Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Sobering Story From My Youth

Back when people were still buying Vanilla Ice albums, and young girls were wearing plastic shoes called "jellies", I was a student at Buffalo Lutheran School.  Don't be surprised if you've never heard of it.  Buffalo Lutheran was a tiny, two-roomed school, in the tiny town of Cochrane, Wisconsin.  Not exactly the center of the universe, though it seemed like it was at the time. 

At the time of this story I was in eight grade.  There were three other kids in my class.  Yep, you read that right - there was a grand total of four us in the entire eighth grade - and some of the grades below us had even fewer kids.  I always smile when someone goes on about how tiny the school they went to was; because it's a pretty safe bet that it was bigger than Buffalo Lutheran School!

Leading our tiny little band of lil' Lutherans were two teachers - Mrs. Munter, who taught grades K-4, and Mr. Penski, who taught grades 5-8.  Mr. Penski also doubled as the school principal, coach and treasurer.  They taught every subject for every one of the grades under their care, plus a daily heaping helping of Bible study, to boot. 

Buffalo Lutheran was a small school, no doubt about it, but in that tiny pond, I was a pretty big fish.  Being top dog at such a tiny place isn't saying much, but at the time, it sure felt good!  I was the alpha male among students, I was dating the prettiest girl in school, and I was always the first one picked for whatever sport we were playing at recess.  I even fancied myself an artist back then, and at the request of adoring elementary school kids, I would draw them garish pictures of tanks and jets.  And each picture came with my autograph, of course!

My classmates and I were all pretty much cut from the same cloth.  Most of us were farmers, and all of us were probably pretty poor by national standards.  There definitely weren't any blue bloods at Buffalo Lutheran School

Growing up in a poor farming community where nobody had much meant that none of us really thought of ourselves as disadvantaged.  We all had food on the table, clothes on our back and roofs over our heads.  Sure, if you had dropped us off at some affluent suburban school, I'm sure our hand me down clothes would have elicited howls of laughter.  Likewise, I'm sure we were probably listening to less than the coolest music, and filling up on Hydrox cookies instead of Oreos.  But when everyone else is in the same boat, you just don't notice that kind of stuff. 

The Boyds, however, were so poor that you couldn't help but notice.  They were farmers like everyone else, but their farm was a rotting, falling down mess that couldn't seem to grow anything but weeds and sickly cows.  Their hair was always dirty and uncombed, their clothes was decades old, worn-out polyester, and their pick-up truck looked like the one in the Beverly Hillbillies. 

The patriarch of the Boyd clan was a man named David.  He was a big, hulking man, but he was always dirty and unkept.  Nevertheless, I remember that whenever I'd see him he always acted arrogant and cocky.  He also always smelled of alcohol.  I intensely disliked that man, though probably for the wrong reasons.

The Boyds had originally sent their brood to the nearby public school.  But they had been so relentlessly teased, that they had transferred to our school.  I don't even remember if they were Lutheran.  I do remember, though, being told by the grown-ups that us older kids needed to make sure that nobody picked on them.  We were to show that we Lutherans were better behaved than those public school bullies. It was an instruction that my classmates and I honored, sort of.  We never went up to the Boyds and called them names, poked them with sticks, or pointed and laughed when they went by - and we made sure nobody else did either. 

I remember my friends and I feeling pretty smug about ourselves, thinking that we were so much kinder and more mature than the public school kids had been.  But let me tell you, we were one two-faced bunch.  As soon as the Boyds were out of earshot, we would say the nastiest things about them.  We always picked them last for teams, and nobody ever took the time to hang out with any of them.  Kids can be cruel, self-absorbed, and all of that, but my goodness how we were two-faced and cold!   

The oldest of the Boyd kids was a girl named Jenny.  She was probably only two years or so younger than me, but she had been held back a few years.  Not surprisingly, the Boyds never did too well in school.  If I remember correctly, by the time I was in eighth grade, Jenny was only in fourth.  And to make matters worse, Jenny was very tall for age - she was as big as the oldest kids - but the only kids who would play with her at recess were the kindergartners and first graders.  She looked so out of place, towering over those little kids.  Us older kids assumed she didn't notice she was being ostracized, but of course she knew. 

