About a year ago, this week, my mom asked, “Do you know what happened to the young man that lived there?” as she gestured to a small, dilapidated shack along the drive into my hometown. It once housed one of my classmates.
“No……I, I don’t.” I said in response. And that realization was a little sting. I know what happened, or is happening, to many of my former schoolmates.
It comes as no real surprise to me that she asked about a boy that I used to know. My mom has an eidetic memory when it comes to people.
It didn’t seem to be a big deal and the conversation in the car turned to something else.
When I got home, I went into my home office and pulled out my yearbooks. Not only is this individual pictured at bare minimum, but he also appears all but forgotten on the pages of our youthful history. I posed an open-ended inquiry about him and it turned up nothing.
I knew he had a tough childhood. We knew each other from age five all the way through high school. I don’t claim to be friends with every person I knew then. I’m not. Even in the age of social media there are some requests that just don’t get fulfilled because some people I avoid on principle. I’m not petty but I’m not perfect either.
He didn’t have a lot. He came to school in clothes that had visible holes and were often well worn beyond their prime. Was he bullied? Yes. He was. Some that I grew up with can pretend it didn’t happen in “our school” but it did. Many of my former classmates can keep their heads in the sand as much as they want, but the fact is, there were bullies in home sweet high school. While I wasn’t one, and didn’t have many encounters with them, I was far from stupid and knew they were there.
I remember two incidents of Jason being bullied. During one, he was being pushed around by a football player in the hallway near my locker. I thought the jerkish jock wasn’t nearly as smart as he pretended to be and not as half as good looking as he thought he was. If you had asked me then, I would have told you that I thought he thought he was God’s incredible gift to both academia and to women at large. He was sixteen. No one is God’s gift to anything or anyone at sixteen (individual’s family not included).
The football player was on Jason about his clothes and his shoes. I remember Jason not taking shit from anyone and I was secretly hoping that he’d get at least one good wallop in before a teacher or a principal came running. It didn’t end that way. It ended with a tart “fuck you” from Jason and his somewhat signature snarl.
I imagine that in his shoes, I would have also adapted to the hostile jungle and developed my own sneer and snarl.
The other was on the bus. School buses are a breeding ground for torment and I don’t know why. I had my own share of bus misery as a kid too. It’s a thing. But I was never put in the position that I remember Jason in at the time.
He was humiliated by another kid on the bus as he was dropped off at his home. Some little twit on the bus thought it was okay to mock Jason’s home. He looked backward as the mockingkid and didn’t say a word. His stare was steely enough, but an astute person could see that he was trying really hard not to cry. Home is supposed to be a sanctuary! His home, no matter what it looked like, should have been a place for Jason to just be and be safe from the demonic brats that he faced every day.
While I was growing up, my family wasn’t poor but much of my wardrobe came from Wal-Mart. The cute dresses and shirts that girls complimented me on at school? Straight from either Wal-Mart or possibly K-Mart. Both were fairly close to our home and it was what my family could afford at the time. As I got older, we had opportunities to shop elsewhere, and my mom took them, but for most of my middle school years and even into the first year of high school, that’s where I shopped.
Why wasn’t I mocked and humiliated for my Wal-Mart wardrobe? How come the other kids didn’t tease me for my “off” brand athletic shoes? Was it because I wasn’t “poor”? I wasn’t. But I didn’t have $100 shoes in middle and high school (which, by the way is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen). I didn’t have (too) tight Abercrombie jeans that cut off circulation to my brain (therefore rendering me “unpopular”, but I was smart, so who won that one?).
The two photographs I have of Jason in high school don’t show him smiling. I’m not sure I ever saw him smile. I assume that was difficult for him. I know who made his life a living hell. Today, I could still spell their names. I can recall that, but I can’t remember if Jason even had one friend.
There are Jasons in every school. The kids that are overtly poor and openly bullied.
What do we do? Pretend these kids don’t exist?
I wonder if they know how to smile?
Jason seems to disappear after 2001. Was he held back? Did he drop out? What the hell happened and why doesn’t anyone, including myself, know? Did we just not care to follow up with him? Like I said, I don’t remember him having one friend.
His home, the one that the dirtbag kid mocked, still stands. It has trees growing through the porch. It’s leaning to one side. I can’t tell if the windows are still intact, or if they were ever there. Jason lived there at one point in his life, and my classy class doesn’t even have proof that he existed beyond two terrible yearbook pictures.
I see news stories quite often about today’s youth doing something good, something kind, for a fellow classmate just because they can. People whine about the millennials and I know I have too. I’m not petty but I’m not perfect. But they seem to have the whole being a good human down better than we did at their age.
We always could.
We could have been better.
But we didn’t, and we weren’t.