It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. — C. S. Lewis
The first one I remember was Rose. She was only the tiniest bit chubby (but back then, I don’t recall anyone being concerned about fat), had pale skin, Dutch-boy haircut the color of straw, a sweet smile with a gap between her teeth. Rose. That’s a beautiful word, a beautiful flower. But the other kids spat her name. Think, “Hello, NEWMAN,” from Seinfeld.
Then there was Davey. He was happy, in spite of all their attempts to make that not be so. His nose ran a lot. I now realize that he must have had allergies. No one talked about allergies then. He was just snotty Davey. I remember once he called me before back-to-school. I think it was before 4th grade. He had never called me before, and I didn’t know what to make of it then. Now it pleases me that he felt OK to do that. He was calling to tell me, item by item, each article of back-to-school clothing his mother had bought him, what colors, what he would wear with what . . . and to ask me if I thought his wardrobe was “OK.” Back then, I just told him that everything sounded fine to me. He hung up happy. I never told anyone about that phone call until this minute.
Next, I remember Barbara. Barbara was poor. She wasn’t clean. Not her clothes and not her body. She smelled like bacon and woodstove smoke. There were white things in her black hair. I may not ever have gotten close enough to see what they were. I imagine them as lint, but I don’t know. When I see her in my mind, I see her smiling. If she were clean, with nice clothes and a haircut, her pale skin and smooth black hair, and white, even teeth, would make her quite striking. I see her smiling, but I know she cried a lot. I hope not anymore.
And there was Bonnie in Sunday School. Snot was an issue for her, too, but that’s because she missed her Mom. I don’t know where her Mom was, but her Dad dropped her off in the Sunday School class every Sunday morning. Bonnie (I loved her name) had that combination that I still find so alluring — very blond hair and dark brown eyes. And every single Sunday, to ease the pain of his leaving her there, her Dad would give her a chocolate Tootsie Pop. Damn, I wanted one of those. (Still do.) But Bonnie sucked her Tootsie Pop, and cried for her Mom, and the net effect of the dark brown eyes and the chocolate lolly was three dark brown circles on this pale, wet face, with the tears from the eyes, and the drool down the chin. Even being in the House of the Lord didn’t stop the other kids from saying mean things. I just wanted the Tootsie Pop. And I wanted to say to her, “Your name is BONNIE. You have blond hair, brown eyes and a Tootsie Pop. And Mrs. Mahala is NICE. You don’t have any reason to cry like that.” I never joined in the teasing, but I must say, I didn’t have much empathy.
That was all elementary school.
Next was middle school. Joyce. She had a couple of friends, and they called her Joycie. She was clean, and not poor. She had smooth, clean, light brown hair that hung below her butt. She was very fat. Even though I’ve said that we didn’t think so much about weight back then, Joyce had to buy women’s clothes. Clothes with a “W” after the size, and back then, there wasn’t much to choose from in that department. A few people teased Joyce, but mostly she was safe, with her couple of friends. And when everyone saw how smart she was in Algebra, that helped, too. Because a lot of people needed her help. I got to know Joyce a little bit, because we were in an advanced math class together. She really was smart, and very witty, and very sweet. I thought it was a loss to those other people who didn’t want to be around her because she was fat.
And there was Pop Mitchell. I’m sure her parents gave her a lovely first name, but I don’t know what it was. She had very black skin and what I now realize must have been hyperthyroidism, because her eyes “popped” out. That’s why she was called Pop. I remember her smiling and saying, “hello,” all the time. She was developmentally delayed. Maybe that made the teasing easier for her, because when people would make a joke about her and laugh, she’d laugh louder than anyone. It didn’t help Pop and her classmates any that their teacher’s name was Mrs. Nutter. They were the special education class (although I never heard that term, we all just knew), but everyone called them “Nutter’s Nuts.” “Here comes Nutter and her nuts!” Come to think of it, Mrs. Nutter would laugh loudly when she heard that. I don’t know quite what to make of that, now.
Then there was Mary Flick. I’m using her real name, because it’s key to the specific torment that she endured. I just googled the name, and there are lots of them. A law enforcement officer, a campus ministry leader, a quality assurance expert, a nurse, the mother of a handicapped child. One of the insults that we relied heavily upon in middle school was the label, “‘flicted.” Short for “afflicted,” but the “a” was never used. Just ‘flicted. “Mary Flick is ‘flicted!” “Here comes ‘flicted Flick!” Mary always wore dresses. She had long, coarse, pale hair, and crooked eyes and crooked teeth. Her brother wasn’t treated the way Mary was, even though he resembled her and of course, had the same last name. Mary is the only one, the sound of whose voice I can’t remember. I may have never heard her speak.
I moved early in my freshman year of high school. I imagine there were kids in my new high school who had endured the same type of teasing, tormenting, bullying, abuse, that the preceding endured. I didn’t know of them, though, in the new school. Except for Bonita. Upon first seeing Bonita, you wouldn’t have thought there was much of a problem. A little bit unkempt, eyeglasses a little outdated, maybe, but it was the 70s, in high school. There was a lot of variety in dress. I didn’t know, at first, that Bonita was a target. I remember the first week I was at school, someone, a preacher’s daughter, ironically, telling me to ask Bonita about her recent trip to Salisbury (a town in North Carolina). I was new, ready to make friends, so I said, “Hey, Bonita, did you go to Salisbury over the weekend?” And Bonita became very flustered and started on a long narrative/tirade about going to Salisbury. It was part informative, part angry, all very odd. And Bonita seemed both pleased and offended that I had asked. The preacher’s daughter and other kids around thought this was hilarious. I felt manipulated, and not amused. I learned that asking Bonita about Salisbury was guaranteed to engage and fluster her. I never knew why, or what the significance of that town was for her. Bonita probably had some developmental delays, some learning disabilities, and as I recall her now, she had some OCD characteristics, packing and unpacking, arranging and rearranging her belongings, in a compulsive, almost frenzied way.
I’m almost 29 years out of high school, and these children are still in my head. I think of some of them rather often. I didn’t join in the teasing. Ever. So I’m OK with that. But I was a popular kid. I wish I had also been an assertive kid. I wasn’t. I knew that being unkind to these people was wrong. Mean, immoral. My own self-esteem, sense of social security, was too tenuous to tell other people to stop it. I wish I had had more courage. And I hope — I would be so delighted to have reason to believe — that they are, in some form, living well, as “the best revenge.”