My First

 

 

by John Tyler Connoley

 

September 5, 2006

 

 

On my first day of class, starting seventh grade, I stepped onto the bus that would take me to school. New to the American public school system and nervous about finding my way between classes in the big middle school, I slipped into an empty seat -- wishing I could be home-schooled this year, but thanking God I at least had my eighth-grade cousin, the popular cheerleader, to look out for me.

A few minutes later, another seventh grade boy got on the bus at a stop in the country between two hop fields. He had badly cut hair, a gap in his front teeth, and a wickedly thin nose. He hunched taut, like a well-strung trap ready to spring on a mouse. He scanned the bus and sat down a few seats in front of me. I looked out the window, and held my breath against the smell of decaying hops.

When the bus finally squeaked to a halt in front of the East Valley Middle School, the bus driver picked up his microphone and announced, "All middle schoolers get off here. High schoolers will be let off at the next stop." I gathered my bag and my lunch box, not wanting to make the trip down the aisle and into the labyrinthine halls of the school. The other students began to climb out of their seats, and I followed.

I didn't yet know the boy, and didn't see him watching the other middle schoolers, until I shuffled past his seat, scared as a little brown mouse. He stuck out his foot and I stumbled over it, dropping my books. My lunch box knocked against the hard faux-leather seat and popped open. I don't remember the boy saying anything, just smirking as he hopped over me and out the door.

That morning, I survived homeroom without any problem, then managed to find my second-period class, but accidentally took a left-handed desk. I was turning to look at the desk behind me for some clue as to why this classroom's desks felt so awkward when I heard my books fall on the floor. As I heard it, the boy loped past me toward the back row, face blank with feigned apathy.

Between classes, during the following weeks, the boy would go out of his way to run into me, knocking me against the lockers. We shared the same gym class, and once he pushed me over when I was bent to pull up my jeans. But his big mistake was to walk up behind me in the cafeteria one day and smack me hard on the back of the head. He hadn't noticed the pretty, eighth-grade cheerleader watching us from across the room.

That evening, my family had dinner at my cousin's house and she asked me about the boy. "Johnny, I saw that kid hit you at lunch," she said. "Has he been bothering you a lot?" I told her all the things he'd been doing, and her blue-shadowed eyes narrowed with anger. She tossed her hair and said, "Don't worry, Johnny, he won't bother you again."

The next day, I heard rumors that two of my cousin's football friends had cornered the boy between third and fourth period. They pushed him against a locker and pummeled him in the stomach and chest. They told him not to touch me again, or he'd end up in the hospital.

As we boarded the bus home that night, the boy didn't look at me. I watched him, wary of retaliation, but he was clearly finished with me. He held one arm folded against his stomach and looked at the floor as he walked to an empty seat and sat down. His body was still taut, but now he looked like a small animal, ready to flee at any moment. My cousin had protected me, as she'd promised, and the boy's icy blue eyes never looked my way again

I, on the other hand, watched him the rest of the school year.

The next morning, the bus pulled up in front of that little, run-down house in the middle of the putrid hop fields, and the boy climbed onto the bus without a bag, or books, or a lunch box. He wore the same dirty jeans he'd worn the day before, and his hair stuck out on one side of his head as if he'd stepped from bed to bus without passing a sink or a mirror. In second period, I watched the boy lope toward the back row without books or pencil.

Over the next few weeks, I learned that when we had a test, he would borrow a pencil from his neighbor. When we wrote essays, he'd borrow a piece of paper as well. At lunch, he prowled the tables, but never sat to eat.

In gym class, no longer afraid of him watching me for an opening, I was free to watch him at his locker. Under those dirty jeans, he wore tightey-whiteys stained brown from lack of washing. His skinny arms occasionally bore bruises just above the elbows, where someone had grabbed him too hard. And the sole of one of his K-Mart sneakers hung half off. As seventh grade drug on, the sole eventually tore and fell away, but the boy didn't get new sneakers.

That boy was my first arch-enemy. The first of many kids to choose me as easy prey in middle school and high school -- when I moved four times in as many years. At future schools, I wouldn't have my cousin's muscled boyfriends to keep me safe, but I would have the lesson I'd learned from watching him.

When I first met the boy, I'd been afraid to look at him, for fear of drawing his ire. That wouldn't happen again. Future bullies would get my full attention. I would look at them as people with families and homes. I would think of brown underwear and bruises, and I would wonder what secrets these boys kept.

 

 

 

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Copyright © 2005 by John Tyler Connoley

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