet him.”
He said he had to scoot and left. I started writing up the entire Marcus incident, but was distracted by my thoughts, by picturing him as he’d come in, so happy, so excited. It was hard to write, thinking about that. It was hard not to begin daydreaming.
I found a note in my locker the next day when I got to school in the morning. It was short and sweet, written on a torn piece of notebook paper he’d shoved through the vent holes of the locker: Mr. Grant’s room, third period.
I’ll admit, I’d spent some time thinking about the fact he knew where my locker was without my having to tell him. I had no idea where his was.
I stopped by and asked my third period teacher if I could skip the class as I had an important meeting right then and asked for the homework assignment. Then I made my way to Mr. Grant’s room. Stu was waiting for me outside the door.
I hadn’t had Mr. Grant for any classes. Stu had told me he was nice. I mentally questioned that, after having seen him ignore Marcus’s plight.
We went into Mr. Grant’s classroom. He was sitting at his desk, grading papers. He looked up and smiled at Stu, then focused on me. “I thought you wanted to talk to me alone, Stu,” he said.
Stu wasn’t disturbed by this. Stu had a way about him that I so admired. He seemed at ease no matter what. He simply ignored Mr. Grant’s questioning tone which suggested that by bringing me along, he might have done something wrong.
“This is Jason,” he said. “Jason McCaffrey. He’s a freshman, too. He’s with me. We’re trying to figure something out, something you can help us with, so I brought him with me. That’s OK, isn’t it?”
Mr. Grant gave him a brief smile. Stu affected people that way. “I guess it depends on what you want to talk about,” he said. He was a short man, and I had no idea how old. Probably between 30 and 50. I could easily tell how old teenagers were; old guys, I had no idea. He had thick brown hair that was longer than most teachers wore theirs. He was dressed neatly in a long-sleeved shirt and pressed khakis but wasn’t wearing a tie like most of our teachers did. He had one of those low-pitched voices some men have that always made me take them more seriously than guys with a tenor voice. It seemed a bit out of place for a short guy.
I didn’t know if we should sit down or stand in front of his desk. What’s the etiquette when you’re grilling a teacher? That sort of uncertainty always made me feel awkward. I wished again that I had Stu’s aplomb. He didn’t seem nervous at all, and whether to stand or sit didn’t seem to enter his mind. He remained standing. I did, too, but would have felt better sitting.
I let Stu talk. No question in my mind—I was backup. I had no idea how Stu would ask what had to be terribly embarrassing and/or insulting questions to an authority figure.
Stu didn’t have a problem with it. “Mr. Grant, we’re looking into something that is bothering us. We both have read the school handbook. We both signed our copy and handed in the signed tear-out sheet saying we’d read it. I might not have remembered everything in it, or even understood it all, but Jason did. He’s really smart.”
I blushed, but didn’t say anything. Mr. Grant switched his eyes to me momentarily, then looked back as Stu continued.
“It says bullying isn’t permitted, and that faculty and staff members will report all incidents they see. You saw an incident yesterday. You turned around and walked away. What we want to know is, why didn’t you grab the Browner kids and march them to the office?”
I couldn’t believe it! How the heck did he have the, well, the balls to ask a teacher that?
Mr. Grant didn’t seem to believe it, either. He looked at Stu, and Stu looked back. I was positioned a bit to Stu’s side, so I could see both his and Mr. Grant’s faces. Stu had a very neutral expression. Mr. Grant, however, looked a bit stunned. Then he sort of wriggled a bit, and looked at me for a second. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to meet his glance and not look away.
He opened his mouth, then shut it. I could see he was considering his answer, and a lot was going on in his head. Should he get angry at the affront? Should he deny it? Should he just tell us to get out of his classroom? What should he do?
He didn’t know, that was obvious. I felt like taking Stu’s arm and pulling him out. But I didn’t. I just watched. It was kind of like watching a slow-motion train wreck in progress.
Mr. Grant suddenly rose. I took a half-step backwards. Stu didn’t move. Then the man moved out from his desk, away from Stu, turning his back to us and walking to the windows, which he took some time looking out. Still figuring out what to say, I thought. Probably figuring out how to get us expelled. You’re not supposed to insult your teachers. It was in the code of conduct, the one that Stu had just said we’d signed. Well, it didn’t say it quite like that, but did say the students were to be respectful of all faculty and staff. The same was expected of them, but that wasn’t stressed as adamantly, in my opinion. That part seemed to have been written as a sort of afterthought.
Mr. Grant was quiet long enough that Stu and I were looking at each other, wondering. Then Mr. Grant turned around.
“Boys,” he said, walking back to his desk, sounding tired, “You’re not going to like my answer, but what I tell you will be the truth. I’ve worked here for 13 years. Principal Cotton has been here for nine. The school’s changed in that time. Not right away. At first, when Principal Cotton was new here, he brought a lot of good things with him. I liked him a lot, and we even became sort of friends. Then six years ago, things changed. And they changed quite quickly. Before, academics were stressed. Since the change, academics have taken second fiddle to athletics. Now, it seems that having winning teams representing the school are what matters.”
He stopped, but was looking at us intently, like we should be taking something from what he was saying. I glanced at Stu. He seemed to be listening, but didn’t have anything to say. I had the feeling that Mr. Grant expected us to respond. If Stu wasn’t going to, it was up to me.
Had Mr. Grant showed anger, I’d never have had the courage to say anything at all. But he didn’t evince anger. It was something much more subtle, something I hadn’t been able to name yet. But I surprised myself and spoke up. “Did you ask Principal Cotton why this had changed. And can you tell us just how this change has manifested itself?”
Mr. Grant blinked, then almost smiled. “Ah, you’re not mute then, Jason. And, good questions. I’ll do my best to answer them. Then maybe I’ll answer Stu’s.”
He paused, considering, then looked at me. “What happened, rather suddenly, is that Mr. Hedges was relieved of his position as football coach and replaced by a man from outside, Mr. Styne. He was hardnosed. I never felt he’d worked with high-school kids before. He changed the tenor of the game for the team. They played harder under him, rougher. I heard the practices could be brutal. A lot of kids quit the team and were replaced with bigger, tougher kids. The team began winning a lot of games.
“That seemed to set a tone, and other sports saw the same thing happening, though to a lesser degree. The kids in the school seemed happy to have winning teams to root for. The faculty, well, we saw that academics were now secondary to sports performance. We were supposed to keep the athletes eligible for their teams. That meant loosening standards. It also meant being less rigid on behavioral requirements.”
He stopped and grimaced. He shook his head, then looked at me. “Jason, students are very sensitive to the school environment. They see what’s going on. They see behavior. They learn early on in elementary school what teachers will allow and what they won’t. You know what I mean, don’t you?”
I nodded. “I used to hate it when kids screwed around, wasted time, and the teacher never did anything about it.”
He smiled. “Exactly. So did I! You and I, we were serious about learning. How many others are?”
“Some. A lot just go with the flow. If the teacher is all about learning in the classroom and won’t put up with distractions and connects with the kids, the kids in that room pay attention and do the work. If the teacher doesn’t command their attention and allows disruptions, they take advantage, and the kids who want to learn are left stranded. Funny, but the teacher doesn’t have to be strict to control the room, either. He has to show he cares about the subject he’s teaching and the kids in front of him. But he does have to silence the ones who test him.”
Mr. Grant was smiling at me. “If you decide to teach, you’ll be great at it,” he said, and I felt myself blushing. It took me a moment to remember how he’d acted the day before. My smile and my blush slowly ebbed. He saw that, and his smile also retreated.
“OK. I answered your second question. As to the first, the one about Principal Cotton.” He paused, then said, “I knew him, we were friendly, and so of course I asked him, why the change in attitude. He wouldn’t answer me. He basically hemmed and hawed and never directly answered what I was asking, and I got the impression he simply wasn’t going to. He became stiffer around me, and the warmth I’d felt for him changed. He changed as well. He wasn’t out in the school everyday any longer. He stayed in his office most of the time.”
