My first year of teaching, he was enrolled in my freshman honors English class, fourth period. He was enrolled, but by the middle of November, I was getting used to marking a little X in the box by his name. He was enrolled, but he almost never attended school.
Dan had school phobia, they told us. After winter break, we all met with his parents to discuss how to help him come back to school, now that he had missed so much. He showed up in January, then disappeared again.
I recognized Dan when I saw him. He was a walking target. Anxious, nervous ticks, shoulders slumped. Walking targets are the kids who care too much about fitting in but don’t quite know how to. The ones who want to be normal even though that just isn’t the way they are wired. I knew all about walking targets.
I had been one myself throughout my childhood. For a long, long time, I assumed that I had social troubles was because I had been abused in my home until I was ten. No one had taught me how to fit in. No one had given me self-confidence and ease and all that good shit. As I get older, however, I have come to realize that much of it may just have been the way I was born.
My son cares deeply about fitting in. My son doesn’t know how to. And he fights me hard when I try to help him. Not that I really know how to help him.
My parents, I have come to suspect, were much the same way. Not freaks, but just different enough to stand out. That, paired with a dorky sort of charisma that draws attention to oneself? Might as well tape that “Kick Me” sign to our backs before we even leave for school in the morning.
So, I recognized this kid the few times he came into my room. I heard rumors that his school phobia came from being teased, and I sure believed that. Dan disappeared again in January, but we were assured he would try to return in February.
Some say he shot himself that day just so he wouldn’t have to return to school.
There were far, far too many kids who died from my first year of teaching. There was a tragic car accident and another suicide, not to mention some other deaths in the school system. But, lately his death has haunted me the most, even though I knew him the least.
I turned mean girl once my senior year of high school. I had finally accomplished some level of social acceptance, after years of social scrabbling to try to get out from the bottom of the heap. When a sophomore friend of mine started in with an ex-boyfriend of mine, I turned quite a few of the senior girls against her. “Leave her alone,” the ex-boyfriend told me. “She can’t walk down the halls in school without people taunting her.”
That was all it took to bring me to my senses. I had been in her shoes so many times, and the last thing I wanted to do was be that kind of an asshole. I had behaved very, very badly.
She’s turned out OK and seems to have forgiven me, which gives me less absolution than you would think. But, the incident stands out for me as a reminder that the tormenters are human and easily can be turned around, if only handled properly.
It’s that proper handling that’s so tricky to figure out. Who needs to intervene? How? When? When do we let the victim fight for his own self-respect and when do we step in? What could have been done differently in eighth grade, sixth grade, kindergarten to have kept Dan from shooting himself on the roof of his house?
I ask you these questions, and so many more. What should the parents do? What helps a kid learn the trick for stopping the bullying? I cannot tell you my story because we are in a small town, and details will not help my child. Suffice it to say, nothing terrible has happened yet, but my kid is feeling the beginnings and he is trying hard to deal with it.
I cannot tell you the story, but you can tell me yours. What worked with your kids? What worked with you? Were you a bully, a bullied? Both? Were your kids? Talk to me people. Tell me what you know.
Because even now, thirteen years later, I still go to sleep some nights thinking about Dan.