”Yeah dude, go for it! I always go back for more, it’s no big deal.” With feigned nonchalance they urged him on, invisibly snickering at the possibility of tricking their friend into catastrophe. He didn’t think he should do it, but he trusted his friends, although they were often cruel to him. But never as cruel as they could have been, which in its own way, was the cruelest of all, always toeing boundaries just precisely so there would never be cause to enforce them.
The other boys nearly seemed to pity the boy for his apparent weakness, but they had a duty to enforce the natural law of playground hierarchy. It almost wasn’t funny to them when they made fun of him in ways that he did not understand until it was far too late, later than was relevant at all. They fleeced him out of his lunch money a couple of times with the classic “heads I win, tails you lose” gambit, until he finally learned that he couldn’t win on those terms, protesting over their laughter at his late realization. They called him “pickle boy”, their reason being that he picked his nose, although the boy didn’t understand this connection. He was frustrated by their insensible denial of his assertions that he didn’t really even like pickles that much.
The girls didn’t seem to mind him, but he was vaguely terrified of them even in the 5th grade. The rejection of the boys hurt him, and was often confusing, but nothing he couldn’t cope with by means of a quick retreat back into his head. But the rejection of the girls was unthinkable – he felt like they could destroy him. He didn’t know whether he wanted to be friends with them or be one of them, so they were mostly given their due distance.
For now the child stuck with his boys and he spent a good portion of his formidable energy conforming to their expectations.
He got up and slowly made his way to the back of the gymnasium, where the lunch ladies were handing out portions and ringing kids up. Logically, the plan made sense: his friend had just done it, so there should be no reason why he shouldn’t be able to do it too. He hadn’t caught the implicit requirement for stealth, that he needed to do this while no one was looking. But that was the joke. To this boy, fair was fair. The fact that life is not always fair was an exceedingly slow lesson for this child to learn.
The boy walked up to the cart which on this Tuesday morning was filled with chocolate cakes, each filled with sugary cream. It was a lot for anyone to try and resist, more so for a young child with the kind of innocent and naïve affinity for sugar that only young children have. In full view of at least two lunch ladies and one school security officer, and fully committing now to his freshly-formed belief that he was doing nothing wrong, he reached over and grabbed one. As slowly and cautiously as he had approached the cart, so quickly and triumphantly did he cross back to his friends at the table on the other side, believing, now that he had the cake in his hands, that there could be no repercussions. No takesies-backsies.
His friends had fearful looks on their faces as he neared the table and averted their eyes from his. This struck the boy as strange – we should be celebrating our shared success. Unless it wasn’t a success. The dawning of this realization was followed by a “she’s-behind-me-isn’t-she” moment with one of the lunch ladies, who had followed the boy angrily from the food cart, appalled at the brash nerve of kids today, stealing food, tsk tsk – and very quickly taught the boy that indeed there would be takesies-backsies in this scenario.
The righteous lunch lady warned the boy of dramatic repercussions for his ignorance, including a visit to the principal’s office and a phone call to his parents, who surely wouldn’t be happy to hear that their boy was an aspiring cake thief. The boy sat in class worried all day, gnawing the tips of his fingers anxiously down to nearly nothing. His friends had betrayed him after he put his trust in them; he had done a bad thing and was reprimanded in front of them; now he was going to disappoint his parents, and how could he explain this? He had only just started at this new school and his life was already over. All it takes is one mistake, then it’s secondary school to juvie and straight on to prison. He was in the pipeline now – better harden up quick. He could hardly hold back his tears: such was the emotional paradox within this child that any impetus ostensibly towards hardness seemed to result only in further softening.
When the bell rang, all the kids grabbed their backpacks, prematurely stuffed with their belongings, much to the chagrin of every teacher who chastises over and over that the bell does not dismiss you, I do. They poured out of the classroom like a prepubescent flood and stood milling about on the bus mall, waiting to go home.
It was here where the principal finally caught up to the accused, who was just then beginning to let a little light shine on the idea that he may be released that day with no consequences. His heart sank when he turned around, alerted by a light tap on the shoulder, and saw the central authority figure of a significant part of this boy’s life, the long arm of the law in this part of town, standing there with a look on his face like he had some bad news.
But the look was a ruse and it concealed only good news. The boy learned that his only punishment was to be the fear in his heart that the look had provoked, a fear that the boy had been precociously cultivating within himself since lunch-time anyway. He always was an overachiever, particularly on the subject of self-flagellation.
The principal explained that because the boy was normally so well-behaved, and a high achiever to boot, he could let this one go for now. No detention, no suspension, no phone call to his parents. The boy was immediately relieved – the fear was gone. But the shame remained. In fact, it increased like weeds after a harvest. The boy had still done a bad thing and he still felt guilty about it. Even worse, he felt like he had been made the butt of a joke that he didn’t understand.
The lack of real punishment seemed to make it even worse. Now he had no way to atone, to come clean, to pick himself up and dust himself off and process what this would mean for his relationship with his friends, id est that he needed new ones. At first the boy thought that the principal was doing him a favor – maybe one of his friends had come clean on his behalf, and admitted that the boy had been on the receiving end of an irrefutable dose of peer pressure. Maybe the boy really was as special as he dreamed he could be, and the principal and all his friends were finally perceptive enough to see it, thereby granting him extra-special leeway.
But really the truth was that the principal had had a long day. His own daughter was doing poorly in school, a few years ahead in junior high school and struggling to keep up with her classmates. His wife was embarrassed of him, he who claimed to be an educator yet could not educate his own child, and it was beginning to show in their marriage, like a slow build-up of water pressure in the pipes extruding through and expanding old cracks. For his part, his mind was in another place and he just wanted to go home to his own wife and child, not call someone else’s wife and give her cause to be concerned with her own child.
And besides, this kid did not strike him as a problem child, unless he counted the kid’s own personal problems, which appeared from a distance to be many. Most kids didn’t cry at the their desk when they failed a pop quiz on US states and capitols, especially when the teacher had explicitly stated that it is only for her to gauge their present understanding, and by no means will it be graded. Most kids didn’t keep mold in a Petri dish in their desk and try to claim it as a class pet when discovered. Neither were a positive in the principal’s view, except in the category of wanting to leave this kid well enough alone, his parents un-dialed.
The boy got on the bus with the only other kid in their crew who treated him like a friend. The boy played off the day’s events with mustered gusto, much easier now to fake in the comfortable man-to-man of a brown plastic leather bus seat. They didn’t address the shame, or the guilt, or the betrayal. They didn’t address the fact that by now he should have known better with those guys. They definitely didn’t address the fact that it wasn’t cool to openly pick your nose at the lunch table, or scratch your head over and over for the express purpose of creating a small pile of dandruff on the tabletop, and by exhibiting such socially ignorant behaviors, one invited the insecurity of one’s peers to manifest in violent and malignant ways. In other words, you’re asking to get bullied, you dweeb – cut it out.
It takes a good friend to look past these things and stick with a person despite their shortcomings. It takes an even better friend to point them out. Unfortunately, or fortunately, this kid’s friend was just good enough. Truly it was a wonder, even to the boy at times, that he had any friends at all.