I first rode my first the bus at 13. It was a twice-daily injection of anxiety and dread. No one I liked sat with me because I fidgeted non-stop. When I realized I had to sit alone, only one place I could sit existed—the very back seat. The roar and vibration of the engine soothed me in a way I did not understand.
Unfortunately, the back seat had been claimed by a loud and popular boy. Never mind that I hunched timidly across from him and kept quiet–my very presence offended his soul to its deepest core. His name was Michael, and the previous year I had my first crush on him. I adored him so openly that it was a source of amusement and derision to much of the sixth grade.
Michael was hyperactive, bossy, and athletic—the boy elected team captain and scolded as a smart-alec. His blonde hair curled with unkempt charm above eyes I never dared look into. I never spoke to him, but I watched him, meticulously recording nuances for future innocent imaginings.
One fall day, Michael asked me to the school’s Halloween Carnival. His shyness startled me—I had imagined him to be universally bold and confident. Thrilled to my core, I shared the news with unabashed enthusiasm and pride.
Oddly, my girlfriends weren’t excited for me. Accustomed to them not sharing my joy, I shrugged it off. My date with Michael was all I could talk about for days. My girlfriend’s non-verbal signals went completely over my head.
Then, Tina, an inscrutable and troubled girl, pulled me aside. “You know, Lori, he doesn’t really like you. He asked you as a joke. If you show up at the carnival, he’s going to tell you he was joking in front of his friends. Right by the apple bobbing station. They are all going to bomb you with wet sponges.” Stunned and humiliated, I turned every shade of pink and red.
Nevertheless, it made sense. I wondered, why didn’t my best friend warn me? Or any other girls from our circle? Tina belonged to another clique and had a reputation for being unpleasant and rude. Why did I have to hear this from her? For a brief second, I thought she was being nasty, but I realized the truth.
Once I knew, word went around quickly. Michael and his friends mocked me openly. I was most puzzled by my close friends’ reaction, which was, “Well, you should have known,” or silence. The humiliation lasted for days. I did not attend the carnival. I did, however, remain loyal to my friends, even though their reactions puzzled and hurt me. Once I made a friend, I stuck around, always expecting better from them.
The next year Michael continued tormented me—but only when his friends were near. I sat at the back seat out of sheer cussedness. No one was going to tell me where I can sit. Eventually, my parents waged a war to stop the harassment and my hurt dissipated, but memories of the ill-treatment lingered.
When I was seventeen, I won a work-study position as a teacher’s assistant for remedial math. Students ranged from disaffected kids destined for the trades to those with more criminal leanings. All struggled with fractions and percentages. I clicked between desks in slick second-hand boots with heel plates as the teacher zoned out, sipping coffee laced with spirits. When our sotted instructor drifted off, I illustrated fractions with outlandish and off-color stories. We misfits bonded. No one was stupid or less-than here. We simply saw math through a different lens, and all anyone needed was a new prescription.
One day Michael showed up in class. Acne-ridden, overly tall, and bony, he was a ghost of the boy I knew. I recognized him with a visible shock, compelling him to hide his face with a pathetic hand gesture. Even his hands had pimples. I vowed to be as kind and patient with him as the other students. So, I told my stories and helped with homework with warm ease before the teacher reeled in. Retreating to the back of the class for the lesson, I graded papers until it was time to aid students with their lessons. Red-faced, Michael never looked up, and I did not approach him. He quit class the next day and eventually dropped out of high school altogether to work in his brother’s car repair shop.
Although schadenfreude struck me when I spotted him, he was so pitifully changed it didn’t linger. He reacted like a beaten dog withering from future brutality. What bitter forces created the initial bully? When I think of villains, I am tempted to reflect on those girls who kept silent. Did they lack bravery or compassion? All the players made indelible marks upon me, so I thank them for teaching me to be a kinder person.