The first we heard about the bullying was late one night when Will mentioned that Thomas had left school.
“What?” said Ellen, sitting up from Lucy’s bed, where they were saying goodnight.
“Yeah,” said Lucy. “He went to the Japanese school.”
Ellen and I both contemplated this for a moment. Thomas was a one-of-a-kind kid, with shockingly pale skin and shockingly white-blonde hair and an IQ somewhere in the low 6000s. He once spent most of a birthday party at our house buzzing a small toy plane around the living room, pretending it was carrying Kim Jong-Il.
“Why did he leave?” Ellen asked Will.
“I don’t know.”
Lucy piped in, “Because Mark and George were picking on him.”
“Really?” From Ellen’s inflection I could tell she was thinking the same thing I was: just how bad does “picking on” have to be to drive a kid out of school?
We found out soon enough.
Ellen was sitting with Will coming home on the 26 one afternoon about a month after Thomas left, when Will mentioned that George and Mark were teasing him.
“What about?” said Ellen.
“About reading books.”
Our boy, our lovely boy who hates to sweat, often spends recess inside, reading. His teacher doesn’t seem to mind, and one or two other kids seem to do it, so we don’t worry about it.
“Why do they tease you about that?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do they say?”
“Well, Mark will say, ‘Will, what would you do if you couldn’t read?’”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“He says it over and over again—like, 100 times.”
When Ellen told me about this, I went to Will with a simple solution: “Next time he does that,” I said, “ask him what he would do if he couldn’t ask the same stupid question over and over again.”
Will laughed, and smiled. He was doing his homework, sitting at the dining room table, tapping his pencil. And then he stopped laughing. But his lips stayed fixed in a smile longer than they should have.
Now there are two things you should know:
First, there was a day, maybe seven years ago, when I was standing knee deep in the swimming pool in Lexington, Virginia. Will was three, was a little bit of a scaredy cat, and was moving cautiously through waist-deep (for him) water. And there was some other kid, maybe a year older, maybe a boy, maybe a girl, I don’t remember—but this kid was pushing Will, or taking a toy from him, or splashing him, or something that was making him cry.
And I was wishing I had a thick wooden plank.
I don’t mean to say that, had I actually been holding a 2x4 in my hands, I would have hit this kid. I wouldn’t have. I haven’t hit anyone since seventh grade. What I’m saying is that I really wanted to hurt this kid, really wanted to inflict on him/her/it, whatever pain I could to stop him/her/it from hurting my child.
“Wow,” I said to Ellen that night after we’d put the kids to bed. “Parenting is a powerful thing.”
She gave me a quizzical look. Ellen has always been very clear on how much she loves our children. She puts it this way: “Someone comes up to you and says, ‘We can either cut off your arm, or hurt your kid,’ and you say, ‘Here’s my arm.’ Someone comes up to you and says, ‘We can either hurt your spouse, or cut off your arm,’ and you say (after a very long pause), ‘What, exactly, do you mean by hurt?”
“It changes you,” I said to her now. “I mean me. People. It changes you when you have a kid.” I considered adding, “Today I thought about hitting a four-year-old really hard,” but decided against it, figuring if I wanted to be institutionalized for making bizarre confessions, I should do it properly and wait until I had a blog.
“You’re just figuring this out?”
“Hey,” I said. “I’ve been busy. Somebody had to feed the cat.”
“We don’t have a cat.”
I raised my chin and looked at her carefully. “That’s what you think.”
The second thing you should know is that Mark was home schooled by his mother. His father, who’s originally from somewhere in Europe, works in an international business dealing with transportation, and wasn’t at home very much. They had a nice family, Mark, his two sisters, their mom, their dad.
Then last spring Mark’s mom was diagnosed with cancer. And Mark and his sisters were sent to school.
And Mark struggled some. He was smart, but not school smart. And he was good looking and charismatic, but just a little uncomfortable in his own skin, not quite sure of how to deal with the attention he got just because he was who he was: this ten-year-old handsome boy with olive skin and wide-set eyes.
And then in the fall his mom went to Malaysia for treatment. And then she came home. And Mark attended Will’s birthday party on the 5th of December carrying an unwrapped present.
And three weeks later, just after Christmas, Mark’s mom died.
We didn’t worry too much about the teasing at first. Kids are kids, after all, and Will was just being his father’s son—simultaneously thin-skinned and mildly self-righteous. At one point I suggested maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he spent a few recesses outside developing his social skills, but other than that, we just assumed all of this would go away.
Then one night Ellen received an e-mail from Will’s teacher. “There was an incident at school today,” she wrote. “Will got a little teary eyed.”
I glanced up from Ellen’s laptop. “Did you know about this?”
