Tanner Hughes was in the process of smacking me in the head and making some unflattering observations about my masculinity while his girlfriend, Madison, leaned against the wall, tapping on her phone. This was the music of my humiliation—the vacuum whoosh of texts on their way out and the chime of those coming in. We were in my science classroom, and I was supposed to be taking an after-school makeup quiz. Mrs. Capelli, my teacher, had stepped out ten minutes before, telling me she was trusting me to conduct myself responsibly. I wasn’t sure if retreating with my arms raised to protect my face qualified as responsible behavior.
I wasn’t a total coward. Under the right conditions, I was willing to take a stand. When you traveled as much as my mom and I did, and started a new school every year, you had to be ready to face guys like Tanner Hughes, who were always on the lookout for fresh victims. That was the theory, anyhow. In practice, I wanted to keep things from escalating. I was in sixth grade, Tanner was in eighth, and he looked like maybe he had enjoyed some of his earlier grades enough to want to repeat one or two of them. He was easily six inches taller than I was and had about a twenty-pound advantage, all of it in muscle. I’d confronted my share of bullies, and I knew how to play the odds. In this case, I put my money on holding out until the teacher returned, which I hoped would be very soon.
I also wanted to believe that maybe after Tanner got in a couple of jaw-rattlers, Madison might possibly ask her boyfriend to back off. Girls were apt to become bored with felony assault. No luck there. Every time Tanner took a swipe at me, Madison sighed, like she was OMG, so bored, and then went back to her phone.
I’m not saying I hadn’t given Tanner Hughes good reason to hate me. I had after all, shown up in his school, offended him with what he considered a lame haircut (I had been trying to coax my slightly limp brown hair into looking like Matt Smith’s, and I was happy with the results, but I respect dissenting opinions), and, perhaps most seriously, looked at him in the hallway. In my defense, he had been standing in the part of the hallway where I was heading, and I like to look where I’m going, but still. I understood his point.
We had, in other words, pretty much irreconcilable differences. He found my existence offensive. I wanted to exist. I didn’t have a lot of faith that we were going to work out a compromise.
I was considering the hopelessness of my position while also sidestepping a shove that would have knocked me into, and possibly through, the wall, when Mrs. Capelli returned to the classroom. She’d left me alone and made me promise to do nothing but finish my quiz, so I could understand how it might look bad to see me with Tanner and Madison in the room. That said, Tanner was in the middle of stamping his boot treads all over the emptied contents of my notebook, which he’d taken the time and trouble to scatter across the floor. I kind of thought the evidence might point toward me not really welcoming the company.
In a perfect world, Tanner Hughes would have been deliv
ered over to our educational correctional machine and suffered a stern talking-to for his crimes against society and my notebook. This was not a perfect world, however. Tanner was the goalie for the school soccer team—it never hurts to have a guy the width of a garbage Dumpster standing in the way of the opponents scoring—and that team was one game away from securing a place in the middle school state playoffs. That Mrs. Capelli’s son was a starting midfielder only served to bring the truth into sharper focus. After all, Tanner’s version of events made perfect sense: I’d invited him into the class and demanded that a meathead with a C-minus average help me with my quiz. When he’d refused, I’d become so “spastic” that Tanner had been forced to defend himself. When Mrs. Capelli asked Madison if that was what had happened, Madison shrugged and mumbled a stirring “I guess,” which would have convinced even the most hardened Tanner doubters out there.
That was how I ended up in the front office so the principal could discuss my many deficiencies with my mother.
A lot of kids cringe at the prospect of their parents being called in to the principal’s office. A lot of kids are afraid of their parents. A lot of kids, I am led to believe, have crummy parents, but I was not one of them. I was not afraid of my mother. I was afraid for her, because the last thing she needed was more stress. My mother had recently been handed a bad diagnosis—a really bad one. Scary, terrifying, bad. Besides medicines her insurance company would not pay for, and exercises she had no time to do, what she needed most was to reduce the amount of stress in her life. Thanks to Tanner Hughes, Mrs. Capelli, the principal, the school, and the game of soccer, I had just become the source of more stress.
To look at her, you wouldn’t know she had an unbelievably awful disease. She sat in the principal’s office in her pantsuit, legs crossed, her brown hair up in a bun. No one else would have noticed the new and deeply etched lines around her eyes, the creases in her forehead, and the appearance of a few streaks of gray in her hair. On the other hand, I kept a running tally of how she looked from one day to the next.
“So,” she said to Principal Landis, “tell me again why Zeke is in trouble and this other boy is not.”
Principal Landis was not what you would call a thin man. He was what you would call a fat man. I understand that no one is perfect. I, for example, am both tall and thin—there are those who have referred to me as gangly—and I’ve already mentioned my controversial haircut. All of which is to say that I’ve been on the receiving end of personal insults. Empathy being what it is, I try to avoid making fun of how someone might look, but if the person in question is a complete jerk, then I say it’s a good time to make an exception. This was one of those times. Principal? Fat.
I don’t want to suggest that Mr. Landis was circus-freak heavy. He was not grotesquely fat. He was, however, hilariously fat. Every part of him was overweight. Even his ears were fat, his nose was fat, his fingers massive, blubbery loaves, and it was hard to take him seriously. Also, he was balding. There’s no reason a receding hairline has to be funny. Many men wear baldness well, even make it look cool. On my principal: funny.
Mr. Landis leaned forward, his fat wrists splayed on the desk. The desk, in response, creaked. “Though he has been with us only a few months, this is not the first time Zeke has been involved in an incident,” This last word generated air quotes with sausagey fingers.
“If by incident,” my mother said, somehow resisting the urge to air quote back at him, “you mean that boy bullying him, then you are absolutely correct. I’d like to know why you aren’t doing anything about this.”
“This accusation of bullying is troubling,” said Mr. Landis, now leaning back and intertwining his large fingers. “I take it very seriously.”
He said this with such finality that I was tempted to rise, clap my hands together, and say, I’m glad we got all that worked out.
My mother wasn’t buying it. “I don’t see that you do take it seriously. This is the third time this semester that I’ve been called in to discuss Zeke’s behavior, and each time his behavior, as near as I can tell, is his getting picked on.”
Mr. Landis narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips together in a show of indignation. “Let me remind you that we are not here to discuss what other students may or may not have done. Zeke has not done a very good job of settling in at this school, as you are no doubt aware. I understand that your career has led you to move frequently, but that does not change the fact that Zeke has difficulty making friends, and he has antisocial interests. Together, these factors suggest the profile of a student who might present a danger to himself or others.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Are you saying that because Tanner Hughes comes into a classroom where I’m taking a quiz and messes with me, you think I’m going to show up with a gun and starting shooting up the place?”
“No one mentioned guns,” Mr. Landis said, “until you did, just now. Quite honestly, I feel unsafe.”
My mother stood up. “We’re done here.”
Mr. Landis looked up from my file. “If Zeke makes an effort to stay out of trouble, I will certainly rethink how seriously we have to take his threats against the school.”
My mother stared at him for a long minute. I knew her well enough to understand that she was seriously considering making a comment that included the words “fat,” “bald,” or both. I also knew her well enough to understand that no matter how seriously she considered it, she wouldn’t actually do it. At the time I thought it was probably the right decision, but later I would wish she had indulged.
I had no way of knowing that I was never going to set foot in that school again.