A Moment of Shame a Lifetime on the Brain

A Moment of Shame a Lifetime on the Brain

I remember the moment it happened as if it were 5 minutes after this morning’s second cup of coffee.  I’m not proud of it, but I’m also not apologizing.  You see I believe that some things: while distasteful and regrettable, are also necessary.  At least they were in the mind of a fourteen-year-old boy.  Let me explain.

There was a kid in my high school named Barry…let’s see how do I describe Barry.  If I said that when he walked into a room he could not be missed, it would not be a lie or a compliment.  He was short, with long, greasy, unkempt hair, a hooknose and peach fuzz that seemed to apologize for not fulfilling its potential.  He was a nice enough guy if you took the time to know him in a way that couldn’t be confused as ridicule.  Unfortunately, Barry liked to run through the halls with a stack of books, a genius level IQ with a GPA to match, and an expression that said, “get out of my way, I’m late for class.”

I found him to be odd, but pretty amusing.  He had this cutting wit that could slice through his abusers in seconds and I really respected that.  Also, being the new kid in public school, I was grateful that Barry was soaking up all the negative attention.  The hard truth is that he was toxic to a budding high school reputation, so I was surprised to find myself striking up conversations with him.  I don’t know, maybe it was curiosity or maybe I just knew what it felt like to be the strange one, but the point is I started liking the guy.

Soon I started giving Barry wise and worldly advice like, “Why do you have to be so intense all the time?  If you lay back a little, maybe they’ll leave you alone.”  He was not swayed.  Like clockwork they would come at him in class and he would fight back every time with an arsenal of Barry-isms.  The response was always both nervous and in my case, genuine laughter.  I couldn’t help but admire him.  He was like an immovable force of nature.  Throw an insult at him and he’d smack it back at you with triple the force.

Now by the time the moment in question came around, my own level of popularity had reached a kind of mild acceptance.  I had played little league with some of the guys in my class, made a few new friends and had an older brother who was pretty in with the cool kids.  All in all, I felt like if I could make it through freshman year unscathed, I’d have a shot at not being a loser.

OK enough stalling, here it is.

Apparently, one day in a classroom on the other side of the building, the high school hit parade was leaning in on Barry pretty good.  Now in his defense, Barry was under the impression that I was a decent person, so when one of the circling vultures said to him, “You don’t have any friends at this school,” he replied proudly “Phil is my friend.  We even hung out at my house over the weekend.” A lie, but the poor guy must’ve been fighting for his life.  Besides, all he needed was a little backup from his pal from 3rd period.

The mob (3 guys I knew well enough) found me in the hall between classes, to get the truth.  “Hey, are you friends with that kid Barry in Biology?” laughed one of the guys I knew best.

“I don’t know. He’s all right.  He makes me laugh,” I replied trying to figure out where this conversation was going.

“Are you serious?  Did you go over his house this weekend?”

Oh my God! I understood and my mind went into overdrive.  I imagined what must’ve happened in class, the humiliation that forced him to conjure up his story.  Next, I quickly did the computations of what confirming Barry’s little white lie would do to my high school career.  The world started spinning and my weakness poured out of me.

“Of course not!  What’re you crazy?”

“Ha!  I knew it.”  With that, the conversation was over and they were off to further torture their victim.

I was left standing alone with my self-loathing.  I could’ve backed up his story, but I had to do it, right?  There’s only so far a guy should have to go to help someone save face.  Yes, in this situation, it was eat or be eaten.  I mean it was Darwinism for Christ Sake!

Barry left school before the end of Freshman Year.  I like to think that maybe he got into some special program for mathematical overachievers, or perhaps his Dad got some great new job in some far away place.  A place where a guy like Barry could be appreciated…respected even.

I have no idea what happened to Barry.  The only thing that I do know is that he made a lasting impression on me.  So maybe that decision was a bad one…shameful even, but I can’t regret it.  I can’t because it’s the day I decided I wanted to be better, more steadfast, even more stubborn.  I guess I wanted to be a little more like Barry, but I don’t regret what happened…

…That’s bullshit.  Barry I’m sorry.

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One Comment

  • Laura

    Phil - it is interesting to look back and see what it is we could have done differently. I enjoyed reading this for a couple of reasons not the least of which is I knew you back then and never would have thought you were not popular. And for the fact that I've watched my son struggle socially all his school career - he's now a senior and still has issues with the "popular" kids. I hope that at some point some of those kids look back and realize that maybe they could have been nicer to him even if they never apologize to him but just maybe learn and teach the next generation to be a little more kind to others who are on the outside looking in. Funny - because while I had a core group of friends I was never "popular" in that high school sense which I found Bob to be. I, however, was happy with who I was and where I was going so it all turned out just the way it was supposed to. Thanks for sharing this story. Laura

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