She shook her head. “He mentioned something about being sad today, but didn’t go into any detail.”
I went back to the e-mail: “It seems the kids are playing ‘excluding’ games,” it said. “This is not unusual for kids this age. I’ll keep an eye on it, and I’ve been praying about it.”
I straightened. Ellen and I looked at each other, both frowning, both thinking, for a good two minutes.
“Those bastards,” I said.
Ellen rolled her eyes a little. “They’re just kids.”
“I know,” I said. “Little kid bastards.” I looked back at the e-mail. “Praying?”
“How about instead of praying you throw the little creeps out of school?”
Some people, I sometimes fear, just have “Mock me” carved into their genes, along with, “I’m desperate to fit in,” “I’ll never be as cool as you,” and “I won’t fight back.”
Other kids seem to wear cool like a leather jacket: they can afford it, they look good in it, and they know it.
I was not one of the latter. And while it’s true that I did my fair share of picking on kids who were more powerless/clueless than me (sorry, Ron—and I really mean that), I spent most of my childhood on the receiving end of a “Kick me,” sign. There was Jim Thorn in seventh grade who pinned me down under his dad’s pool table and poured a bottle of Binanca down my throat, then told me I couldn’t sit with my friends at the basketball game. There was Bill Travis who was the quarterback of the football team and who would walk past me in the halls imitating my lisp: “There goeth Paul Hanthtedt!” There was Phil Morrison who decided I was the one who gave him the late hit during practice that ended his season and threw me on the ground, screaming I was lucky he didn’t smash my head in. There was Mark Bodner who was my best friend all summer and who then, after one particularly brutal football game, spent most of the bus rid home leading a variation on the old chant: “Yee-i-yee-i-yee-i-o,” (to which the bus-full of 15-year-olds replied, “Yee-i-yee-i-yee-i-o”). Mark, who’d actually spent a week with my family and I at our cabin in northern Wisconsin, then changed the final line of the chant, calling out, “Hanstedt is a homo!”
I considered explaining to him that the rhythm of this last line was all off, that it was one syllable short, but, oddly, found this hard to do with my face fiercely red and something—not shame, not embarrassment, but maybe something closer to confusion and sadness—dripping through every cell of my body.
I suppose it’s also worth noting that in addition to having a speech impediment (or, as Bill would say, “thpeech impediment”), I was a pastor’s kid. I was also a major-league smartass, but I like to think that people picked on me because of my dad’s profession and because my tongue was too large for my mouth, not because I couldn’t resist telling the biggest kid in class that he was dumber than most warts on a toad’s ass.
“Most.” You got to love that. He was dumb, yes, but smarter than some warts. Just not all.
Making everything worse for Will was the fact that it wasn’t just Mark, it was George as well. George who’d been to his house for play dates, who’d been to his birthday party, who was an otherwise a smart, kind, well-behaved kid—George, whose mother hadn’t actually died, giving him an excuse to be a prick—George who had been Will’s friend, not just his acquaintance.
This same George was now in the habit of telling Will he was annoying: every time Will would come up to them on the playground, or try and talk to them during class, or—well, just exist—George would say to my son, “Will, you’re so annoying. Why are you so annoying?”
Complicating things even more was that fact that looming on the horizon was the school trip to Beijing: twenty 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds together non-stop for five days, on buses, at meals, in hotel rooms.
“Maybe he shouldn’t go,” I said to Ellen one night.
She paused over the dishes. I waited, but she didn’t speak.
“It’s one thing,” I said, “when he can come home after school and tell us what happened and we can talk about it and give him hugs and all that. It’s another thing when he’s stuck with those little turds 24-hours a day.”
“They’re not turds,” Ellen said. “They’re children.”
“Little turd children,” I replied. “With little turd arms and turd hair. Turd breath, too, I’ll bet.”
Ellen shook her head. “Let’s just wait. Let’s just see what happens.”
But things kept getting worse. There was the day at school when all the kids were in groups creating ad campaigns for well-known products. Will’s group picked Adidas, and Will ended up being the spokesman for the group. He’d barely opened his mouth when George and Mark started shouting, “Adidas suck! Nikes are better!” “I tried to tell them I knew that,” Will—who could care less about shoes—said to me later. “I tried to tell them I didn’t pick Adidas, but they wouldn’t listen.”
There was the day when Mark said, while they were waiting for their Mandarin teacher: “I hate Mandarin. Who here likes Mandarin?” Will was the only one who raised his hand.
It was all low-level stuff—no physical violence or lunch-money shake-downs. But day after day after day after day in a small school where there are only 15 kids in your class and you’re away from your best friends in the States (“My real friends,” Will had taken to calling them), and when you’re only 9—well, in a situation like that, low-level and high-level is sort of a moot distinction.
It was bad enough that, one day, on the bus-ride home from school, I actually asked Will if he wanted to skip the Beijing trip.
He didn’t look at me at first, just kept his eyes straight ahead, his lashes fluttering with concentration. Then he stole a glance up at me and said simply, “Yes.”
We raised all of this with his teacher after the meeting for the parents of the kids going on the trip. She tried to reassure us, but I have to admit that by the end of it I was so wound up that the only way I could calm myself down was by eating half-a-dozen butterscotch-chip cookies that some mother had brought to the meeting.
Strolling out of the teacher’s office, we paused to chat with George’s mom—she’d been waiting patiently to meet with Ms. K as I rent my garments and licked cookie crumbs off the serving plates.
“Thanks,” Ellen said, “for inviting Will to George’s birthday party. He was really excited about it.”
It was true: when the invitation had come Monday, only four days before the party itself, I wondered if Will would want to go, but he seemed thrilled at the prospect.
“Sorry it was so late,” George’s mom said. “I asked George a couple of times if he wanted to invite Will, but he kept saying he wasn’t sure Will would enjoy those kind of activities.”
“What activities?” I asked.
“Nerf gun wars.”
I bit my lip, felt my insides tighten.
“Will loves that stuff,” Ellen said. “It’ll be great. He’s really excited.”
That night, at home, I said, “We have to call and tell her.” The thing is, we knew George’s mother would be horrified by what was going on. She was smart and caring and insightful into the ways of the human heart. “What Mark is doing,” she once told Ellen, “is textbook grieving child: he’s pushing everyone away as hard as he can, trying to see who’ll leave next.”
“She would want us to,” I said to Ellen. “She’d be horrified if she knew what was going on.”
“I know. I’ll try and do it in the morning.”
But she didn’t have to. 9:30 the next day, her phone rang. It was George’s mom:
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “When you said Will loved nerf guns, I started to wonder, and then Louise”—her daughter, a year older than Lucy—“mentioned that some kids had been picking on Will, and it all clicked. We’ve already talked to George: he feels terrible, and he’s really really sorry.”
We were so relieved. Finally, we were making some headway.
Then I picked Will up after the birthday party. “How was it?” I asked as we strolled down to the taxi stand.
He made an indefinite sound. “It was okay.”
I looked at him. That thing in my stomach that tightened at moments like this—that kept me awake at night, that made cheesecake look disgusting—that thing turned over on its back and dried up like an old sponge.
“They played soccer.”
“George and Mark divided us into two teams: ‘popular,’ and ‘unpopular.’”
My brother actually avoided a lot of the bullying I encountered. Two years older than me, quiet and with a better sense of who he was, he kept a lower profile and generally stayed out of trouble.
Then one day when I was 13, one of my friends, John O’Hare, was goaded by his brother to pick a fight with my brother—also named Mark. John was small and wiry, and though he didn’t have that mythic Irish temper, he certainly did have the ability to turn his fury on and off like a spigot. By noon of the day in question, everyone I knew was talking about how John was going to beat my brother to a pulp. By the end of 7th period, the buzz in the halls was so loud it actually rattled the fire alarms.
Once the 3:15 bell rang, folks raced to their lockers, grabbed their jackets, slammed the doors shut, and raced outside.
In minutes, there was a circle of maybe 100 people on the street beside the school. In the middle were John—small, dark-haired, thrilled to show what a hard guy he was—and my brother, bespectacled, pale-skinned and freckled, clad in those damn Toughskin jeans our mother made us wear until we were freshmen in college.
“What are you looking at four-eyes?” John asked my brother, even though what he was looking at was obvious: this weirdly angry, weirdly cocky 13-year-old standing in front of him unable to think up any better insult than “four eyes.”
“Take those damn glasses off,” John said.
My brother just looked at him. Mark is smart as hell, but like the rest of us Hanstedts, only good at insults two hours later and out of the presence of the actual person being insulted.
Then John punched him. In the face. The glasses went skidding across the slush-covered road.
“What are you going to do now?” John asked my brother, clearly having learned his taunts from an afterschool special about mentally impaired Christmas elves. “Huh?”
So my brother hit him.
John took a step back. Then he came in swinging fists from both sides. Mark took the blows, flinched some, but began moving in closer and closer, hitting John in the head over and over again. Hard. Very hard.
I don’t remember how long it went on—maybe 40 seconds, maybe less— but I do remember how it ended: with John in fetal position on his knees in the slush, face in his hands, crying. With my brother walking over to his glasses and picking them up. With me walking home maybe a hundred years behind my brother, not quite sure what to think.
It was the first time I’d seen anyone actually fight back—and win.
In the end, Will went to Beijing.
