Right before choir class began, the school bully came in and sat next to me. It wasn't his usual seat. He put his arm around my shoulders.
In 1965 Texas, that meant I was a homosexual, and he was, well, I don't know what I was supposed to call him since he was implying he wasn't a homosexual, just me. When he had pulled that stunt on other guys, smaller than he, the victim was supposed to jerk away and glare at him, and he would laugh maniacally.
I didn't do that. I just stared straight ahead, not moving a muscle. After a long moment, he patted my arm and pulled away. That wasn't the first time he had done something. He liked to make fun of what I wore, threaten to beat me up after school and sing loud in my ear during a choir concert to throw me off key. The usual bully stuff. Later, one of my friends lectured me for not following the accepted custom of pulling away and glaring at him.
"Don't you know what that means?"
Yes, I did, and I didn't care. At that time I had a life-threatening crush on a girl half a year older than me so I knew I wasn't a homosexual and I was convinced that if the girl didn't like me as much as I liked her my life would be over.
By the end of the school year, the bully and I came up to the water fountain at the same time.
"You don't like me, do you?" He looked rather pitiful at that moment.
"No, you're okay." I was still too infatuated with the older girl to wax righteous about whether or not he was likeable.
By the end of the next school year my worst fear came true. The older girl did not like me in the same way I liked her. I went to college, and the girl and the bully went on to their own lives. I heard later he became an evangelist.
However, throughout my adult life, I have found whenever another man puts his arm around my shoulders, a traditional sign of brotherly affection, I stiffen and slightly pull away. It has short-circuited some friendships.
By and large, the incident has not kept me from marrying the right woman, having two wonderful children and enjoying a host of good friends in my older years.
This memory re-emerges briefly when I read in the newspaper about a child who kills himself because he was bullied, or, perhaps, the victim of bullying himself becomes the killer. I wonder about official school policies that state a person has to have more than one incident by the same person in order to be considered a bullying victim. Sometimes television situation comedies will show the best way to handle a bully is to be a bully right back at him.
I think about how much one minor incident affected my life and how long-term, vicious harassment can be devastating for anyone who is too skinny, too heavy, too awkward, too different.
Don't feel sorry for us. Don't put your arm around us.
Teach your children to respect everyone. Practice compassion yourself.
Jerry Cowling is a free-lance writer and storyteller living in Brooksville.