He turned to Stu. “You wanted to know why I ignored the bullying I saw yesterday. It’s a fair question, and I want to commend you for having the guts to come to me and ask it. You won’t like my answer, but answer you I will. It’s this: the staff can only do things that are supported by the principal. If we try to act on our own, there will be repercussions. We have a teacher’s union that will protect us, but ultimately, if we want to succeed in our job, we have to do things the way the principal wants them done. And what the principal here likes, what he is behind, is for our athletic teams to win games. What that means is, certain kids get a lot of latitude with their behavior. Now, I saw what happened to Marcus yesterday. I could have acted. I could have taken both boys to the office. Then I could have told Principal Cotton what they’d done and walked away.
“But, see, that would have been the end of it. Nothing would have happened to those two. They both are starters on our football team. The coach would complain to their father if they received any sort of discipline, and especially if they lost any playing time. Both the coach and the boys’ father would have excused it for some reason, maybe calling it something like a mere teenage rite of passage, and that Marcus should toughen up a bit. Maybe they’d say it was good for the kid. I don’t know about that, but do know that if Principal Cotton actually punished the boys at all, they’d tell the coach, the coach would tell their father, and all hell would break loose.
He stopped, shaking his head and scowling. I could see he didn’t like thinking about the picture he was drawing for us any better than we liked hearing it.
He continued. “Their father is the president to the booster club, an organization that brings a ton of money to the school. It gets earmarked for and spent on only athletics. We have a new gym, a new locker room, a new weight room, all sorts of new equipment and uniforms and such since Cal Browner took over and managed to get them financed. He has more power than Principal Cotton, who I’m afraid wouldn’t want to change things even if he could. I don’t know that for a fact. I will say this, however. Cal Browner was part of the change that happened six years ago. That’s when his influence began at the school. Tom and Frank are his two youngest boys.
“Cal loves the influence he has. We have a bunch of teams really performing well right now. The swimming team, the tennis team, the soccer team—they all won championships last year and may well repeat this year. We teachers are told constantly that it’s necessary for all team members to get C’s or better to remain eligible for their teams. We are supposed to notify their coaches if we see signs of them falling below that standard, and make sure they don’t. We’re told that’s our responsibility as faculty members; we’re to see these kids have the grades they need. Not the kids’ responsibility; ours.”
He was getting upset. His voice was rising. He stood up again, walked to the windows, then back again. “Sorry, guys,” he said. “This has always galled me. But it’s how things are. One teacher got so fed up he complained at every meeting we had with Principal Cotton. He isn’t here any longer. Things happened. His car was vandalized. There was an anonymous report of bad behavior with a student. He began being given all the bad students and troublemakers. With those kids in his classes, all his test scores plummeted, after which he was criticized for his performance. He was insulted in faculty meetings by the football coach. Then Cal Browner verbally attacked him in a private meeting with the principal. Cal Browner played professional football. He’s huge, and he uses intimidation as a weapon. With everything the administration was doing to get the teacher to leave, and then adding Cal Browner to the mix, physically scaring the crap out of him . . . well, he quit.”
Mr. Grant stopped and took a deep breath. “If you guys want to fight this, you’re going to find yourself in the middle of more than you’re prepared to handle. Cal Browner isn’t a man you want to fight. What I’m hoping, for myself, is that when Tom and Frank are out of here in a couple more years, Cal will lose interest in the school. With the success the football coach has till then, maybe he’ll be offered a college job, which pays much better, and he’ll be gone, too. But till then, it makes no sense for me to try to discipline kids when the principal won’t support the discipline. So, I turn away. I’m not proud of it, but that’s what I do.”
We had a lot to think about. I asked Stu if he wanted to meet in the library after school to talk. This sounded like it was much more than what we’d expected it to be, and that maybe we should back off.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Stu said. “Why don’t you come to my house? We can discuss this better there where we have more privacy.”
OK, now I had two things to think about: what we wanted to do about eliminating bullying at the school along with the Browner boys, and then being alone with Stu at his house. Probably in his room. Alone with him. Just the two of us. Together.
I had to admit, I had feelings for him. And I knew he was gay. I wasn’t sure if I was, but I certainly might be. I hadn’t dated anyone; I was too shy. The fact we were poor had something to do with that; but too, I was uncertain just whom I’d want to ask. I’d had crushes in middle school, just like everyone else did. But more of them had been on boys than girls. In Sex Ed, we were told that at our age that was normal and our sexuality would manifest itself to a stronger degree as we grew older.
I was still waiting for that to happen. Or maybe it had and I just hadn’t noticed. I mean, I did have feelings for Stu. It felt like a crush. Sort of.
I gathered my stuff from my locker, then met him at the school door at the end of the day. We walked to his house together. I was feeling tense and excited and flustered and, well, I was talking to him but who knows what I was saying or sounding like. My head was all over the place. The rational part of me said we’d go to his room, talk about whether to go on with this quest we were on, come to some sort of decision, and then I’d go home.
But the rational part of my brain wasn’t having much luck controlling the irrational, emotional, hormone-driven part. I was a mess. How was I supposed to act normally when my heart was acting like someone was loading it down with adrenalin and testosterone and who knew what else? The closer we got to his house, the faster my heart beat, and I began feeling a little lightheaded.
After showing me around, Stu took me to his room. He sat on the bed and told me I could have the chair. When we were sitting and he was acting all calm and normal and I was still fantasizing, he gave me a look and grinned. Damn, he had a cute grin.
Stu’s room was much nicer than mine. I had a bed and a dresser, a table and chair and a goose-neck lamp. Not even a bookcase; why would I need a bookcase when I didn’t own any books? Stu had what I imagined most boys our age had, the electronics, the books, the posters on the wall, carpeting on the floor—all that stuff. His room was pretty large, but then the whole house was. Probably twice the size of ours. They even had a swimming pool in the back. A swimming pool!
“You look funny,” he said. “You OK?”
“Sure,” I said. Except it came out more of a squeak than anything else. I hated my voice. It really hadn’t changed much. A lot of boys in our grade now spoke in a baritone. I wasn’t even much of a tenor, more a soprano. What I’d just said was even higher-pitched than that.
He laughed. But I wasn’t offended. It wasn’t that sort of a laugh. I don’t know how I could tell that, but I could. It was a sympathetic one. I blushed, which added to my confusion and embarrassment.
He was watching me, and I felt like I was giving myself away, that he could read my mind and emotions. What he did next didn’t help.
He stood up and said, “Come here.”
Tentatively, I stood up and took a step toward him. He half turned and said, “Here, sit on the bed with me,” and patted a spot up near the headboard. Sort of like an animatron, I did as he asked, settling on the bed with my legs crossed in front of me, like kindergarteners sit on the floor. My heart was racing again.
He sat on the bed, too, facing me, in the same pose I was in. “Jason, you look all nervous and scared and frantic and I think I know why. You’re alone with a kid you know is gay. Probably the first time you’ve been where you are now, and you aren’t sure how to act, or what’s going to happen, or possibly even what you want to have happen. I’ve been there. The thing is, I like you. I told you that already, but I imagine you thought I meant as a friend. I do, but it’s more than that. I watched you all last year in middle school. You’re even better-looking this year, and I like everything I see about you. All your little mannerisms. All your facial expressions. The way you flip your hair out of your eyes.”
He stooped to take a breath, a deep one, then let it out in a long sigh and said, “Look, I’m not going to do anything about how I feel unless you want me to. I’m not going to do anything about it unless you want me to. That’ll be entirely up to you, so you don’t have to be nervous. Yeah, I’d like to do stuff with you, but I don’t want you scared that I will. OK?”
My heart was still beating too fast. Maybe that’s why I said what I did. I still don’t know why I did. But: “What if I think I want you to do something?” That’s what I said—and then felt like I might pass out.
My eyes were on his face, and I saw him smile, a really huge smile. He blushed, too, which was amazing. Then he reached out and put his hand on my knee.
As flustered and excited and scared as I was, that was all it took. In about an instant, I was hard as a rock. So hard that it was trapped in my jeans and hurt! My face must have showed something, or maybe it was my fidgeting, but he glanced down, and then suddenly reached into his own pants and repositioned himself. So he was hard, too!
If he could do that in front of me, I could do it, too, and I really needed to. So I did. I didn’t know I had enough blood in me to sustain both a blush and an erection, but I did. So did he.
He sat back down where he’d been before. “I’ve never done anything with anyone. This is as new for me as it probably is for you.”
