He was a nerdy kid. Let’s call him Brian.
Brian’s family had been living in England before moving back to the States. He didn’t really fit in.
To start with, he was very small. Like, much smaller than other kids his age. He was a year behind me when we shared Algebra II class, when I was in the 11th grade. He looked like a 6th grader when he was in the 10th grade.
But a well-dressed 6th grader, because he wore a tie most days, and often a blazer. Our school was in the middle of a dairy farm, and smelled strongly of cow manure. Blazers and ties were seldom seen. We believed his clothing was a holdover from his time in the UK, but who knows. Not me, anyway. I don’t remember asking him much about himself. He also wore product in his hair, which he wore in a style reminiscent of something from the movie Grease.
Brian also spoke very properly, and sneered at our accents. He made us feel inferior – like he really knew he was better than us. Brian didn’t make it easy to like him, and we tended to distrust anyone who is different.
There was a Senior in that Algebra II class as well – let’s call him Steve. Steve was very popular. And attractive. And a cut up. Girls thought he was adorable.
I was not popular. Nor adorable. Nor attractive. In fact, the only thing I really had going for me was that Steve thought I was funny. It helped that we both were failing this class, so we bonded over that.
And for some reason, Steve seemed set to make Brian’s life miserable. I don’t think Steve really thought poorly of Brian – it’s just that Brian was easy to pick on, and was often the butt of Steve’s jokes. Brian had a last name that seemed tailor-made for making fun of. Steve was happy to oblige.
I was desperate to fit in, so I made fun of Brian too. This was another way Steve and I bonded – over our shared hazing of Brian. Once, I remember Brian falling asleep at his desk, and I tied his shoe laces together. Steve then slammed a book down, and Brian jumped up, and then fell on his face. We all laughed. The teacher laughed.
Brian didn’t laugh.
When I watch Back to the Future and I see the way Marty McFly’s dad acts around Biff – that good natured aww shucks sort of ingratiating thing he did – that was how Brian acted towards Steve and me.
These days we would say that Brian was being bullied by Steve and I. At the time, we made snide comments about Brian’s being gay, but he wasn’t – he was just different. I was different too, but I sought out someone who I could feel superior to so I could be assured that I was not on the bottom.
The way we treated Brian was wrong, on multiple levels. It was wrong, period, but I also hate that I did it in order to suck up to someone else. I was cruel in order to be popular. Several people that year mentioned, when they signed my yearbook, how funny I was in Algebra II class. In other words, I was funny and liked because I was cruel to Brian.
I only remember Brian being at school that one year. Some folks said his family moved to Memphis. I never heard from him again. Steve graduated and now is a truck driver. And I did lots of things before I ended up being me.
Recently, I wondered what became of Brian. I looked him up on Facebook. He had a very distinctive name, and so it didn’t take long to find him. He had gone into the Army right after high school, and there were lots of pictures of him still looking small, but otherwise very brave in his desert fatigues during Desert Storm. He then became a cop, and there are lots of pictures of him with guns, with “thin blue line” posters, pictures of him looking very serious and posed, like he is trying to convince himself that he was really strong.
There were pictures of him and his wife and their two kids. He apparently liked to hunt and had taught his son to hunt. There were lots of overtly patriotic imagery too. It seems as an adult, Brian liked to project an image of strength.
Two things stood out: Although we had gone to the same school, we had no shared friends on Facebook. And his last Facebook update was in the middle of 2018. I Googled his (rather distinctive) name and learned he had died from suicide in June of 2018.
A therapist who knew me pretty well once asked me what I was repenting of to live the sort of life I do now. I told her it wasn’t quite that simple of a story, but there were many stories. And one of those stories would have been about Brian.
There is no way to wrap this up prettily. I wish I could tell you that before he died, Brian and I had made amends. That I was able to ask his forgiveness before he died. That he had forgiven me for the way I bullied him in the fall of 1988 so popular people would like me.
I wish I could tell you any of that. But that’s the thing about death – it stops everything in its tracks. It takes away all your options. And if I have learned anything in life, it is the futility of wishing you had a different past.
But as long as you are alive, you can still have a different future.