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Friday, 25 March
You Remember Him

This last weekend the wife and I got into a discussion about the cruelty that kids visit on each other, and I was reminded of this guy that I went to high school with. (Though I did not bring him up in the conversation.) If The Breakfast Club has taught us anything--and really, it hasn't--it's that high school kids are cliquish, petty, vindictive and highly stratified. You know, basically just like adults but with less sophisticated filters and coping strategies. And so there is the archetype of The Utterly Ostracized Kid. And of course, it exists. You can probably think of your own example--and I do hope it wasn't you.

For me, it was Leo. (Not his real name--I just picked Leo because I don't think I've ever known one.)

Now, let's be clear, I was never really that popular at all, but nor was I a complete outcast either. I had my share of friends, but it's not like I was cracking the higher social circles or anything either. To use the Breakfast Club categorization system, which is probably as good (and as useless) as any, I was considered a Brain. (Remember: this was Idaho. Ah, can't get enough of that cheap joke.) I was pretty average-looking (had a nasty year-or-so-long bout with Ye Olde Acne, which was pretty raw, but it went away), didn't have many girlfriends, but I had a good sense of humor that served me well. I played tennis and baseball, and was neither any good nor wholly terrible at either.

Leo was none of these things. He was pudgy and pale, and not athletic in any way. He wasn't necessarily stupid, but he wasn't exactly lighting up the boards with his grades either. He had a slight lisp--always a great plan provided you like it when people call you a fairy. But really, Leo's big problem--and probably his greatest Catch-22--was simply that Leo tried way too hard.

"Hey, guys!" he would call out to some group of kids, all of whom would rather eat poison than be seen with Leo. "What's going on? You guys hanging?" Sullen mutters by way of response. "Check it out!" Leo would continue, undeterred, his eyes shining a little. "Got a debate trip coming up." He'd bark some nervous laughter. "That's so lame." Silence.

It was always so horrible. Nobody wanted the guy around, and everyone knew it. Worse, he knew it. But what was he supposed to do? Not talk to anyone? I guess . . . but that would also be a lousy option as well, since Not Talking To Anyone would of course provide definitive proof that he was a big loser. Better to try and awkwardly try and wedge his way into . . . anything, maybe if only to elicit some terse comment, even a lousy, "Yeah, I hear that, I guess" that he could take home with him as meager evidence that he wasn't completely alone in the school. Which he undoubtedly was.

I'd like to say that I, being the stand-up high school guy that I was, was above all that crap, but of course I wasn't. I wanted as much as everyone else to climb the ranks of coolness, which of course wasn't fucking likely, but it certainly wasn't going to help my slim chances by associating with the likes of Leo, right? So I too traded in the cheapest and yet most valuable of social currencies: pissing on the guys a few rungs down on the social ladder. It wasn't that I disliked Leo, though he could be exasperating in his too-eager-to-please circumlocutions, but I'd be lying if part of it wasn't a certain amount of contempt and disgust as well: Don't be such a simpering pussy. Never mind that I was a pussy too, and had done my share of simpering. The hard fact was, he was desperately trying to trade up friendship for some respect, but I think even he knew that nobody wanted what he had to offer.

Leo also didn't have much going for him at home, either, from what I understand. I know his mom wasn't around, but I cannot remember if she died, or left, or what. I do know that he was stuck at home with his father, who, by all accounts, was a vicious, miserable douchebag who was almost unbelievably cruel to his only son: you know, the pale, pudgy, unathletic, unpopular one. There were whispers of abuse, I know, but I also know this documented fact: on more than one occasion, Leo's dad, upon receiving one of Leo's really unspectacular report cards, took an ad out in the local paper that published his grades, with text to the effect that he was publically "challenging" his son to do better.

This was, to everyone in school, of course hilarious. Yeah, that's a laugh riot.

One night Leo was home alone--I don't know where his dad was--and he built up some kindling in their wood stove. Then he loaded it up with some gunpowder and possibly some gasoline. Then he threw in a match, and the whole fucking thing blew up. To hear some accounts, it "moved the walls" of the house, or, sometimes, "cracked the foundation." Small town stories are rife with bullshit and embellishment. What was indisputable, however, was that it blasted Leo's face off and landed him in the hospital.

This was also, by the way, hilarious (though in that hushed way that pretends to actually convey sympathy where there is in fact none). The leading jokes--and they were legion--all pointed to what a complete dingus Leo was. After all, he maintained steadily that he was "just trying to start a fire, didn't know that would happen, etc." What an idiot! Some wags offered that it was Leo's one attempt to become cooler by "taking up smoking." If anyone else shared my thought that it was an ill-conceived and maybe half-hearted suicide attempt, nobody told me. And I didn't say anything either.