I nodded. “Me, too. I can’t believe you like me.”
“Why not? You’re cute and smart and nice. I didn’t know you were gay, though. I hoped. I didn’t ever see you looking at girls the way a lot of boys do. A couple of times I saw you look at boys. So I hoped.”
“I’m still figuring that out,” I said. “I think I do look at boys more than girls. I’ve certainly looked at you. I looked at you a lot. You’re the cute one.”
He scooched closer to me so our knees were touching. Our eyes were fastened on each other’s. He took a deep breath, then leaned forward. I knew what he was doing and without consciously thinking about it, I found myself doing the same thing. Our lips touched, and then I felt his hands on my shoulders. I moved mine to his, and we held each other as we kissed.
I’d had no idea how special it would be, kissing a boy, and a boy I liked at that. I don’t know how long we kissed, but neither of us seemed to want to stop.
We didn’t do much more than kiss. Well, he ended up lying on top of me, and then me on top of him, but it was mostly just kissing. Rolling around a little and kissing. Just a little squirming of bodies and kissing. It was wonderful. We both ignored what was going on below, not even grinding into each other, but we both could feel the other’s hardness pressing into our own, and knowing each other was aroused like that increased the excitement that was consuming us both.
We finally stopped. You have to stop at some point. You do. But I felt like a different boy when we did. I seemed to know more about the world in which I lived than I had before. And I felt more part of it than I ever had before, too. I felt accepted. Being poor, that wasn’t something I had in common with other boys. I wasn’t only poor—I thought about boys too much. Lying on that bed, with what had just happened, those thoughts were gone. There was someone who liked me—for me! He was a popular kid, popular with everyone. And he liked me. No matter what baggage I had, he liked me. I wasn’t the poor boy or the nerd any longer. I was the boy who liked Stu, and the boy Stu liked back.
I lay there, tired but ready to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I took a deep breath, then another. I turned to look at him, lying next to me with a contented smile on his face.
“We need to talk about our plan, what we’re going to do,” I panted. I was still trying to get enough air into my lungs.
There was a pause while Stu thought about that. Then he met my eyes. “I want to keep going,” he said with conviction, leaving me momentarily wondering about the ambiguity of that. But then he made it clear. He wriggled up into a sitting position; I was on my back and didn’t want to rise. “I think what we’re doing is important. And I hate those Browner kids. They make life miserable for so many other kids. If the authorities at school won’t do their job, someone has to.”
“But what Mr. Grant said. Aren’t you scared?”
“Maybe a little.” He thought for a moment, then conceded, “We just have to be careful. Not let anyone know what we’re doing. Well, I know we need to talk to other kids, the ones those guys have bothered. We need to question them to get more ammunition for your notebook. We have to swear them to secrecy, but that shouldn’t be hard if they know what we’re doing. They’ll want us to be successful. They wouldn’t want to give us away, watch us get hurt. They’ll all want us to get back at the Browners.”
“So you want to concentrate on the Browners?”
“Well . . . I hadn’t really decided that till just now. As much as I’d like to eliminate bullying all together, I don’t know how much the two of us can do that. But we can bring down the Browners all by ourselves. If we have enough evidence, Principal Cotton will have to act. We won’t give him any wiggle room. He’ll have too. Maybe that’ll have an effect on bullying as a whole, maybe not, but if we can stop the Browners, that has to make a difference. They’re the worst of the bunch.”
“But what about Mr. Browner?”
Wow! I wasn’t as brave as Stu was. But if he wanted to do this, the way I felt about him now—and maybe it was part of the leaping tall buildings feeling that was glowing inside of me—I’d go along with him. I wanted him to be as proud of me as I was of him. And I cared about this, too.
So the plan now was changed. We talked about it at lunch. Stu and I were now eating together in the cafeteria every day. I wasn’t brown-bagging it alone now. I was still brown-bagging it, but I had a partner. Amazing how that felt, how it helped my ego and self-worth.
We talked about our plan. Before, we’d decided to go after the faculty and staff, and in particular Principal Cotton, for not extirpating bullying in the school. Now, we’d decided to concentrate on the Browners. It made sense. We didn’t have any influence on our principal, and how were two freshmen, two toothless freshmen when it came to that, going to rattle the cage of the school’s principal? He’d shrug off any attempt like an elephant squashing a worm—offhandedly, perhaps, but thoroughly and indifferently.
Yet, going after the Browner kids would put us up against Cal Browner, Principal Cotton and perhaps the football coach, Mel Style. We weren’t sure about the coach, but the other two seemed certain. Perhaps having overwhelming proof that the two Browner kids were bullies and had actively engaged in bullying students would be enough to get Principal Cotton to act, and if he didn’t, we had ammunition to use against him, maybe with the school board. That was still in the future, and for right now, we needed to concentrate on our part of the deal: gathering and verifying information about the two boys.
What we decided to do was as much observation of Frank and Tom as we could. That would be mostly in the halls and cafeteria as they weren’t in our grade and so not in our classes.
It was easier than it might have been because they were noticeable wherever they were. Both were big, which made them good football players, and both were loud, so we could hear them in the halls even if we hadn’t spotted them yet. They thought of themselves as kings of the school, untouchable, and they proclaimed their status by making a spectacle of themselves. I saw them several times in the hallways, and Stu told me he did as well.
I realized I was the one who could observe kids in the halls without being seen doing it. I was a nonentity. That made it possible for me to observe others, see their body language, watch their behavior when they saw either of the Browner kids approaching. It’s amazing how much you can tell just by watching reactions.
I was going to my math class when I saw Tom Browner with a girl. She was at her locker, and he was looming over her. I saw her shrink away from him, saw him grab her arm, saw her try to jerk away from his grasp, saw him tighten his hand, heard her yelp. That did it; he let go. But he was standing close enough that she had no way to escape. He was speaking to her, and she wasn’t looking at him or answering. When she had what she wanted from the locker, she closed the door but then just stood there, looking towards the lockers she was facing, her back to him, not moving. He kept talking, then grabbed her shoulder. She wrenched away and yelled. He turned and started to walk away as other kids in the hall looked over at them. Then, I saw her call him back. He came to her, and she spoke to him. Her whole posture was different. She was standing up straight, and looking him in the face. Whatever she said, he took a step back and then suddenly turned around and walked quickly away.
I had no idea what any of that was all about, but figured she was the next person we should interview.
My job was to be a scribe. Stu’s was to be our interrogator. So I told him about what I’d seen. He said we could confront her in the cafeteria, see if she’d talk to us, and if so, arrange a time and place.
“Uh, I don’t think so.”
“Because it would be too public. Everyone in the school would see us talking to her. Word might—probably would—get back to Tom if he’s interested in her and what she’s doing. I think we should do everything we can to avoid that.”
“I bow to your superior strategic mind.” He grinned. “So how should we do it?”
“We have to catch her alone. If she’ll help us, then we can find somewhere private. The first meeting is key. Let me think about it.”
So that’s what I did. And by day’s end, I had a plan. I didn’t much like it because it took me out of my comfort zone, but it made more sense if I approached her. From what I saw at her locker, she looked like someone easily intimidated, and even easy-going Stu might cause her to freeze up. No way anyone would ever find me intimidating.
So I decided to act on my own. Without even involving Stu. If things went south, I didn’t want him suffering for my ineptitude.
I waited after school. I knew where her locker was, and I loitered near it. Inconspicuous as always. When she dropped off some books and picked up others, put them in her backpack and headed out, I let her get way ahead down the hall, made sure there was no sign of Tom Browner, and followed.
Most kids took the bus, either got rides or, if they lived close to the school, walked. I hoped she’d be one of the ones who walked, and that she’d be by herself. I lucked out on both counts. Well, maybe about the walking part; the ‘alone’ part, I’d figured that maybe the odds would favor that. I’d had the thought that if she had anything to do with Tom, perhaps other kids no longer wanted anything to do with her. The less reason either Browner had to notice you, the better off you were. Boys and girls alike.
She walked with a friend for a short ways, then was by herself. I started to close the distance. Maybe I could talk to her. Maybe I’d get the nerve to do so. Only to tell her Stu wanted a word with her. Maybe I could do that.
