“And so, my fellow students…” the valedictorian had droned for what seemed like ages in a hot June sun. My thoughts were elsewhere, often on freedom. It was more freedom than I had been given thus far in my existence at least. The compulsory part of my life was done. A new chapter unfolded before me with the dusky scent of printed paper and a fancy dropped capital at the beginning. This would be the last time I’d see the vast majority of them. These cornflower-blue-garbed savages were all quiet with dread and uncertainty… or so I could only hope.
“…pursue your dreams…” Oh, God, he’s not giving that tired old line is he? How typical. The son of a doctor. The right family pedigree. The president of the school’s National Honors Society. The popular caste. What the Hell does he know but spouting platitudes from the silver spoon of society? Had he been terrorized for the last decade plus of his life? Did he know what it felt like to be clothes-lined at recess or jumped from behind while unsupervised? No. He could focus on his life. His goals. Wherever his father’s wealth would take him. Good on him, but he has a lot of nerve glad-handing me or any one of us. By “us,” I mean the scraps. The part of school he couldn’t be bothered with.
After his holiness made his decent, we were all in for three more speeches. I don’t know where I got the energy to hold on as long as I did without hurling my mortar board and tassel like a throwing star at the podium. It came and went, though, and I believe the oddly synthetic gown I was draped in provided more entertainment than it should have. I looked up. They were gathering for the conferment. At long last! I was minutes from unlocking the final door.
There I stood with the mock diploma in hand, feeling as relieved as a convict exonerated of his crime. I was a free man. It couldn’t have been better if Martin Luther King, Jr. was pointing straight at me exclaiming, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, free at last!” With a rush of victory I threw the hastily-prepared cap in the air. A symbol, not of academic achievement but of discarded injustice, soared into the baby blue sky.
The World Guardian (Hooterville’s newspaper) triggered that memory yesterday. In its search for muckraking, they’ve finally gotten wise to the Hooterville City School’s “growing bullying problem.” What they, and a boatload of other Hooterville residents, fail to realize is that it has been rampant for decades. When I mean rampant, I mean mentally damaging at best and criminal (literally) at its worst.
I’ve been the awkward, overweight kid for my entire life. With some pride, I’d like to think I’ve smoothed out many of those wrinkles over the years. It’s still not perfect, but it’s progress. After reading such wide-eyed pant wetting, I threw the paper down with half a mind to spit on it. I didn’t though, because that’s unnecessary.
For those of us who were targets, the Hooterville public school system was little more than a 12-year correctional facility, rife with physically, verbally, and mentally injurious inmates just waiting to take their problems out on you. If we graduated, we survived Jigsaw’s puzzle. We might be a little damaged, but we’re still alive. I come to find out today’s students have resorted to suicide threats. They aren’t winning. They’re not beating Jigsaw.
For as little as a stranger’s sympathy is worth, I can only express my condolences. I know those feelings, and they burn. Children handle these in different ways, but I find three main avenues that come up repeatedly. The first is self-debasement and resignation to the pit. There shouldn’t have to be any clarification on what “the pit” is, but it doesn’t involve anything good. The second is violence. Depending on the child, it could range from fists, to all out Columbine-style death dealing. I can remember reading those headlines about that school. When I saw the reason, it made me very quiet. It was far too familiar for me to bear. The third is a creative or constructive life. This doesn’t mean everything’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’re right in the head. It simply means you’ve decided to be productive, creative, or otherwise constructive with your life.
Between that brand new chapter above and today, I’d like to think I grabbed some of the third part. There have been times where I’ve marched through the pit, especially after Charlotte, but I kept going. I’ve pulled myself through some tough times, and while it shows, I could neither accept nor justify violence or wholesale murder as a solution. While pop-psych can get a little nauseating, living well is the best revenge.
Why did I keep going? Because I didn’t want to get busy dying. I’d like to have a beer with Andy Dufresne someday, but if he’s not available, Tim Robbins will have to do.