I am at a Labor Day cookout in Finneytown, Ohio, and all the food has been eaten. Kids run around the yard playing a messy game of tee-ball as the sun dips below the horizon. Fluorescent pink plastic balls and bats fly everywhere. The adults sit lazily, and talk turns from mild state-of-the-nation chit-chat to the heated topic of school shootings and rampages by loners. Some wonder, Why is this happening? Some propose legislation: We need more gun control laws. One woman, a young mother, proposes a solution. String them up by their balls, she says plainly of the shooters who have survived their own carnage. Kip Kinkel, Andrew Goldstein, the kid in Paducah, she says, string them up by their balls and I guarantee you it’ll never happen again.
A few people second the motion, a few crack open the cooler to get more beer. But the suggestion gives everyone pause to consider and, suddenly, I recall something buried deep. Actually, two things.
First: It’s third grade and Robert Wood (thick black Buddy Holly-style glasses, floodwaters, ambling walk) has dropped his brown bag lunch. Alex Rollins snatches it lickety-split and begins to bat it around, hot potato-style. A small crowd forms and now it’s a game, each player batting and exclaiming It’s infected! or Retard’s lunch! Retard’s lunch!
In between players, Robert tries to catch it. Of course he misses, and I, suddenly joining the crowd, come up with my own bit of ingenuity. I modify his name. Robert becomes Roberta. As in, he catches like a girl. And not stopping there, I modify once more. Bertha! Bertha! Bertha! The chant is adopted.
Minutes pass and then the bell rings. The lunch falls to the ground as kids line up to go inside. Robert, his face red, runs and picks it up, then joins the end of the line.
When I taught high school in South Central L.A., I used to boast to hardened Los Angelenos, I was raised in the mildest part of the Midwest. When I lived in New York City at the height of its homicide count, I’d say, We have fewer corpses in the small towns. As these memories float to the surface, I wonder if I was only talking to myself.
Second: In the ninth grade, Robert became friends with a new student, David. They traveled the small grounds of the school together in green army fatigues and combat boots. They brought military memorabilia from weekend trade shows to school. They talked about plastic explosives and mines and read Vietnam-era code books during study hall. They kept copies of Soldier of Fortune and Guns and Ammo under their textbooks during World History. As far as I know, their obsessions were merely fantasies. They never caused any trouble.
In the ninth grade, I was frightened by the possibility of a nuclear war. So my friends and I came up with a simple conclusion about Robert and David’s transformation from geeks to warmongers: they were both nuts.
But at the cookout, I wonder. Presented with the same set of circumstances today, would Robert have taken his obsession with firearms a step further? After all, he and David predated Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold by about a decade. Would they, like them, have brought guns to school and threatened us? Would they have opened fire? Seeing the savagery Robert Wood suffered day after day, and knowing now what I didn’t know then—that his own life felt like a war—would I have blamed him?
Until recently, I never told my parents about Robert, and, as far as I know, most of our tauntings went undetected by homeroom teachers, playground monitors, room mothers, or the principal. Had we been kinder nine-year-olds would we have been caught and made aware of the damage we were inflicting? Hard to say.
Anyone who is honest about childhood knows that it is part innocence and part savagery. The same goes for teasing. The parts that are innocent are automatic—craning one’s neck to see the source of commotion in the center of a crowd. And the parts that are savage, simply, sadly, exist outside the realm of reason.
See, I didn’t hate Robert Wood. In truth, I can recall no feelings of ill-will toward him whatsoever. Outside of school, outside of the tauntings themselves, I never gave the boy a second thought. He was merely the weakest, and therefore a target.
What I wonder now is if there is more than one way to kill a person. Americans talk about physical murder often, but doesn’t it, like most things, have an invisible counterpart: the murder of the soul?
Of course, some of these criminal loners may have been motivated by pure evil. How can anyone explain the macabre nature of Jeffrey Dahmer’s detached cannibalism? But for those whom we hear about recently (the boys in Columbine, Paducah, Jonesboro, etc.) and the information that is surfacing about their years of schoolyard torment, I have to wonder if the woman’s solution at the cookout isn’t redundant. They were strung up by their balls for years before committing any crime.
I don’t know what has happened to Robert. He, like me, would be around thirty now. Once, I looked in the phone book for his name. Another time, I called the high school and asked if they knew where he might be. His family moved out of the area one year after he graduated, the school secretary said. That is all anybody knows.
Many people lose touch with their past, I tell myself. It’s no big deal. After all, I’ve never been to a class reunion and I’ve lost touch with most of the people I thought would be my friends for life. I had all but forgotten Robert Wood for a while. Now, with every new school shooting, every loner’s rampage, the memory of him leaps to mind. Like a tongue against a sore tooth, I rub over and over it despite the sting.
To ease my guilty conscience I imagine him in a gleaming part of the country, a new capital of the booming economy. Sometimes Silicon Valley. Sometimes Redmond, Washington. Robert as a sort of Bill Gates type who finally has gotten his revenge on us, and then some.
I try to imagine him in a job that employs all his talents, surrounded by people who admire who he truly is. I try to imagine a grown man who is now at peace about his tormented youth and the tormentors who harassed him.
Perhaps he tells his children, These were the times that built my character. Or perhaps, I learned then how to be independent of peer opinion. Sometimes childhood, and humanity itself, can have a very dark heart, he may say. But once you learn that, your compassion doubles and your humanity becomes infinite.
I think of a man who is contented and free.
I imagine all this in lieu of the apology that I never gave and the protest against my peers that I never offered. And when in quiet remembrance I hit the snags of the dark sins of my past, I thank God for the merciful act of wishful thinking.
Laura Marsan is a writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.