Remembering a classmate who also was different
I went to school with a boy who was different.
He was my classmate for 12 years — 13, actually, if you count kindergarten — and he was, for the whole of that time, different.
Even when I was a 5-year-old who could barely tie his shoes I recognized this.
He didn’t talk like the other kids.
He didn’t act like the other kids.
I was going to write that indeed he didn’t even look like the other kids, because my memory insists this is so.
Except my mom was a faithful keeper of memorabilia and so I have, wedged into a corner of a closet, a stack of my birthday cards and elementary school artwork (all of it wretchedly executed, even accounting for my age) and school class photographs.
I looked at a few of the latter and I realized that this boy, who was different in many ways, in fact smiled pretty much like his classmates smiled, which is to say with the unique innocence of the pre-pubescent.
If you hadn’t spent a couple thousand days in school with the boy, as I did, your eyes would pass over his face in these photographs and detect nothing abnormal there, nothing to prompt a question.
He was, like me, one of a couple dozen kids who spent their entire childhood in our bucolic little town. We were kindergartners together and we got our driver’s licenses around the same time and finally, the last time as a group, we walked across our high school gym and stepped onto a podium and collected our diplomas.
This long period — to a kid, life seems without end, and a weekend almost as immense — was for me a time of tranquility, even banality.
There were no great dramatic episodes, no scandals, nothing that can fairly be described as traumatic.
Of course things happened which seemed to me then of great consequence; but these only emphasize the essential quiescence of the period. When some minor gaffe on the baseball diamond, or a painfully clumsy letter to a pretty girl that fails to provoke the desired response, stand out as memorable disappointments, then life is progressing more or less as it’s supposed to.
But for the boy who was different, childhood was nothing like the pleasant and uneventful period I breezed through.
I don’t presume to speak for him, of course.
But I saw what happened to him — sharing classrooms and hallways and cafeterias with him for many years, it could hardly have been otherwise — and the ordeals he endured far exceeded, in sheer nastiness, anything in my experience.
I don’t know, medically speaking, what made this boy different.
It wasn’t Down syndrome.
I doubt he even would be described, today, as developmentally disabled.
He was smart, particularly in math and science.
A story went around that he was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and perhaps that’s true.
Whatever the cause, he struggled to speak clearly — he stuttered, for one thing, and when finally he yanked the words loose they were garbled by a severe, saliva-slurred lisp.
But what made the boy especially vulnerable was his temper.
He seemed to have had no more control over it than he had over his obstinate tongue.
A single taunt sometimes spurred him into a tantrum that only a teacher could quell — and even the teacher often failed at first to calm the boy.
A few of my particularly boorish male classmates — every school, I suspect, is infected with such characters — recognized the boy’s weakness and they pounced on it with a sort of mindless, predatory cunning.
Which is to say they provoked the boy because they knew they could, and that he would respond in a way guaranteed to attract a crowd.
These episodes — most of them, as I recall, happened during junior high — ended, inevitably, with the boy crying and red-faced and, rarely, screaming in a way that was almost feral. It was frightening, really.
A teacher would lead him to the office. Maybe sometimes he even went home for the rest of the day. I don’t remember.
I never instigated any of these assaults — for that is what they were, even when there was little or no physical contact between the boy and his tormenters.
But neither did I ever try to stop one.
I’d like to be able to explain this away by saying I wasn’t physically capable of intervening in any effective way; and this is, in a sense, the truth.
The bullies, as bullies often are, were bigger and stronger than I was.
But the excuse doesn’t hold.
I could have waded into any of these frays. I might have ended up with a black eye, to be sure, but in doing so I would have broken the spell that seems to come over any group that’s watching a spectacle.
I don’t mean to imply that I think often about the boy who was different.
He’s married now, and successful so far as I can tell.
Maybe you could even say he’s fortunate. He made it. He didn’t hurt anyone. Or himself.
What caused me to think recently about this boy was reading about another boy who was also different.
But the story of Jadin Bell, a 15-year-old sophomore at La Grande High School, hasn’t the happy (or anyway not tragic) ending that my classmate’s does.
Jadin died Sunday in a Portland hospital, the result of his suicide attempt earlier this month at Central Elementary School in La Grande.
Jadin, who was gay, told friends he had been bullied at school.
I didn’t know Jadin.
I have no idea what he might have endured.
But I have watched a boy suffer for no reason other than he was different.
Which is no reason at all.
That I still feel a nagging sense of shame, 30 years and more later, attests I think to the pervasive power of malicious acts.
Yet even now I could do something. I could contact the boy, could apologize for my cowardice. This would be a meager gesture, of course, a token more likely to assuage my guilt than to help my former classmate.
But it is a luxury I have, and one that is forever lost to those who knew, and loved, Jadin Bell.