I was only half a block behind her, hoping I’d catch up before she got to wherever her house was. There weren’t any other kids around this far from school, only Teri and me. Then, a car pulled up alongside her, pulled forward and stopped, and Tom Browner got out of the passenger side. He stepped in front of her.
I stopped. No way I was going to get involved in anything going on here. I crouched down to tie my shoe, turning sideways to Teri and Tom. I could still see them in my peripheral vision, though.
Teri looked rigid, frozen. Tom was talking. He put out a hand to touch her and she suddenly came alive and slapped it away. Then, to my utter surprise, she put both hands on his chest and pushed.
He was probably 50 or 60 pounds heavier than she was, but she caught him off balance; he stumbled backwards, and she ran off—backwards in my direction. He yelled something at her but didn’t follow. He got back in the car, which was facing the other way from where she was running. It burned rubber, screeching off, not turning around to follow her.
She stopped and turned, then stood watching as the car moved farther away. She wasn’t far from me. I stood up and approached her very tentatively.
“Teri?” I said softly.
She jerked a little, being taken by surprise. I was sure she hadn’t noticed me there. She turned and looked at me. I saw no recognition in her face.
“Are you OK?”
She wrinkled her forehead, confused, and didn’t answer. I felt I had to speak or lose her, and lose the moment as well.
“You don’t know me. I’m Jason McCaffrey. I’ve seen you at school. I saw you earlier at your locker, and I saw what happened when Tom Browner came to your locker. I saw what happened just now. I want to tell you something, something very private, but first I need to ask you a question. Can I talk to you—well, can my friend and I talk to you about Tom without you telling him about it? If you did, Tom would probably beat the crap out of us, beat up both me and my friend, really badly, I think. I’m afraid of him, and, well, can I? Talk to you without him knowing? Would you be able not to tell him about it?”
Now she looked really confused. I’d known I should let Stu talk to her. I knew a lot of words, words other kids my age didn’t know, but Stu knew how to put words together when talking to people much better than I did.
“I’m sorry. I’m screwing this up. But we need to talk to you. We’re trying—” I stopped myself. What if she liked him and they were just having a spat and by tomorrow they’d be friends again, maybe going out together?
She was watching me, and I saw a sort of smile cross her lips and reach all the way to her eyes. “You’re shy, aren’t you?” she asked.
I blushed. God, I hated that. I hated myself. Why was I like I was? Why couldn’t I be more like Stu and most every other boy in school? Probably in the whole world!
“What did you want to talk to me about?”
I looked up at her. She was looking back, and she seemed very normal. I gathered up what courage I had. “It’s about Tom, but he can’t know about it.”
“I won’t tell him anything. I hate him. You don’t have to worry about me saying anything to him.”
“Good! I mean, well, uh, look. My friend and I are gathering information. He needs to be here. He does all the talking. He’s good at it. You’ll like him. Uh, we have to meet privately. I don’t know where. Maybe the library?”
“How about my house? It’s just up the street from here. I was almost home when that son of a bitch stopped me. We can talk there.”
“That would be perfect! I have to call Stu, though. That’s my friend. He needs to be there with me.”
“OK, call him.”
I blushed again. Dammit! “I don’t have a cellphone. I know his number, though. Maybe we could call him from your house?”
She laughed. “We don’t have a land line any longer. Why pay for one when we all have cellphones? Here, call him.” She handed me her cellphone.
I knew how to use one. People had lent me theirs before, and showed me how they worked. I punched in Stu’s number. He said he’d be right there, but that meant a 10-minute wait. That’s how long it would take for him to bike over to her house.
When Stu arrived, she took us to her bedroom. I’d never been in a teenage girl’s bedroom before. Well, to tell the truth, because I didn’t invite boys to my house or bedroom, I hadn’t been in many boys’ bedrooms either. I had been in Stu’s, so that was really my comparison.
She didn’t have any posters on her walls, which had wallpaper that had an abstract, modernistic print that featured soft pastels with just a few splotches of dark burgundy to break up and add highlights to the overall color motif. It was restful and non-aggressive, different from the bright blue walls in Stu’s room with loud posters of bands I’d never heard of.
She had a computer, but I didn’t see any games in her book cases. Just books, mostly by authors I didn’t know. She was messier than I was. I kept my room neat. She had clutter, clothes and school papers and such scattered around. She didn’t seem embarrassed by it when we went in. Maybe this was just the way teenage girls’ rooms were.
She swept things off her unmade bed, pulled up the cover, and motioned for us to sit down. She didn’t bother about a bra that was hanging off the end in plain sight. I think I’d have died if a girl was in my bedroom and saw any of my underwear sitting out exposed to her view.
Teri was in our grade, two years behind Tom Browner. Some older boys made a play for some younger girls. Some of the younger girls were flattered by the attention, flattered by the notoriety it gave them, and accepted the advances that came their way. I guessed Teri might have been one of those. I was about to find out if my guess was right, if we could get her to speak.
That was Stu’s job. As stated earlier, he was very good at it. “Jason told me you’d be willing to talk to us.”
“Something about Tom,” she said, taking a quick glance at me. “Why do you want to know anything about him?”
“This has to remain very, very private, for your sake and for ours.” Stu leaned forward, probably wanting to add to the intimacy of the conversation. “If he finds out, we’d all be in trouble. So I hope you won’t tell anyone, not even your friends. OK?”
She was sitting in her computer chair, which she’d moved closer to the bed. I had the opportunity to really look at her while she was focused on Stu. I rarely had the opportunity to study a girl my age very closely. What if she saw me checking her out and called me on it? Then what? So, I didn’t ever take the chance. Now, I could look at one. She was pretty. Really pretty. I could see why Tom would be interested. Though I wasn’t seeing it now, I knew from seeing her at school that she also had a sort of perky personality. I hadn’t seen that when Tom Browner was around her. I would have liked her, I thought, except just being with her would have embarrassed me. She was the sort of girl who said things that would have bothered me, made me blush like a ripe tomato. Not her, however. She caused embarrassment but didn’t share in it.
She was the sort of girl who left her bra where a boy could see it and think about it. I found that outrageous, and envied her that confidence. Yeah, I’d have liked her, even if she’d have embarrassed the crap out of me. Which she would have.
“I probably know how he can be, how he is, better than you guys do. I won’t tell anyone what went on here. Except I still don’t know what that is. What do you want me to say?”
Stu nodded. “I’ll tell you. We don’t like the bullying that goes on at school.”
He continued with that, telling about what we’d decided to do, and how we were now focused on Tom Browner because of what we’d seen him and his brother do to Marcus Gainer. He mentioned we’d talked to a teacher about bullying, and how we were interviewing people who’d seen both Browners bullying people and taking notes about it from them. “That brings us to you. Jason saw something at your locker today that made him think you might be able to tell us something we could use against him.
“Jason said your body language told him you had a problem with Tom. We’d like to hear about it if you can bring yourself to talk about it.”
Teri was looking serious. She stood up and turned her back to us. She thought for more than a minute, and then I saw her shoulders slump. She sat back down, looked at both of us, then asked Stu, “You’re both freshmen like me, aren’t you? That’s what you said.”
Stu said yes and I nodded.
She grimaced. “I can tell you, but it’s more than embarrassing. Still, if it gets Tom in trouble . . .” She shook her head. “Well, that’s the only reason I’m doing this. It’s way personal, and you’ll think I’m . . .” She stopped. I didn’t think we’d get anymore out of her. She was disturbed, and I felt sorry for her. I was about to stand up when Stu reached out and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Hey, Teri? We won’t think badly of you. We’re your age. We’re boys, not girls, so our feelings might be different, but we know we all have them. We understand embarrassment. We understand that stuff happens. If you were doing anything with Tom, I have to think that sex would be involved. We’ve had Sex Ed just like you have. We know what boys and girls do together. I’d guess, since you told Jason you hate Tom, that whatever it was that happened, you didn’t like it. And knowing Tom, there was probably some intimidation and maybe even force involved. My guess is that you’re two years younger than he. Neither of us will hold anything against you. We’re trying to get him stopped. It sounds like you could really help us, and help all the other girls at school as well. Please?”
As I said, Stu was great at this. Right then, he was all empathy. I marveled at him. He was incredible. His concern for her wasn’t put on, either. He felt the compassion for Teri he was showing. I could see it, feel it, and so could she.
