My 40th high school reunion is coming up later this month, and there’s one classmate I’ll really miss.
During the run-up to the reunion, exchanging Facebook notes with friends, I found out that he died of cancer a couple of years ago. Of all the kids I grew up and went to school with, he’s the one I always found myself thinking of over the decades.
Hold on. This isn’t a syrupy ode to a departed friend. In fact, I had very little connection with this kid. I never went to a football game or a movie with him. I never met his family or set foot in his house. I’m not sure I ever spoke a word to him outside of school.
He was a striking and unusual figure: skinny and gangly, with a long, angular face. Bone-white skin and jet-black hair. He walked with bouncy steps and a sort of hunch, looking like a question mark as he scurried down the hall. He had long, graceful fingers that constantly fidgeted with a pen.
And in our rural, county-seat town, where many of the kids had known each other since kindergarten, he was a target. He had a funny voice, and he talked in a singsong way, making up strange nicknames for students and teachers, reciting nonsense rhymes and snatches of song.
It was a little bit like going to school with Pee-wee Herman, long before anyone knew who that was. But unlike Pee-wee, when we laughed at him, he wasn’t in on the joke.
Kids egged him on to sing his odd songs in his funny voice. Sometimes he seemed to enjoy it — he could see they were amused by his performance, and perhaps it made him feel accepted. Other times, people would demand one of his bits and you could sense that he was unhappy about being goaded. But he’d perform anyway. They wouldn’t let him refuse — surrounding him, penning him in until he yielded.
And these, of course, were the gentlest forms of torment he endured. He got wedgies. He was stuffed into lockers. I remember one time hearing some older boys — football players — laughing as they recounted how they made him climb atop a high shelf in the locker room. They left him with a warning that he better be there when they came back. Someone went to check on him two hours later and he was still on his perch.
I’m not innocent. I never threatened him physically, never went for a wedgie. But there were times when I was part of the crowd goading him into a performance. And I never stepped in when others were bothering him. If you made a scale with angels on one end and demons on the other, I’d be somewhere in the middle, maybe just a shade on the good side of “thoughtless jerk.”
As I’ve grown older, I’ve often thought about what I could have done. I was a good guy, a Boy Scout, a student-council type. I wouldn’t have hesitated to help a youngster who was being picked on by bigger kids. But somehow the idea that I should help one of my peers eluded me. If I could climb into a time machine and go back to high school, the one thing I’d do differently would be to advocate for my unusual classmate. Maybe I’d even see if he wanted to go to a movie.
When we’re young, we’re full of high spirits, we run in packs, and the pack often ruthlessly attacks anyone outside of it. Maybe it’s an inescapable part of being young and stupid. But he didn’t get much help from adults, either. The teachers in my school had to be aware that this kid was being bullied, and I never heard one of them say a word about it. If a teacher had pulled me aside and asked me to look out for him, I think I would have. But nobody asked.
About 10 years ago, not long after I moved back to Minnesota after a long absence, a handwritten letter arrived at my house. It was from him. In neat, polite lines, he told me about his life. He had an office job with a major company in Minneapolis and lived alone in a condo. He was active in his church and was an avid roller skater, going regularly with a church group. He named the church and invited me to attend, or to go roller skating with the group.
I never did. But I replied to his letter, telling him how glad I was to hear from him. And a couple of years later, I asked him out to lunch. We had a nice talk. He told me about his condo: “I own it free and clear,” he said proudly. He’d been reading Shakespeare, and we talked about that. It was a nice time.
Lately I’d been thinking that we should have lunch again. I should call him, I’d say to myself. I didn’t. And now it’s too late.
I know we’ll be talking about him at our reunion. He was a notable figure in our school, just like the quarterback or the class brain or the class beauty. The class oddball. And yet he’s the one I’d really like to see.
I can’t fix what happened to him. Even if he were still here, I couldn’t. But what I could have done, if he were at our reunion, is to treat him like anyone else in our class. A comrade, a friend, someone with shared experiences of the most formative time of life.
I regret that I can’t. And it’s a regret that, as Herb Brooks once said, I’ll take to my grave.
To my effin’ grave.
ABOUT 10,000 TAKES: 10,000 Takes is a digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.