Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Teen Justice

I was once beaten up by a girl.

From seventh grade to ninth grade I rode the school bus. It was an ignominious affair and I'm not proud to admit I passed the tedium by either torturing or being tortured by my peers. One such tortured peer was Michael. Michael had been born death-defyingly premature, and was physically and developmentally impaired. Of the many outward manifestations of his condition, the warbled screech that passed for his voice was perhaps most salient. He was also slight, white, and heavily bespectacled. A group of us would tease him mercilessly, and one warm fall afternoon on the long ride home we were singing the theme to The Mickey Mouse Club, substituting "Michael" for "Mickey" in high, affected falsettos. The redder his splotchy, sallow cheeks became, the louder we sang.

On the bus there was a time-honored seating hierarchy. The older, cooler kids were in the back of the bus, the younger and/or meeker towards the front. My group was solidly in the middle, hurling insults forward at Michael who was perched alone in the very first seat. An older girl, grown tall and strong with the accelerated maturation that sometimes affects pubescent females, called me out from the back: "Wilson! Leave Michael alone!" I suggested (cogently) that I was not the only person involved, and invited her (foolishly) to kiss my ass. I instantly became the living symbol of all wrongs that had ever befallen the meek and friendless.

By the time we'd reached the usual stop, this brawny girl had organized a torch-bearing coalition of the willing, and they wanted blood. Michael's would-be avengers burned my ears with violent threats. I humbly asked the bus driver to stop right in front of my house, which he did. I ran inside and was overwhelmed with relief, the phone ringing off the wall with the governor's midnight pardon.

My father walked in talking. "There's a bunch of kids out there asking for you."

"I know. They want to beat me up."

"Awwwww—go out there and take it like a man!" 

I swallowed hard. My father had reversed the pardon, and was literally casting me out. What kind of test was this? I felt my body shrink. I walked out the back and heard the screen door slam behind me in the muffled past. Time inched wickedly by. I saw them: four older kids, standing in the street with Michael, and my three friends now cast as spectators, sitting in the patchy grass on the side of the road. It reminded me of stories I'd heard of the battle of Manassas, where the soldiers gathered in the field, and eager onlookers with parasols sat on the grassy embankments to watch the pitched battle. Rocks and sticks flew at me through the air. My legs were numb—the feeling was exactly that of creeping to the edge of the high dive for the first time—mortal trepidation.

It was three in the afternoon, at the intersection of my residential street and a narrow dirt road. One of the kids held an axe handle, another, a rusty knife. Where had they found these weapons? When I was close enough they seized me and held my arms. I could see my friends straining for a better view. The brawny girl sized me up and said, "This is for Michael!" right before punching me squarely in the eye. Everything became cold except my face, which was a hornet's nest of febrile heat and energy. I could feel it buzzing, growing, glistening—my heart moved from my chest and beat awkwardly in my cheek. Through the rushing pounding in my ears I heard them saying, "Shake. Shake. Shake his hand and apologize." I did. His fingers were cold and thin. Michael said, "Apology accepted." They let my arms go, and the group dispersed. My friends were already halfway down the dirt road. I half-ran the short distance back to my house, pleading with myself not to cry. I closed the door hard behind me. My father, still in the kitchen, was plainly astonished. "What on earth? What happened to you?"

"They punched me in the face."

1 comment: