A Time When Something Awful Happened
I can’t remember, exactly, what year it was, but I imagine it must have been 1994, because I believe I was a freshman in high school when a boy in my class had a shampoo bottle inserted into his anus by another boy in my class in front of a bunch of other boys in my class and when it came out of his anus, he lost control of his bowels. That sentence, as a write it, brings me to a time when I did nothing to stop an evil, even though I had a chance to do so.
I grew up in South Dakota in a small, agriculture community which had a public school and a private school. And, considering the town’s size, barely a 1,000 people, having two schools was unusual. But, because of a large Mennonite community, the private school existed for the sons and daughters of those who wanted their children going somewhere where they could pray, where they could learn about conscientious objectors and Menno Simmons, and, maybe most importantly, where they could be taught not to stand when the national anthem came on. Now, I don’t agree with that but there was something about not having those more peaceful minded kids at my public school, something about our segregation which heightened a certain, if you will, bro feeling at my public school. It’s the kind of feeling one might know if they’ve ever gone to high school, though even more acutely if they’ve ever gone to high school in a small town.
Personally, my graduating class had 26 kids and, of those kids, whether for ill or for gain, I was the one not drinking by the time we hit 8th grade. Though I was, along with the rest of boys in my class, lifting weights at the age of 12. And while that statement seems ridiculous now, it was not unusual. My class of boys was the one, as I’m sure there have been many others in many other small towns, which promised to bring a trophy case worth of sports championships. And while we did up end winning two in football, we would only win one in track — our senior year — we would never win one in basketball, coming in second just once, but only after recruiting two brothers from a nearby small town, both of whom were over 6’7″ (one of them would play in the NBA). And with us never winning that much, I’m positive we fell short of the expectations set for us, back when were just little boys.
Though, it doesn’t really surprise me that my class would never be great in a sport like basketball, one which requires a great deal of chemistry. We were okay at a sport like football where it’s one-on-one battles played out on a field of one-on-one battles, and we were alright at track, where it’s almost entirely a singular pursuit, outside of the baton pass, but we never would be that good at basketball. We were never meant for that kind of team success because we would always be, from what seems like the very first day of 7th grade in the building where we spent the next six years of our adolescence, a contentious bunch, a group of boys whose goals in life were benching over 300 pounds, getting drunk, and, most importantly, being as straight as was humanly possible. Being “gay,” that was synonymous with social anathema. And so you did certain things to keep up the straightness, things we didn’t speak but all of us just sort of knew: you didn’t like “gay” music (you somehow knew what that meant), you didn’t wear clothes which weren’t blue jeans, a sports t-shirt, and Nike tennis shoes, and, most of all, you didn’t sing, unless it was absolutely necessary.
I should mention now, I never fit in. I wore Dr. Martin boots, Beck t-shirts, periwinkle colored pants. I participated in a musical when I didn’t have to and I’d even eventually hang out with the “ranchers,” as some called them, or, “faggots,” as others called them, or, what they were, the kids at the private school. I like to think I did this stuff on my own and didn’t fit in for other reasons. However, it’s likely I just wasn’t that great at sports. I didn’t drink. And I would never mess with others enough to be considered truly cool. Of course, you could be considered cool without doing the drinking or the messing with, but, you had be very good at sports just as our quarterback, Nathan, a guy who, it seemed to me, lived his life in a bubble.
Now, as I say all that, I should also say I was not an angel. I picked on the few kids who were below my imaginary caste and I’m sure I said things which would make skin crawl if I heard my 14-year-old self say them now. But, and not to make myself out to be a martyr because I was not, I was picked on, as I’m sure many in my situation have been. I was wedgied. I was teased for having a lisp, long after the speech therapist had cured me of it. I was…well, I could go on here but you get the picture. Still, I had it better than some and lived glad to at least have my best friend Nathan (not the quarterback) who the rest in my class called “Butterball.”
Still, even with Nathan, I remember that teen I was, I remember how I would regularly dream of leaving everything behind and attending a bigger school, maybe one in Sioux Falls, one where girls were into bands like Reel Big Fish and there were after school clubs for guys who were into movies like Fargo and maybe there was even a golf team. At times, that teen I was would even dream of something unimaginable — because I was not a Mennonite by birth — he would dream of going to the private school. There he would find an art utopia where everyone was kind to one another and we all played soccer instead of football and all the girls wanted to marry men who dressed alternatively with t-shirts from Goodwill and listened to The Blue Album. I think about that teen I was and all that surrounded him on the morning he came into lift weights before school one morning in 1994 and saw what he, and the rest of the boys weren’t sure they saw, saw. The particles, some had washed down the drain, though some were left on the tiles, others stuck in the grating. And while I don’t remember exactly who suggested it first, I do remember what he said, “Is that shit?”
The days after, how it is that we all knew of what happened, I don’t know. It seems to me now like some subconscious knowledge had been implanted in our brains. It went something like this. In the showers after P.E. the day before, Mike (not his name), who was our Gallagher/Dane Cook class clown (my best friend was the Mitch Hedberg class clown), had been using his shampoo bottle as a ramrod, hitting people in the thigh, “joking around,” and though I wasn’t there — choir kids like myself had another time for P.E. — I’m almost exactly sure now of what Mike would’ve been saying, though those are words not worth repeating. And, I’m guessing, from years of observing Mike, he was probably jabbing at everyone that afternoon, but he would’ve saved his most focused jabbing for Tom (not his name either), the skinniest, weakest kid in our class. And, as Mike was prone to do, because Mike was a fuck-up who would later nearly cut off another classmate’s hand with a Bowie knife, he went too far and, accidentally or no, pushed the shampoo bottle up Tom’s anus.
It’s not till a couple days later when I have my only memory of that time. We’re at a girls basketball game because in South Dakota, back then, girls basketball is in the fall. We’re watching from the bleachers and my class is sitting together and I look behind me, up a couple rows, and see Tom is forcibly leaned over. A hand is squeezed around his neck and another boy, a year older, is pinching as hard as he possibly can. And though I can’t hear their one sided conversation, I know exactly what’s said. Don’t tell anyone. So no one did. And no one was punished.
It’s now I think about that week, about how much Tom must have resented us. And not only people like Mike, but people like myself, those who should have done something but didn’t. Instead, we, no, I, lived in fear of losing the shreds of standing I had, as if they were mountains. And I hate that part of me. That even though I once considered myself so different, at my core, I was simply a coward.
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Though I acknowledge and appreciate the differences in human experiences, and while your heartbreak is (and always will be) uniquely and completely your own, I must urge you to consider that I have been where you are.
By Devon Oyler
With his hat cocked back, body tilted away from his cane, and right forefinger pointing directly at his audience, Joseph Ducreux commands the attention of those viewing his self-portrait.
I was born in 1990; he was born in 1973. I’m 23; he just turned 40.