“This will be hard for me,” she said, and seemed to pull in on herself. “But maybe I’ll feel better, feel better about myself, if I have the courage to tell someone. Maybe it’ll make it less than it feels like to me now.”
I spoke up. “Would it be easier if you were just talking to Stu? I can go out. Maybe that would be easier.”
She gave me a wan smile. “You’re the one who’s supposed to be writing it all down, aren’t you?”
I nodded sheepishly.
“OK then. Stay here and I’ll try to get through this. I don’t know why, but I’m more comfortable with both of you here. I’ve never told anyone any of this—not even my parents—and I’m not sure I can, but I think, if I do talk about, all about it, every bit of it, then maybe it’ll make it easier for me to live with. It’ll make it more, I don’t know, more just something, rather than this huge, unmanageable big thing. That’s what I’m hoping. But please . . . please . . . I want you to like me, not think awful things about me.”
“We won’t.” I was adamant. “If you’re going to talk about sex stuff, what we’ll do is admire your courage. We won’t feel anything but pride for you that you could talk about things I know I wouldn’t be able to say.”
I stopped then, really feeling for her, then asked, “Is this going to take some time?” Then I hurried on, not wanting to sound insensitive or invasive. “I mean, maybe instead of trying to take it all down, maybe I could record it. Then I could write it up for my notebook, and I’d have it in your words. Is that OK?”
She thought for a second or two, then looked hard at me. “Somehow, I think it would be better written down than existing in my voice. Will you erase it afterwards?”
“I’ll do better than that,” Stu said. “I’ll bring you my phone and let you erase it.”
“OK, then,” she said. She wasn’t smiling. She looked like she was steadying her nerves.
Stu took out his phone and set it to record. “Whenever you’re ready, just press this,” he said. “And since you’re recording it, we don’t even have to be here, if that would make it easier for you.”
“No, I need someone to hear me say it. That’s part of this. I need to see how you react. I hope I’m helping you with what you’re trying to do; I know you’ll be helping me just by hearing it, and then maybe you can still be my friends afterwards.”
“We can guarantee that,” he said, and I nodded, then did something entirely out of character for me. I reached out and touched her arm. She smiled.
“OK,” she said, and she began. She talked for a long time. I admired her courage. I couldn’t have spoken like she did. Courage to be in the spotlight, to be looked at, to be judged. Little did I know. Little did I know then.
I made a transcript of what she said. I did go with Stu to her house later on; we watched her erase the recording. Funny, but after that, it wasn’t just Stu and me eating lunch together. There were now three of us. She sat with us every day.
I had completed the notebook with what we had so far. It consisted of what we’d seen happen to Marcus, our conversation with Mr. Grant, and our interrogation of Teri and her statement. It was certainly enough to cause waves. Enough to get both Browners in trouble. How much trouble, I didn’t know. How much trouble would it get Stu and me in? Another unknown. What should we do with the notebook?
Too many questions we had no way to answer. We didn’t have enough experience in things that were much more adult than we were and whose ramifications were way over our heads. Over our pay grade, something I’d heard on TV.
What we decided to do was involve our parents. As this was now bigger than we were, parental guidance was called for. We needed their support and help.
I made copies of the notebook, five of them, one for each parent and one for Stu. Then I talked it over with Stu, and he agreed with what I thought would be the best way to do this. He spoke to his parents, and on the next Saturday, my parents and I went to Stu’s house for lunch; my sister, Angie, was at a friend’s house. Stu and I had figured we needed privacy for this, so we’d decided going to a restaurant wouldn’t be a great idea. I was embarrassed about having Stu or his parents at my house. So, even though it was difficult moving my dad around, we decided Stu’s house was best for what we wanted to do.
Dad had a motorized wheelchair with the controls on the right-hand armrest. He was pretty good maneuvering it around. The problem was with buildings that weren’t built to accommodate a wheelchair. Luckily, it fit through the door of Stu’s house. I knew; I’d measured. Also, Stu’s house wasn’t a split level design. He’d be able to get around fine there.
I met Stu’s parents and saw why he was as he was: congenial, easy-going, affable and kind. That summed up his parents as well. They hit it off with my parents. They didn’t fuss over my dad, which was good. He hates it when people do that, and when they treated him as though he were a child. Some people, seeing someone in a wheelchair, are wont to do that. Pisses him off royally. My dad’s smart. Talking baby talk to him is insulting.
Mrs. Fong had prepared a really nice lunch for us, a casserole and a big salad. They served my parents aperitifs, something called peach bellinis. Stu and I got Cokes. I wanted to taste what the adults were drinking. Stu sort of winked at me. Maybe we’d get some later.
The drinks and the Fong’s affability loosened things up, and we had a very pleasant lunch. Then we moved to the living room, and Stu said I had something to say. Damn him! He was our voice! I was, according to him, the brains behind the curtain. So why make me talk?
(I asked him later, why me? He was our spokesman. He told me I could be every bit as well-spoken as he was, but I lacked experience and confidence, and the only way to get over that was to practice. So he was going to make me speak! Damn him!)
But I had no choice; he just looked at me and kept his mouth shut. I told the adults about our mission, to rid our school of bullying. I stuttered and hemmed and hawed—well, mentally; I didn’t really do that all that much orally; it just felt that way—and I blushed, but I got through it all and didn’t even use many large words. I passed out copies of the notebook when I was done.
“You’re going to be shocked by this. But you’ll also see why we need adult advice and support. We need to know what you think we should do with what we have. It’s all in the notebook.”
They all read their copies. They all looked up at Stu and me time and again while they were reading and then again when they were done. Then they spoke. I was certainly glad we’d passed the buck to them. They spoke, throwing out opinions and suggestions. It made me feel pretty grown up because Stu and I were part of the discussion, equal members in fact.
We all came to a decision of what course to take. And then, because we didn’t know that wheels were turning that we weren’t aware of, what we’d decided ultimately didn’t eventuate the way we’d decided. Still, I was glad we’d done what we had. Even if events didn’t play out the way we’d planned.
We’d set the ball rolling. And it had rolled where we hadn’t expected it to roll.
But that wasn’t the only thing that happened that afternoon. When the meeting about the notebook was over, and our parents seemed very comfortable—somehow or other they’d moved into another round of bellinis—Stu pulled me aside, out into the kitchen.
“I want to tell them about us.”
“What! You want to tell them what?” I was aghast.
“I want to tell them that we’re gay and a couple.”
“Why in the world do you want to do that?”
“Because it’s true, and we don’t keep secrets in my family. Even embarrassing ones. Look, they just heard a lot of sex talk. They know that stuff isn’t over our head, isn’t something they need to protect us from, if they ever did think that. Now they know that sex isn’t something to hide from kids our age. They know kids our age are having sex. They know this isn’t some taboo issue.
“So they know we’re gay. I want them to know that. It’s one of the reasons we’re as close as we are, our shared sexuality. And think about it: you’ll be coming over here a lot now, and I want to keep doing what we’ve already done, and it’s better to be out front about it. If they want to make rules, well, then, let them do it. Out in the open. Just like us.”
“But, but . . .” Wow! I’d never even considered telling my parents. “What will your parents say? Will they be mad?”
“I think they’ll be OK with it. Pretty sure. They may even have suspicions. When I got them to invite you guys for lunch, my mother gave me a look, a sort of questioning one, and asked me about you. I, uh, might have been a little too enthusiastic when describing you. Then, when she met you, she smiled at me and nodded.”
“Uh, I don’t know what to say.” That was exactly what I felt.
“Will your parents be upset? About you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. I know they’re not prejudiced about gays. But their own son?”
“They still have your sister for grandkids, and in any case, they don’t want to live your life for you, do they?”
“No, they’re not like that at all. They’re very supportive. They hate that I don’t have friends.”
“Wouldn’t you feel better, not keeping this from them. I mean, it’s who you are. You’re not ashamed, are you. Of yourself? Of me.”
“No! Not at all.”
So we told them. He was right. The Fongs weren’t surprised. My folks were—very surprised. But they weren’t upset by it. They both hugged me. One hurdle in life, successfully leaped.