That would have made me . . . what? Sympathetic? Couldn't have that.

After a lengthy hospital stay, Leo returned to school. Same old Leo! He did at least get points for being plucky, for he would regularly still approach groups of people (who did not want him around) and say things like, "Hey, guys! What's up? Hanging out?" Except now his face looked like a ruined pink asteroid. How he kept his eyes--actually, they were nice blue eyes--is beyond me. His hair had all burned off too.

Yeah, Leo, we were just hanging out. Talking about you, and making Frankenstein jokes. Or jokes about roasted ham. Get lost, would you?

When graduation rolled around, Leo was still there. In fact--I just looked at my yearbook to confirm the memory--Leo had lost a lot of the baby fat. He didn't look bad! He had also gotten taller while I was busy not noticing him. I don't know if he had work done (I doubt it) but the explosion hadn't even damaged his face much in the long term; it had all seemed to heal well. He almost looked sort of . . . handsome.

He still didn't have any friends, though. Not that I could tell. I know he signed up for the Marines and went to boot camp after graduation, which seemed, at the time, frankly incredible.

I never heard anything about him since. Not that I've asked.

I do think about him, though, now and again. Which I acknowledge is worthless sentiment. I don't ask for expiation or forgiveness or any of that. I guess I just wish him well.

And man, I don't even think I deserve to do that.


Note: Comments are closed on old entries.

Comments

I grew up in small town Eastern Washington and had my own Leo, named Dana. Same same same story. Same damn story. I think she's doing ok these days.

Comment number: 005636   Posted by: alice on March 25, 2005 01:00 AM from IP: 24.16.132.117

Donny Howard. the fat, annoying kid. like any "Leo", he meant well, and in retrospect i feel a little bad. i didn't treat him badly (we even let him "tag along" during the senior trip, a bit), but i certainly didn't discourage others from treating him like shit. he's actually on my "short list" of people i want to see at my 10 year reunion this year. mostly because he's easy to beat up...i kid, i kid

Comment number: 005637   Posted by: dusty on March 25, 2005 07:51 AM from IP: 167.88.200.30

(hairshirt falls out of the closet)

Y'all got off lucky. My Leo killed himself.

Our sole communication was trading my mashed potatoes for his cinnamon roll. Daily. For years.

I don't like cinnamon rolls anymore.

Comment number: 005638   Posted by: Szarka on March 25, 2005 08:04 AM from IP: 68.99.57.220

Even though I never question why I come here (damn if you're not the funniest of my regular bloggers), but this post is seriously excellent. I've known Leos as well (as we all probably have) and though this post would never heal their wounds, it goes a long way towards admitting that we might have done it different had we known what we know now.

Sorry Leo. Sorry Jason Rothmore. I know you were trying.

Comment number: 005639   Posted by: Jason on March 25, 2005 10:44 AM from IP: 216.239.124.38

Let up on your teenage self, Skot. It is too much to expect that high schoolers, the creatures in this universe most highly devoted to fitting in with a pack, will fight their very nature and be nice to a societal loser. Like the lame wolf that the other wolves tear apart, Leo never had a chance. Very Lord of the Flies, I know -- but it's true.

The nice thing is that our standards of what is socially a winner and what a loser changes as we age; if Leo made it through high school, joined the Marines, and said goodbye to his horrendous father, he's probably doing OK, and remembers high school as a painful experience. And chances are that some of his tormentors are probably now to be classed as losers, even by Idaho standards. And those who stood by, conflicted. . . well, if they're grown up enough to feel bad about it, they're also a winner in the moral human being competition.

Comment number: 005640   Posted by: Bill on March 25, 2005 12:22 PM from IP: 162.119.64.114

My Leo was also a pudgy kid. He was a recent immigrant so he did not speak a lot of English. Hell, my English wasn't that good anyway back then, but I still tried to distinguish myself from him.

The worst part is that he was actually nice to me. One time he actually clapped at me when I made a smart remark in class and I just shoot him this look of disgust.

I am still trying to make up for that to this day.

Comment number: 005641   Posted by: H on March 25, 2005 10:26 PM from IP: 207.69.139.156

Interesting timing. I went to school friends.com a couple of days ago and saw my 'Leo's' post. He seems to be doing ok, career-wise. I was terrible to him. I felt horrible, horrible guilt.

His post seemed so forgiving. Why would anyone want to re-visit a place where they were socially ostracized and tormented? Yet there he was weilding an open invitation for those people to get back in contact.