At our school we all brought a lunch box each day, with homemade sandwiches and what not.  It was tradition though, that on a student's birthday, their family would bring in a hot lunch for the whole school.  Usually it was hotdogs, cake and pop - quite a feast in our eyes.  The Boyds, however, never partook in this tradition - except for one time. 

It was Jenny's birthday, and her parents were going to bring in a hot lunch for all 30 or so of us kids.  I remember Jenny was so excited that morning!  When the clock struck twelve and we all filed out for lunch, there was Mr. and Mrs. Boyd, standing beside a kettle of sloppy joe meat, some hamburger buns, and a bag of potato chips.  I remember there were also some paper cups, which we were to fill at the drinking fountain.  Jenny began sobbing uncontrollably.  A few students briefly tried to half-heartedly console her.  I wasn't one of them.  Instead I turned to a friend and grumbled about how much I hated sloppy joes.

Somehow scenes like that were easy for me to put out of my mind, at least back then.  But I would match the callousness that I showed that day, and raise it ten fold by what happened later that year.

Our school was too small to have its own transportation, so instead we rode the public school busses.  We'd all get dropped off in front of the public school, and then a single bus would come and take us the 10 minutes to Buffalo Lutheran.  We were such a small group that we didn't come close to filling even that single bus.  The elementary kids would all sit in the front, and us junior high kids sat in the back.  A big empty space divided us in the middle.

Once we arrived at school, the younger kids would all pile out first, still young enough to be eager for school, I guess.  Then us older kids would slouchily make our way down the aisle, grumbling about how unfair life, our parents and/or school was. 

On this particular day, everything began as it usually did.  The bus stopped, the young kids practically tripped over themselves to get out, and then us older kids began our saunter.  I was leading our sullen pack down the aisle when I noticed that Jenny Boyd was still sitting in her seat up front.  As I got nearer she stood up, and with a huge, excited smile she offered me a piece of paper.  Rather than take it, I froze.  Slowly, I looked down and saw that it was a page of crinkled notebook paper with large, sloppy hand writing in crayon.  It said "I Love Adam!"  I was mortified! 

To make matters worse, my friend Josh, who had been standing behind me, looked over my shoulder and saw what the note said.  He yelled out, "Jenny has got the hots for Adam!" and immediately all of my friends burst out laughing.  My heart raced and I began to panic.  What was I going to do; they were laughing at me - ME! 

Jenny again said "here", and held the note against my chest, confused as to why I wasn't taking it.  I let it drop to the floor, and then demonstratively stepped on it with a big stomp as I scurried down the bus aisle.

The bus driver had apparently been watching the whole scene.  As I walked past him to exit the bus I saw him shaking his head at me in disgust.  I didn't care.  The only thing that mattered to me at that point was somehow surviving this horrific blow to my popularity.  I was determined to do anything I could to make sure that this embarrassing incident died a quick and decisive death.  I decided to ignore Jenny, not just for the rest of the day, but for the rest of the school year. I would avoid going near her at recess, I wouldn't talk to her, I wouldn't look in her direction - I would do everything I could to prevent anyone from ever associating her with me, and thus remembering that horrifying love letter. 

The plan worked; or maybe my friends just didn't think it was really that big of a deal.  In any event, by lunch time the jokes and snickering had stopped, and it was as if the whole thing had never happened.  I knew that it had happened though, and was determined to stick to my plan, lest there by any relapse on the part of my friends' memories. 

Days went by, and then weeks, before I concluded that it really had all been forgotten.  I was still the most popular guy in school, still had the prettiest girl on my arm, and was still the most in demand commodity on the playground.  Phew! 

But then something terrible happened - not to me - but to Jenny.  One morning, not too long after classes had gotten under way, two nice looking cars drove up the little gravel driveway of our school.  A couple of middle aged men and women dressed in nice church clothes got out and walked into the school.  We didn't get too many visitors, so several kids made a point of rushing to the window to watch them.  Our teacher told everyone to sit down, and went out into the hall to see who the strangers were.  We couldn't hear what they were saying, but noticed that Mr. Penski had gone and fetched the elementary teacher, Mrs. Munter.  He then closed our classroom door, ending our view of whatever drama was unfolding outside.

About ten minutes later the well heeled strangers went back to their cars, with Jenny and her two younger brothers in tow.  Then they just drove away - leaving our mouths hanging wide open.  "What happened?" we exclaimed as Mr. Penski re-entered the room.  "It's none of your business," he emphatically said, "back to your seats!"

