May 3, 2009

The Unforgiven

The impression that you make on people with your appearance is a funny thing. Despite the voluminous media that has been devoted to some of the extraordinary physical transformations that people go through – even over relatively short spans of time (drastic weight change, growth or even plastic surgery), we tend to look at one another and expect that those we see have, for the most part, always looked as they do today – if perhaps a slightly younger version. It is this strange phenomenon that I believe contributes to the disbelief people express when I tell them that I was a tremendously slight and ugly kid when I was in high school. And always seems to further confound them further that I haven’t quite let it all go. You see, today, I’m athletic, social, and at least what a few past lady friends have found to be attractive. But I’ll always be, in some small part, that same kid who never wore a prom tux, a varsity jacket or a genuine smile.

Centaurus was a quintessential American high school. It sat in the middle of two small, sister towns along the highway corridor between two much more important cities: Boulder and Denver. And in the late 1980’s, for the children of Louisville and Lafayette, Colorado, it was the center of the universe. Of course back then, before there was an “internet”, and before cell phones where smaller than a briefcase, high school was the biggest thing in the world. Rival high schools, just a few miles away, were places of myth and legend – and worlds unto themselves; state championships were brass rings of incomparable measure; and college was a Valhalla whose threshold could only be crossed by besting the high school gauntlet. In this social crucible, personalities were formed, and social status was nearly permanently established. It was here that you would find yourself amongst the groups that would forever define you: motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads, etc. These were the most important four years of your life – and I spent the first two of them under five feet tall and less than a hundred pounds.

The concept of bullies, at least in the high school sense, has become an outdated one. With today’s teenagers armed like North African guerillas bent on a coup, pushing and shoving in the hallway hardly seems intimidating. But in 1988, the greatest fear of every fourteen-year-old boy was high school “initiation”. As it turned out, there was little, if any, truth to the rumored atrocities that would be perpetrated on us upon setting foot on campus. But it was the fear of it that kept us looking over our shoulders. There were allegations of cattle prodding, horrible violations with shaving cream, and being urinated on in large pits. Most of my classmates were just getting through puberty, and hardly equipped to resist the man-children that seemed to populate Centaurus’ senior class, and I was laughably far behind them. The terror was overwhelming. And it did its part to keep us quiet and compliant.

(I suspect the real purpose of this “tradition” was to separate us from our female classmates, to which end it was exceptionally effective, but I digress)

But a couple of weeks into it, we’d figured out that there was not a parade of horrors waiting for us if we lingered too long after school or in the wrong part of the hall. The mass terror subsided, and the bullies began to do what bullies do, work out their own inadequacies on the weakest members of the herd. I should note that in addition to my target-friendliness by just being a part of the freshman class, as I mentioned above, I was staggeringly slight (even for 4’11”) and had a mouth that greatly outsized its attached body. The only defense I had, which turns out is the only upside to being one inch from legal classification as a “dwarf”, was being very quick and difficult to catch. Watching football players chase me around a crowded hallway was not unlike watching kids trying to catch a greased pig at a rodeo.

On one memorable occasion, a couple of seniors, who had heard the rumor that I had never been successfully “trashcanned”, waited until after the hallways had cleared after school to begin their chase. The lack of obstacles greatly reduced my advantage, and after spending a good minute suspended upside-down over a particularly nasty can and holding on, white-knuckled, for dear life – a teacher heard the commotion and broke up the affair. I never did end up in that trashcan.

I suffered a great number of social indignities that year, and for that matter, in the following three. I never had a girlfriend, never attended a school dance, and never played on a varsity team. I was mocked, tripped, jostled and locked in my locker. I was ignored, laughed at, and emasculated in nearly every way. And seventeen years later, I have forgiven mostly everyone that was ever involved in these affairs. After all, we were just kids and I was an easy target. I often times ended up asking for it (my mouth writing checks my body couldn’t cash) and it was usually far more embarrassing than it was actually painful. But there’s one person I haven’t forgiven. There’s one I won’t forgive. There’s one that I have always had in the back of my mind as I have gotten bigger and stronger each year since. There’s one that I’d like to see again, not to ask him why, or to let him see what I’ve become, but simply to walk up and punch in the mouth.


James was a pioneer in a way. He was a douchebag long before everyone else was doing it; the kind of kid who beats up animals and little kids. Because James was also small for his age, but still wanted everyone to think he was tough. So he made me his favorite target. Shoving me hard in the hallways, against lockers and walls. Always nominally inviting me to fight him back, knowing I’d never take up the challenge. It was always a public spectacle, but never long enough for him to get caught. I always left feeling, impossibly enough, even smaller. There are a lot of things I don’t remember about my time at Cenaturus High, but there are lot of things I remember about James.

I remember his ill-considered and neon-accented preppy clothes. I remember his spiky hair. I remember the evil smile he had on his face every time he confronted me, like some caricature of a bully. Because there was no good-natured intent in James’ hazing. He beat up on me as though he had to, as though my very existence was an affront to his being. I remember the terror and the helplessness. I remember my voice shaking as I yelled, “Fuck you!” after him, and brought on the worst beating I ever got in those hallways. I remember that I promised myself, promised myself that someday I’d give James his.

We’ve since had our reunions, and we’ll have another in just a few years. Much of the intensity of the old social castes has faded away, although I expect that I’ll always feel just a little bit awkward talking to Dea, that Brett can still throw a football about a mile, and that Jack and I are much more alike than we’ll ever admit. After all, we’re all on the home stretch of our 30’s and, for the most part, have become the people we are going to be. Centaurus is still standing in little Lafayette, but now the hallways are full of text messaging and skinny jeans and the hazing has been legislated all but completely away. There are no more hallway bullies, there are no more trashcannings and no one’s been stuffed in a locker in ten years.

The mileage on our memories allows us to appreciate our experiences for their greater purpose – to make us who are today. So, since I have the great fortune of liking who I’ve become, I can look at the vast majority of my past, both the pain and the pleasure, as a good thing – because without it, I never would have made it to where I’m at.

But not James. Because I expect he never really gave much of a damn about the things he did, and I don’t give much of a damn about forgiving him. I don’t want to hear about “two wrongs”, “fire with fire” or any of that “turn the other cheek” stuff. Thankfully, there’s not much of that little freshman left in this grown up body. I expect there’s just enough to put James on his ass, leave Centaurus behind forever and find a little peace in keeping a promise.

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