I grew up in a small town. I guess that’s been established at this point. On Facebook this weekend, the class of ’84 held a thirty year class reunion. I have many friends in that class, also my cousin is in that class. They were all seniors when I was a sophomore and I remember looking up to many of them.
A few years ago, at their 10 year reunion a class member drunkenly confronted another class member about being a jerk in junior high and high school. If I recall, the victim threatened physical violence on his tormentor. It was a story with traction, I heard about it several times from several sources in the years that followed.
It was a story that stuck with me because that confronted tormentor was one of my tormentors too. In fact, of all the verbal abuse I received growing up, I must say that Karl Johnson’s (pseudonym) words stung the most and had the most enduring effects. And before I go further, if you are thinking I should have let this go by now, let me agree wholeheartedly. I should have let this go by now.
What was Karl Johnson’s crime? Every day of 7th grade, he would call out loudly names like Fag and Gay Ray as I stood in the lunch line. He and his friends would sit at a table near the lunch line and make fun of various targets as they passed. Karl would call out the name and his cohorts would erupt into laughter. This lasted my entire 7th grade year, every day. It was something I fretted over every night as I lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, and every morning when I dreaded going to school.
So when someone else confronted Karl Johnson at his ten year reunion, all I really thought was, wow, good for him. I heard that Karl Johnson attempted an apology. In the years since high school, he’d become quite religious and considered himself a very good person.
I know that as far as bullying stories go, it’s a fairly average one. And I am okay. Since, I’ve started this blog, strangers have pointed out emotional and pathological issues that they think I have and I think you might be right. I am flawed and I am scarred. I try to move forward and love myself and make the world a better place, but, well, there is always a but.
When I saw the pictures of smiling Karl Johnson and his wife at the reunion, my heart started pumping and all I could think about was 12-year-old me and the fear I had every day. My cousin who had been friends with Karl Johnson and always sat at his lunch table, apologized several years ago about sitting there and never discouraging his friend. At a dive bar in Kansas City over pints of Boulevard hefeweizen, he told me he realized that must have been hard for me. I had to hold back tears because, I remind you, I was in a dive bar in Kansas City, but also, I didn’t want him to see how affected I was by his apology. I wanted to be manly.
Of course, I’m not really manly most of the time. I am sensitive, I do cry. My voice is nasally. I was and still am an easy target for people who want to call me names or point out my perceived flaws.
Maybe this is a story you relate to. I think some are better than others at leaving past hurts in the past.
Forgiveness is not really one of my strengths.
I do keep looking at this picture of Karl Johnson and his wife. I look at her, and while I may be wrong, she doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who would love that her husband was the bully of his junior high, flagrantly homophobic. (Although to be fair, wasn’t everyone flagrantly homophobic in 1980 Kansas?) Maybe he is a kinder person now, maybe she is the reason he is a kinder person now. I don’t know. I’ll probably never know.
I do feel little lighter. My heart has returned to a normal patter. In truth that reaction might have been partly attributed to this morning’s first cup of coffee.
It was all so long ago anyway. Let it go.
Ray I am very sorry that this happened to you. Kids can be so cruel. They try to be cool and fit in with others at that age not realizing how much they are hurting someone. I was reminded of something that I did in junior high recently and I honestly do not remember doing it and was mortified and embarrassed when told what I did. Some change, some unfortunately do not. You can only be the best person you can be and know that those kind of people are a waste of time, and a waste of space in your heart and head.
You are right Christie! I too have been reminded of hurtful things I’ve done that I did not remember and I was mortified. We apologize and move forward, hopefully with more cognizance of the effects of our words and actions. I hope you are well!!
You can and should forgive, I know too, But I don’t think you can ever (or should ever) forget. It is impossible to erase that incredible hurt those horrid people inflicted on others.And maybe the realization of what he did to you, and I am sure other schoolmates and peers, is responsible for Karl becoming a better person. That cannot erase those deep scars you were left with. We now should wear them as badges for the good people we have ALWAYS been. Excellent essay, Ray. I felt better about myself reading it, and trust you got some satisfaction writing and sharing it with us.
Well, it’s funny that writing about it makes me ponder what it even means to forgive. In most ways, I have forgiven him. I do not wish him ill, if I were to run into him somewhere, I would be cordial. I acknowledge that we do share a bond of growing up in the same place at the same time. I also acknowledge that there are people walking around with scars from things I’ve done or said. Forgiveness is such a slippery concept and I think it can wax and wane.
I hope that you take some comfort in the fact that when people think back to the you of junior high and high school, those memories are filled warmth and humor. Can you imagine being one of those people who is remembered only as being a big, nasty, over-the-top jerk? He’s the Biff Tannen to everyone else’s Marty McFly (how’s that for an 80’s reference?). And there were a lot us McFlys in those days.
Shannon, you are kind. We are lucky that we have good memories, too. Right? I’m proud to be a McFly and proud that I’ll always have a little McFly in me.
Thank you Ray. I really enjoyed this blog and related to it.
When I went back for my 30th high school reunion I really felt closure with the bulling I had experienced and had an opportunity to speak with a few of my bullies and I personally believe people can and do change and evolve. I know I have.
I bet if Karl Johnson had an opportunity to meet you again he would apologize or at least be a better and more considerate person than the 7th grader he was.
I always find your writing thought provoking and relatable.
When I went to my 20 year reunion, I too, had a wonderful time and it did seem like the frictions of the past were in the past. Growing up together is a shared experience and you’re reminded of your commonality. My real regret is that you and I did not attend the same high school because I’m sure our drag production of Night, Mother would have been the stuff of legend!
Any man who attacks a gay man is a deeply repressed homosexual who is trying to kill the gay man within himself. He was never attacking you. He was attacking what he hates inside his own soul.
You are miles ahead of him.
I was a few years behind you in school (’90) but loved how upbeat and fun you always seemed to be. I enjoy your blog and am sorry that you had so much ignorance and stupidity (sometimes one, sometimes the other) inflicted upon you. I hope your writing helps you as much as I believe it helps others.
One of my dream roles!
It really takes a lot of courage to write so openly about your high school experience. I always thought you were an amazing person in high school and looks like you still are…absolutely amazing! Sending you much love!
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and your insight. Your post reminds me of a wonderful story by Truman Capote called The Thanksgiving Visitor. It is not very well known and I don’t know why because it is a beautiful story about how Capote was bullied as a child for being a “sissy.” It is completely appropriate for even very young children and would be perfect in any anti-bullying program. Have you read it? I recommend it to everyone!
It has been too long since I’ve read The Thanksgiving Visitor. It’s now been added to my Summer Reading List. Thanks for the recommendation!