Something in me desperately wanted to meet up with him and apologise; I just couldn't guarantee he wouldn't have a bomb strapped to his chest.

I wouldn't blame him. But I value my face.

Comment number: 005642   Posted by: Naomi. on March 25, 2005 10:45 PM from IP: 211.28.31.242

Interesting timing. I went to school friends.com a couple of days ago and saw my 'Leo's' post. He seems to be doing ok, career-wise. I was terrible to him. I felt horrible, horrible guilt.

His post seemed so forgiving. Why would anyone want to re-visit a place where they were socially ostracized and tormented? Yet there he was weilding an open invitation for those people to get back in contact.

Something in me desperately wanted to meet up with him and apologise; I just couldn't guarantee he wouldn't have a bomb strapped to his chest.

I wouldn't blame him. But I value my face.

Comment number: 005643   Posted by: Naomi. on March 25, 2005 10:45 PM from IP: 211.28.31.242

Ergh. Sorry. That posted twice.

Comment number: 005644   Posted by: on March 25, 2005 10:46 PM from IP: 211.28.31.242

I had a "Leo" too. She was "Robin." I was her defender, but I couldn't stand her. Too needy, too crazy. I went to great lengths to defend her but was horrified when that resulted in her thinking she was my best friend. That was in the 7th grade. In the 8th grade I got into a war with her because of my completely misguided attempts to enlighten her about a mistaken belief (she was wrong, but I was an idiot). My classmates congratulated me for my "victory" when she was shown to be wrong by her favorite professor. I'd engineered the humiliation of one who I'd tried to protect and no one seemed to notice. I'd become one of them. Horrifying.

Comment number: 005645   Posted by: Jamy on March 26, 2005 04:03 PM from IP: 66.186.132.192

It's amazing the shit that happens in high school. You're right, every school had a "Leo." Everyone who reads this will identify with it. It's a sad commentary on the state of affairs in "high school culture."

I was talking with a co-worker the other day about this subject. He was always made fun of in school, bullied, etc.. He said, "In what other social setting can you do those things? What would happen if you just walked up to someone here at work, and shoved them into the wall? Or took their things?"

But you're right, that shit happens, and you grow older and regret it. Too bad for Leo.

Comment number: 005646   Posted by: porkbone on March 27, 2005 09:03 AM from IP: 24.245.25.78

I think it is important to realize how screwed up we were as our younger selves. To just say "it was highschool, that happens" will let everyone off forever, not just us. I really think it has to change, that it can change. I mean, there's a part of me that says of course it won't, but we have to at least have enough belief that it can enough to TRY. To try and make a difference as parents or teachers or whatever. I do feel pretty passionate about this I guess. I was quite ostracized myself, and yet I ostracized other people whenever I felt like I was even the teeniest bit cooler than them. The whole thing is so sick.

Comment number: 005647   Posted by: yensen on March 27, 2005 12:05 PM from IP: 216.153.147.111

So who fixes it?

I used to be the target of jokes, got pushed in the halls, had my stuff thrown from my locker to the floor... I feel just about as strongly as anyone that the high school culture is f*cked up. In fact, I hated high school so much I went to college 2 years early.

You can be a better parent, but what about the hundreds of other bad parents out there? Then, what about the schools that allow this stuff to happen? How do you begin to control this problem?

Just a week ago 10 people got killed at a school in Minnesota because a kid "fell through the cracks." Funny, it's never the popular jock studs who shoot up their schools.

Comment number: 005648   Posted by: porkbone on March 27, 2005 07:42 PM from IP: 24.245.25.78

I felt so bad when I read about Leo. Like everybody else that commented, I was aware of several Leos during high school. I look back and can honestly say I never participated in the making of a Leo, but I also did little to stop it. I myself was your basic middle of the road type, but I felt like a Leo. And almost 20 years after graduating, I have learned that many of the people I thought had everything in school felt like Leos themselves. We never really know what someone is thinking or what their self image is. And we're all a lot more alike then we think. Meg

Comment number: 005649   Posted by: Meg on March 27, 2005 10:30 PM from IP: 63.155.228.116

I don't think there's any real remedy for this, by means of pedagogy in schools or on the part of parents. Pecking orders exist whether we like them or not, and as a usual thing, staking one's ground in primary or junior or high school is a daily struggle to keep yourself from losing one of your own eyes.

Kids, even the best of them, can be real shits. The best we can hope for is that they wake up in adulthood. It's clear you have.

Comment number: 005650   Posted by: special k on March 29, 2005 05:11 PM from IP: 199.126.217.170

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