Our plan had been for my dad and Stu’s to ask for a meeting with Principal Cotton. It would be a private meeting, and they’d give him a copy of the notebook and discuss its ramifications. We’d be completely out of it, at least in the initial stages.
That was our intention. It blew up on us Monday morning. First thing that day, during home room, I was told to go to the office. On the way there, I bumped into Stu, who said he’d been summoned as well. I was nervous. I’d never been called to the office before. What had I done? How much trouble was I in?
When we got to the office, we were told to go into the principal’s office, that he was waiting for us.
We went in, me very tentatively, and found Mr. Grant there with the principal. He was the one who asked us to sit and spoke first.
“Guys, thanks for coming in. Because you both look scared, I’ll tell you right off, you’re not in trouble. What’s going on is this. You guys gave me a lot to think about. The more I thought about what we talked about the other day, the more ashamed of myself I became. You were right. We need to live up to the mission statement in our handbook. And I can’t just ignore what I see. I have to do my part.”
He smiled at us. I was still nervous. Why were we here?
Mr. Grant glanced at the principal and kept talking. “I came to talk to Principal Cotton about my new convictions, the ones you’d shamed me into. And I learned some things I didn’t know. I can’t tell you all of them, but you deserve to know some. First off, do you know who wrote what’s in the handbook about the school having no tolerance for bullies? Principal Cotton did. He believes very strongly that bullies have no place here. He’s very embarrassed about what goes on here. But he’s found it difficult to act for reasons that are private.”
He stopped to look at the principal again, who met his eyes briefly before turning to look out the window. The principal was a middle-aged man, tall and thin, with a receding hairline. He always had a tie on; I’d never seen him without one. When he spoke, it was usually in a soft voice. He had an air about him that didn’t inspire much respect; he wasn’t one of the large personality leaders who frequently become principals. I’d overheard teachers talking about him when I was in in the library and hadn’t been noticed. They’d said that he wasn’t quick to make decisions, and not good at defending them. It was easy to wonder why such a man had become principal. Perhaps he had connections somewhere up above him?
Now I was seeing some of that from him. He didn’t seem entirely engaged in what was going on. It occurred to me that maybe he didn’t stop bullying in the school because he didn’t know how to do it. That confrontations were something he avoided.
Mr. Grant turned back to us. “Where you guys come in is this: I told him about your notebook. About what you were trying to do. He’s very interested. He’d like to see it.”
Stu and I looked at each other. Stu opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. I hated talking to adults! But maybe doing so on Saturday had helped. In any case, I had something to say, and so said it, speaking directly to Principal Cotton.
“Sir, I have another suggestion. How about this? Our dads have both read the notebook. There’s more in it now, things Mr. Grant doesn’t know about. I’d like to propose a meeting with you and them. They can give you a copy of the notebook, and then you three can decide what to do.”
The principal had to think about that. But it didn’t take him long. Maybe the teachers I’d overheard in the library had been exaggerating. “That would be fine. Better than you just giving me a copy, I think. When would they be available?”
“I’ll talk to my dad this afternoon after school. He can check with Mr. Fong and they’ll call you.”
Stu and I waited for our dads to get back from their meeting with the principal. They’d taken a copy of the notebook with them. He’d read it, and then they’d talked. Now we were about to hear what had been said.
We were sitting in Mr. Fong’s office in their home. He was a CPA who had his own independent accounting firm, and did a lot of work at home. It was a comfortable room with a large desk that had a credenza behind it with a computer on it, a wall full of bookshelves and a thick carpet on the floor. There was still room for a couch and a couple of upholstered occasional chairs. Stu and I sat together on the couch, Mr. Fong took a chair, and my dad remained in his wheelchair.
Mr. Fong was the one who told us what had gone on in the meeting. “First off, we found out why things are like they are at the school. Why there’s bullying. Mr. Cotton can’t stop it because most of it comes from the football players and some from guys on other teams. The worst offenders are the Browner boys. And they’re the least controllable of all.”
“Why?” Stu asked. Neither of us had any idea why the bullying wasn’t stopped.
Mr. Fong settled back in his chair. “Because Mr. Browner has a hold over Mr. Cotton. Mr. Cotton is gay. Mr. Browner heard a rumor to that effect, and hired a detective who got pictures of Mr. Cotton and another man. Nothing untoward. Just pictures of them together. Quite a few of them. Then he confronted Mr. Cotton with them.”
My dad could see me frowning, and he spoke up. “You’re wondering, aren’t you, Jason, why that would be such a problem. These days, gay teachers and administrators are in the mainstream. But it depends on where you are. Here, the Board of Education is headed by a man who’s virulently opposed to homosexuality. He’d fire Mr. Cotton in an instant if he learned he was gay.
“Mr. Browner knew this, and that’s what gave him a hold over Mr. Cotton. He met with your principal and made a deal with him: let him have control over the football team, the players and coaches, and he’d keep quiet to the board president. Mr. Cotton agreed. He didn’t want to lose his job, and he didn’t think any great problem would come from the deal. He didn’t realize he was giving carte blanche to the football team to hassle other students, and it was worse than that: because he couldn’t discipline those guys, he couldn’t stop other kids from doing the same things or be accused of prejudicial behavior.”
Mr. Fong took over again. “Mr. Cotton hates how things have gone, and has been looking for a bargaining chip to wrest power back from Browner. And you just handed him one: your notebook.”
We discussed what would happen next. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all. But it was three to one in that room, and more if you counted Principal Cotton.
“When does this happen?” I asked.
“Right away. Tomorrow, in fact,” my dad said, and I didn’t like the smile on his face. I didn’t know whom it was directed at. But at least I wouldn’t have a week to stress myself out about it.
The office was crowded. Principal Cotton sat at the end of his conference table. Mr. Browner sat at the other end. He was huge. I could understand, just seeing him, how he’d intimidate people. How not only was he large, but he seemed to have a perpetual scowl on his face and an angry glow in his eyes. He was flanked on both sides by his sons, Tom and Frank. They were only two years older than Stu and me, but the difference was amazing. They made us look like little kids. Made me feel that way, too.
Next on either side of the table were our dads, then me and Stu. Mr. Grant was there, too, maybe for moral support, I didn’t know. He sat in the seat to the right of Principal Cotton, with an empty chair on the other side of Principal Cotton. That was it; there were nine people. When we were all seated, Principal Cotton spoke. I was surprised. His voice was much firmer than it had been the other day. Louder, too.
“We’re here today to talk about the deportment of Tom and Frank at this school. They’ve been engaged in bullying, which is not tolerated at this school. We have their signed statements that they follow the guidelines set in the school handbook, which includes discipline for bullying up to and including expulsion. What action we’ll take against them is to be decided in this meeting. After looking at the information I’ve received, my inclination is for dismissal. But such action shouldn’t be taken without allowing them to defend themselves. To do that, they need to know what they’re accused of.”
“Excuse me! You’re saying you plan to expel my sons?” Mr. Browner’s voice was as large as his body, and angry as well. “My sons? You will not do that.” His voice raised to a shout. “How dare you! You will NOT do that! You know what’ll happen if you do.” He lowered his voice just a fraction as he continued. “I’ve spoken to the school board several times about my unhappiness with the way this school is run. They won’t dismiss you without cause, but I can easily supply that, as you know. They are ready, should they have that cause, to name me as temporary principal while they’re conducting a search for the permanent replacement. Are you out of your mind? And why are all these people here?”
Principal Cotton was looking at Mr. Browner without blinking. When Mr. Browner stopped, he answered, his voice flat and determined, his demeanor much calmer than Mr. Browner’s. He appeared to be totally in control of himself and the situation. “You wish to know the reason I’ll be expelling your sons. These people are here as witnesses, and to aid in giving the specifics as to why your sons will be leaving us. These two boys are the ones who investigated your sons’ acts. They didn’t begin their investigation with that in mind. Their intention was to stop the bullying that occurs at the school. But that changed when they saw how vicious your sons were. And what they found out was enough for me to call this meeting.”
“Well, they made a mistake. Probably a painful one when this meeting is over.”
At that, my father spoke. “We all heard that, sir, and as it was a threat against minors by an adult, it’s actionable. I hope you have insurance. Lots of insurance.”