The trip went well enough. Mark had gotten into trouble, they said, so they’d put him in a room with a chaperone, had made sure he wasn’t in a group with George. Will came home happy and exhausted and mildly intoxicated with a sense of his own adventerousness—to be only nine, and to go off into China without your parents!
And other things changed after that: George’s family decided on short notice to move back to Europe; Mark knew, now, who would leave next. A few days later, Mark went up to Will and his friend Eldon and said, “You’re my best friends, now.”
Riding to the airport with Will before the trip, I felt sick to my stomach, like I was tossing him into a pit of lions—no: like I was pouring steak sauce on him, loosening his joints, rubbing herbs and spices under his skin, and then tossing him in. The teachers going on the trip had tried to reassure us: they would keep a careful eye on everyone, they said. Really they would.
But when we got to the airport I saw how futile this was: Mark and George were sitting on their suitcases, surrounded by a gang of fawning 9 and 10 year olds. You could regulate them, yes, but only so much.
Will approached the group, hands in his pockets, his shoulders stiff and awkward. “Hey George,” he said. “Hey Mark.”
George gave him a glance. Then he turned to Mark and said something about a folder he was holding. Mark gave a half-snort, half-laugh, and the two of them fell into conversation.
Will just stood there.
I’d like to say my emotions were complex: fear, anxiety, anger, confusion, all rolling together.
But that would be a lie. My feelings were clear as spring water and boiling hot: I could have hit both of those boys so hard their feet would have lifted twelve inches off the ground. The morons. The jerks. The little shits.
“What’s that?” the woman standing next to me said.
I looked at her. She was medium height, with a pretty face and age spots by her temples. She was someone’s mother, I knew, but I couldn’t remember whose.
She widened her eyes. “I thought you said something. Something about trucks.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. Sorry about that.”
It’s meaningless, I know, what we’d do for our children. Yes, we’d cut off our arms for them. Yes, we’d throw ourselves in front of a freight train for them. Yes, we’d suffer, joyfully, a thousand slow, nail-pulling tortures. But it won’t do any good.
Not long after Will was born, there was an outbreak of violence in the West Bank or Gaza or some other place where people can’t seem to stop shooting each other. And one night on the evening news there was footage of a father and his son cowering in the corner of cement below a door stoop, bullets raging around them. The man was on the inside, his son beneath his arm as the two of them cringed at the constant rattle of small weapons fire.
And then in the next shot, the boy’s body was limp, draped over his father’s knee. And the man’s face was ragged with grief, his mouth watery and wide, his eyes torn with loss.
At the time I kept wondering Why? Why didn’t this dumb ass pull his son to the inside, shelter him with his body?
But it wouldn’t have mattered. Bullets fly. We can’t see them coming. We can’t predict the angles. We can’t stop them.
Standing there, I watch as the room assignments and group assignments are read. Will acts surprised when his and George’s names are called together, even though he’s known for days that this would likely happen. He taps George on the shoulder, says something. George doesn’t seem to notice. Mark just laughs, a dry, sarcastic cough that says he couldn’t care less that he’s been segregated from almost every one of his friends.
His dad, though, is there, watching. He’s a handsome man with thinning hair, an athletic frame draped in a pinstriped suit. His hands are in his pockets, and as he watches his son, a smile is fixed on his face—though it’s hard to tell how much of it is fixed, and how much of it is a smile. He watches as the assignments are read off. Watches his son laugh carelessly. Watches as Mark and George drift into another conversation.
I get distracted then, I’m not sure by what—perhaps my own anger and more thoughts of trucks—but when I look up, Mark and his father have walked off by themselves, the father’s hand on the boy’s shoulders, the boy’s hands in his pockets, his back squared, echoing exactly his father’s posture of just a few moments ago.
I watch as the father leans in, speaks to the son. I see Mark nod, see his shoulders hunch and fall. His father pats him on the back, lightly. Mark nods again.
What do you say to a kid for whom all the metaphors fail—whose heart is more than broken, whose world is more than turned upside down? What do you say to a 10-year-old who’s stood before a coffin staring at the waxy replica of the woman who is—who was—his mother, a woman who three days ago was living and breathing and who told him she loved him? Who six months ago hugged him in the dark and kissed his forehead and said it was going to be all right, that they would beat this thing? Who a year ago pulled him into her arms after she opened her Christmas present, laughing into his ear that she loved it, that she loved him, her hair tickling his cheek as he inhaled the nylon scent of her new sweater, never thinking once—not once, not ever, not once ever for an instant—that he wouldn’t hug her just this same way the next Christmas, and the Christmas after that, and the Christmas after that.
What do you say?
You say I’m sorry.
You say it’s okay.
You say anything you can. And you keep saying it.