We went back to our seats, but everyone was abuzz with speculation.  What had happened?  Who were those people and why had they taken the Boyd kids away?  Were they in trouble; had they done something wrong?  At recess we drilled the elementary kids for more information, but none of them knew more than we did.

The strangers in church clothes didn't bring the Boyds back that day, nor would the Boyds be on the school bus the following day, or the day after that.  In fact we never saw them again.  After a few days though we were able to piece together what had happened bits our parents told us, and a brief article in the local newspaper.

David Boyd, Jenny's dad, had been late in coming in from the barn one evening.  With supper getting cold, Jenny's mom sent her out there to see what was taking him so long.  More time went by, and neither of them came back to the house.  Finally, Jenny's mom put on her coat and headed out to the barn.  When she opened the barn door she saw Mr. Boyd on top of Jenny - the drunken bastard was raping her.  To her credit Mrs. Boyd acted fast - with a pitch fork in hand, according to some - she got Jenny out of there, loaded up all of the kids, and left that night for her mother's house.  The following morning she went to the authorities.  Those strangers in church clothes turned out to be social workers.  David Boyd ended up going to jail, and the rest of the clan moved away - to where none of us ever found out. 

When I heard the story of what had happened to Jenny, it was like a mule had kicked me in the gut.  I felt awful, as well I deserved to.  It wasn't until this utterly horrific thing had happened that I for the first time sat back and reflected upon how I had treated her.  I didn't feel the slightest bit of guilt when I stomped on Jenny's letter.  I didn't pause when I saw the bus driver shaking his head at me.  I didn't even stop to think about Jenny's feelings after my friends had forgotten all about that encounter on the bus, and my precious reputation and popularity were plainly in the clear.  No, it took this unfathomable tragedy for me feel bad for what I had done to this poor soul.  Jenny's life had been hell, even before her drunken monster of a father did what he did.  Her family had nothing; besides her siblings, she had no friends; and don't doubt for a minute that just because we didn't taunt the Boyd kids to their face that they didn't know what we thought of them.  We were such hypocrites, thinking we treated them better than the public school kids.  And I was the king of the hypocrites.

In the weeks that followed I recounted that scene from the school bus over and over and over again.  There were 101 different, less heartless ways I could have, and should have reacted.  I mean, for crying out loud, I could have simply told her that I was flattered, but that I already had a girlfriend!  Why did I fail to even consider that this was another human being, someone who hadn't done anything to deserve to have her feelings literally stomped on?

While I felt like a piece of you know what, I also couldn't stop thinking about what had happened in that barn.  Perhaps it was something of a selfish escape hatch from my guilt - the fact that I wasn't the worst villain in the story.  Be that as it may, I just couldn't wrap my head around how a parent could do that to their child.  It was so beyond the experience of my own loving family. 

The conclusion I came to in my humbled, but still self-righteous, little Lutheran mind, was that alcohol had to be to blame.  Mr. Boyd was a drunk after all - he was arrogant, crude, seemingly lazy, and, it turns out, a monster - all of which must have been caused by the alcohol.  What else could it be?  He went to church, like the rest of us; he a farmer like the rest of us - it had to be the fire water that separated him from the Ritschers, the Bauers, the Dietrichs and all of the rest of us, right?  I was years away from having any kind of understanding of alcoholism being a symptom, rather than a cause, of social problems.  In my simple mind there were two distinct lessons to be learned, two themes that emerged from this whole thing - that I had been heartless, and that alcohol was something particularly sinister.  Thus, in a typical over-dramatic early teenage moment, I swore, on an open Bible no less, that I would never do two things: 1. that I would never trample on someone's heart so thoughtlessly again; and 2. that I would never drink alcohol.

More than two decades have since passed, and I've kept those two promises, more or less.  I've nothing to feel smug about though, and I have to admit that truthfully making those promises were more a way to soothe my guilty conscience that anything else.  I still feel an immense welling up of shame in my chest whenever I think back on this chapter of my life.  Tears are rolling down my cheeks as I write this, as well they should. 

If you're reading this story, my hope isn't that you walk away pledging to abstain from alcohol.  That was the flawed reaction of a guilty conscience desperate for some kind of penance.  I do, however, hope that you walk away better appreciating how important the way we treat one another is.  Never underestimate the impact our interactions can have on others.

No comments:

Post a Comment