“Who the hell are you? Do you know who you’re talking to?” Mr. Browner stood up and towered over the table. Probably the way he began all his intimidation tactics. My father looked at him, then laughed.
“Is this how you do it? Scare people? This is ludicrous. I’m supposed to be frightened? Like you’re going to beat up a cripple? Good luck with that. You’ve already threatened my son. Now me. You’re way out of your depth here. You’d best sit down and shut your mouth. Sometimes, you can’t get your way through intimidation, and this is one of those times. You don’t know what trouble is coming, sir, but let me tell you, you can’t stop it physically. So, sit down and shut up.”
Mr. Browner was turning red. He didn’t know how to respond. He looked around the table. Every eye was on him. From the other end of the table, Principal Cotton said, firmly, “Sit down, Mel.”
Mr. Browner stayed on his feet a moment longer looking defiant, furious and frustrated, but seeing only flat stares meeting his eyes, he slowly sank back into his chair. While he was up, though, I was getting more and more nervous. I knew what was coming next. Me.
They’d all decided that the charges against the Browner boys would carry much more impact if they were given orally instead of being silently read from copies of the notebook. That was fine with me until it had further been decided that I was the one to read them out loud.
The reason for that wasn’t one I much liked, though I couldn’t argue with it. I was a few inches shorter than Stu and a few pounds lighter. I looked smaller, weaker, less significant. Everyone thought that if I read what I’d written, it would all sound just that much worse because it would be coming from someone obviously not able to protect himself, someone who could quite easily be a victim of bullying himself. The comparison of me to either Frank or Tom, sitting only a few feet away, was there for everyone to see.
Principal Cotton glanced at me, then back at Mr. Browner. “These two boys have looked into a couple of incidents involving your sons. They put the results of what they found in a notebook. I have a copy of it for you, but it’s better if you hear what the notebook says. Jason here will read it for you. Jason, go ahead.”
My heart was pounding. I had my original notebook, not a copy. I opened it and, taking a very big breath, hoping it would relax me, started. The breath didn’t help at all.
I read all about the incident with Marcus. There wasn’t a sound in the room but my voice, higher pitched than I wanted, but my nerves caused that. I included all the witnesses who saw what the two boys did outside the bathroom, and Marcus’s account of what had happened inside.
I was surprised. Rather than look sheepish, both boys had slight smiles on their faces. They liked hearing about what they’d done! They thought it was funny.
I kept reading. I was at the part where I included the fact that beside the students in the hall, a teacher, Mr. Grant, had seen what had happened. I told them that he had witnessed the event, but that I wouldn’t read what Mr. Grant had said when we’d interviewed him. They’d be able to read that for themselves; it would be in the copy of the notebook they’d get.
Then I came to the part about Teri. I stopped. I really didn’t want to do this. Principal Cotton looked at me, then said, “Jason? Will you read the next part please?”
So I plowed ahead. I said, “We recorded this from what the person said. Every word is from that statement. I won’t name her, but Tom will know who she is.” Then I read it. This is what I read:
I was at a school dance, the first dance of the year, the one where we were all supposed to get acquainted with each other. While I was there, Tom Browner approached me. He told me I was really pretty, the prettiest freshman girl there, and asked me to dance. He’s not bad looking, but it wasn’t his looks that made me say yes. It was how confident he was. Most freshman boys are a little nervous around girls, maybe not scared but not very sure of themselves, either. They seem a little fragile to me. Tom was sure of himself. That’s really attractive. And I was a freshman. How could I not feel kind of special, being noticed by an upper classman, a junior in fact?
We danced, the music stopped, and then Tom held onto my arm and said he wanted to dance with me again. That he liked me. After the next dance, he got me some punch. I think he put something in it, some booze, because it tasted a little funny, but after a time, I felt warmer and more relaxed, too.
We danced several more dances, and I had more punch, and then he told me he was getting hot with all these people there and the dancing and everything, and that he was a football player and asked if I’d like to see their weight room and locker room and other places that most of the other kids never get to see.
I was feeling hot, too, and a little spacey, and said yes. I was still flattered by all the attention he was showing me.
He took me out of the gym by a back door. I doubt anyone saw us go. We walked down a dimly lit hallway. He took my hand in his. We were holding hands. His was way bigger than mine. He kept talking to me about how pretty I was, how I was sexy, how I turned him on. I was excited. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before.
We went in a door, and he said this was where the football team changed. He showed me his locker and all the equipment he put on for games. Then he kissed me.
It was sort of all of a sudden. I wasn’t ready for it, but he was holding me and kissing me. I’d never kissed a boy before. I’d never necked or made out or anything. This was totally new to me. He kissed me for a long time, using his tongue, which was an incredible feeling.
I was gasping for breath when he pulled back, still looking in my eyes. I don’t know what I was thinking. I probably wasn’t thinking at all.
He walked me to the end of the room where there were some mats rolled up. He unrolled a couple and then pulled me down onto them and started kissing me again. Soon, he was sort of on top of me. He was running his hands all over me. Before I really knew what was happening, he’d opened my blouse and was caressing my breasts through my bra. Then he reached under it.
My head was kind of spinning. Too much was happening too fast and I seemed to have lost my willpower. It was happening and I didn’t have any control over it. What he was doing felt sort of good—and very strange, but scary, too—but I couldn’t say much anyway because his lips and tongue were on mine.
And then things changed. Even in my state, I could feel the difference. He’d been kind of gentle, even if a little forceful. But he was getting less gentle, and even more forceful.
The hand he had rubbing under my bra, he moved it lower. Down between my legs. I still had my skirt on; my blouse was open, but I still had my bra on, though it was moved and one of my breasts was now visible. Now, he reached down, put his hand under my skirt and raised it back up so he was touching my panties. He began rubbing there. And then he took his mouth from mine and rose up off me. I could see what he was doing. The hand that wasn’t under my skirt was working at his belt. He loosened it and pulled down his pants. Then his underpants.
“What are you doing?” I managed to gasp. My voice sounded funny, not like me at all.
“Getting ready,” he said, and he sounded funny, too. Breathy, and excited, and . . . and I don’t know how to describe it. But pretty quickly he was naked from the waist down, and he was touching himself.
I’d never seen a naked boy before. Not a real one. Pictures, and a model in Sex Ed, but this was a real boy, and he was hard, and it wasn’t a model. He was holding it now, and he said, “See this?”
He wanted me to look at it. I think he was proud of it or something. It sounded like that. Like he wanted me to admire it. To me, it just looked weird and a little scary. Well, more than a little. I think he wanted me to be in awe, looking at it, and to compliment him or something. I started to get really scared. Did he think he was going to rape me? I was a virgin, and I wasn’t a bit ready for any of this. I was waking up really fast.
I started to struggle up. He saw that and pushed me back down. He’s very strong and much bigger than I am. “We haven’t got to the good stuff yet,” he said.
“I want to go,” I said. It sounded whiny, even to me.
“First we have to have sex. When I get excited like this, I have to. You’ll like it.”
He sprawled himself on top of me again and tried to kiss me. I turned my head. “No!” I said, and tried to push him off. He was way too heavy for me to do that. “I’m a virgin. You’ll hurt me. I don’t want to do this. Let me go. I’ll scream.”
He paused then, but got angry, too. “You can’t say no now. Not when I’m all ready.”
“No!” I said again, and this time it was louder, more forceful, and I was thrashing around, trying to get away.
“Just oral, then,” he said. “All the girls who want to date anyone in high school have sex,” he said. You’ll like it. Just get me off.” After saying that, he wriggled up higher on me so his knees were on the mat astride my chest. He leaned forward.
“Open your mouth,” he said. “And if you bite me, I’ll hit you and then make you not a virgin any longer.”
“NO”! I said again, and then did scream. He laughed. “No one can hear you in here. This is where I bring girls for sex. Scream all you want.”
I opened my mouth, meaning to scream no matter what he said, and he leaned forward and pushed it in. I choked. I was having trouble breathing. The only reason I didn’t pass out, I think, was it only went on for a short time, probably no more than 30 seconds. Then he grunted and I felt slimy stuff in my mouth.
After that, he pulled away from me, and I started spitting and sputtering. His face was all red, and his eyes mostly closed. I struggled hard and he sort of fell off me and lay back on the mat, breathing hard. I jumped up and took off, not even caring that my blouse was still open. I rushed out of the room and into the hallway. I saw a restrooms sign and ran to where a girls room was. The door was locked! I wanted to wash my mouth out, but the door wouldn’t open. Then I thought and reached in the purse I still had with me and took out a couple of tissues. I wiped my tongue and mouth the best I could. I couldn’t see any place to get rid of the tissues. I wasn’t thinking straight anyway. I finally shoved them back in the purse. Then I straightened my skirt, fixed my blouse, and made my way back to the dance.
It felt like I was in a different dimension when I went back in and all the kids were there, dancing and talking and laughing and everything was normal. Everything but me. I made my way to the exit door and left. I went home, and there I took a long shower. I couldn’t seem to get clean, no matter how many times I scrubbed myself. I couldn’t seem to get rid of the taste of him no matter how many times I brushed my teeth, no matter how much mouthwash I used.
Since then he’s tried to pick me up again. He’s told me he wants to have sex. I’ve told him to leave me alone. When Jason saw him confront me at my locker, I’d finally figured out how to get him to listen to me, and I told Tom.
I told him about when I left him there on the mats. I told him I’d cleaned my mouth out the best I could with a bunch of tissues. Then I told him I’d saved the tissues. I put them in a sealed up Ziploc bag. I told him if he ever bothered me again, even just approached me, I’d take them to the police. I thought that would be enough, but it wasn’t.
After school that day, when I was walking home, he drove up next to me. His brother was driving, and Tom jumped out and stopped me. He said he wanted those tissues, and he’d get them or hurt me. I pushed him away and shouted that my parents had them and they were planning to call the cops. That scared him. He hasn’t bothered me since.
I haven’t told my parents about this, and don’t want to. I only told you guys because you’re trying to get Tom to stop bothering me permanently. I’m afraid he won’t. I still have the tissues, though. Hidden.
I stopped. The room was deadly quiet. No one said anything. No one was looking around, or down at the table, either. Everyone had their eyes focused on Tom.
I was feeling strange. I’d gotten through reading all that. I hadn’t thought I’d be able to. But as I was reading, I’d been calming down, and by the end, I was feeling OK. Feeling better about myself, really. And feeling the emotions of the interview Teri had given us. Anger at Tom. Anger at Mr. Browner.
I felt maybe I’d grown up a little. I took a chance; I raised my eyes to look at Tom. For me, that was a very bold move. He wasn’t looking back. His eyes were firmly on the table in front of him.
I felt a strange feeling then. I think it was pride. I’d done it. I’d read Teri’s statement. In front of everyone. I hadn’t thought I could. But I had.
After a few moments, Mr. Browner said, his voice no longer quite so loud, quite so forceful, “This doesn’t change anything. You try to let other people read this, I’ll sue the school, I’ll sue you—” he was looking at my dad then “—and I’ll do what I said I’d do with the school board.”
My dad was shaking his head, and he spoke then. “You won’t do shit.” That was the first and only time I ever heard my dad swear. He not only swore—his voice was full of contempt. “If you do anything other than withdraw both your sons from this school right now, immediately, this notebook goes to the police. They’ll also get the tissues that have Tom’s DNA on them. At my advice, the girl split them up, giving some to different people so Tom can’t force her to give them up to him.
“If the police get involved, Tom will be identified as the sexual predator, forcing himself on an unwilling and protesting 14-year-old girl. Your son is past the age of maturity in this state. It’s a felony for him to have sexual contact with a girl this young. While you’re working through that situation, with your son locked in a jail cell, that’s when I’ll hit you with a lawsuit for threatening my son, which you did in front of all the witnesses in this room. And just to add to your woes, I’ll tell the newspapers that you also threatened me, a cripple in a wheelchair. Your reputation in this town will be in the sewer.”
Principal Cotton spoke then. “I have a letter for you to sign saying you’re voluntarily withdrawing both your sons from the school as of right now. You’ll walk out of here and never return. In return, we won’t disseminate the notebook Jason created. We won’t go to the police. But, if you go to the school board, or if anything happens to either of these boys or their families, or to the girl, one of the many copies we have of that notebook will be in police hands before that day is done. The girl says she’ll testify. She’ll make an excellent witness.”
Mr. Browner started to speak, but Stu’s dad cut him off. “You don’t say anything at this point. What you do is sign the letter, get up and walk out. You don’t take your boys to their lockers to clean them out. All three of you simply leave the building. The lockers will be emptied and any personal stuff shipped to you. There may well be more incriminating evidence of who knows what in those lockers. If so, we’ll have it.
“The girl who told Jason and Stu what you just heard was just one girl, and we suspect that there were many more. Tom stated that the mats were the place he brought ‘girls’ for sex. He used the plural. Maybe he was showing off. Maybe not. Maybe we’ll find things, incriminating things, in both their lockers. Maybe not. But that’s for later. For now, you sign the letter and leave. Or we call the police and let the chips fall where they may. Principal Cotton can get another job easily. Until he does, his partner, who’s a highly paid chef, can support them. You can’t get another son quite so easily, and you’ll be selling him down the river if we call the police. Your choice.
“Oh, and one more thing. This doesn’t go away. The girl says she has evidence that will support Tom’s arrest. As we’re not certain it does, we have no legal responsibility to turn it over to the police. And we won’t if the Browner family stays on the straight and narrow. But you boys have gotten away with sexual assault on a minor, with being bullies, with taking advantage of young girls. It was for the last time, because if we hear of any complaints from any girls in this town, any accusations that you’ve continued what you started here, or even of any bullying, you’ll be dead meat. We’ll be watching.”
Then he slid the letter down the table to Mr. Browner along with a pen. Mr. Browner was angry, but whipped, too. He knew it. He picked up the pen, scribbled his name on the bottom of the letter, then stood up and said, “Let’s go,” to his sons.
“Mr. Grant will accompany you to the door,” Principal Cotton said.
Things changed at the school after that. The next day, Principal Cotton terminated the football coach. It turned out that he didn’t qualify for the job because he didn’t have the required credential. Principal Cotton reinstated Mr. Hedges, the former coach and current History teacher.
We had an assembly the next day as well. Principal Cotton apologized to the student body for the lax discipline at the school and said starting immediately, the school policy against bullying was to be reinforced. He said a committee was being formed of students and faculty members to determine the fate of anyone brought before it for bullying. He said Mr. Grant, Mr. Hedges, Stu and I would be on the committee and that if any other students or faculty wanted to be part of it, they should submit their names.
I was shocked to hear that. No one had told me anything about that. No one had asked me if I want to be part of a committee judging the behavior of other students! Now, my name was out there in front of the entire school.
I couldn’t help think of that smile on my dad’s face the other day. Did he know, even then?
Maybe he did. Because there was another huge, huge change. It had developed from the meeting our two dads had had with Principal Cotton, and then the meeting with the Browners. Principal Cotton had been impressed with my dad. And he had a position open at the school which he’d never filled: vice principal. Dad didn’t have a teaching credential, but the job didn’t involve teaching. It was more an advisory position for the principal, and as an interface between him and the students. Dad would be involved with the students. And the great part? The job paid a good salary! Dad would be employed again—and would be bringing home the bacon. Mom could cut her work hours and be home more, and we would soon be able to get a better place to live. A place where I wouldn’t be embarrassed to bring Stu.
Stu and I were a couple now, and that had a lot to do with my coming out of my shell. He had a lot of friends, and many of them became my friends as well. Stu was out, and so I was, too, now.
The only thing was, without the Browner boys and Coach Styne, the football team went back to the way it had been, a so-so group. They didn’t win their division, didn’t make the playoffs. Funny thing, though. When we saw the players on the team in the halls, most of them were smiling now. They seemed more like high school kids than aggressive monsters. I guess, well, I’ll leave it to someone else to figure that one out.
Teri is still our friend. She’s as perky and sexy as ever. She recovered from the Browners’ reign of terror just like the school did.
I had Mr. Grant for English second semester, freshman year. He was one of those teachers who inspired you to work hard. He made me think I was special, but then, a lot of kids got that feeling in his class. I was liking high school a lot now.
As always, my sincere thanks to my editors. You do a marvelous and mostly unsung job.
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