No era escapes life’s lessons, which takes me to how frequently I find meaningful analogies from my childhood to apply to what disturbs me presently and how persistent are our human patterns regardless of the decade or our age.
In third grade Peter was one of my best friends. I met him through Marilyn, my other best friend. We all lived short bike rides from one another, an exhilarating down hill ride in one direction and a breathless bike push home. Peter was kind and gentle, thin, blue eyed, and hilarious. Our threesome was modified by witty and mannerly Marilyn, who to this day has the demeanor of a fine hostess.
At Hoover Elementary School the rules at last bell were, as today, designed to keep us in order with single file exits, classroom by classroom. Of the event I have never forgotten, on a spring afternoon high with promise — bike rides, freshly baked cookies, sparkling scenery — we filed out of our classrooms toward the front doors. Peter was in front of me. He would be next out the front door. Behind me was The Classroom Bully, an oversized, brash boy who had to be first, had to be noticed.
Suddenly The Bully pushed me from behind into Peter, who instinctually braced himself, holding his arms straight out toward the doors. In milliseconds Peter crashed through the glass doors. In those days we didn’t have safety glass. The glass shredded Peter’s arms. I fell into him. The Bully stood back obediently holding the line.
“She pushed him!” Yelled The Bully.
I was jerked into the principal’s office and held there. Trembling, I heard the siren of the ambulance. The sight of Peter’s blood spurting and the shattered glass, the screams, the “She pushed him!” collapsed into a fearful collage.
“Did you push, Peter?” Asked Mr. Lyons, the principal.
“Yes,” I murmured. For indeed I had. I was certain I had killed him.
My mother suddenly appeared and kneeled in front of me. “Diane, what happened?”
“Is Peter dead?” I sobbed.
“No, Sweetie. Peter has gone to the hospital. Doctors will fix him. He will be okay.”
“Someone hit me from the back and I pushed Peter into the door.”
Wise mothers learn to discern a truth from a lie. My mother had lots of experience with my fibs. She pulled me into her arms. “Peter will be okay. It’s not your fault.”
The Bully refused to confess even after other children and a teacher described the incident. Mr. Lyons reassured me over and over. “Peter will be okay.” But my kindly principal could not erase the sinking feeling of my being pushed from behind and accused, singled out and pulled into the principal’s office to await my fate.
Peter was hospitalized for a week and at home for another week. When he returned to school he wore bandages on his arms. I had agonized for days until I learned he had been released from hospital. I knew I hadn’t actually caused the incident but I’d been a party to it. Oddly, some part of me today says I was an accomplice, that being an unwitting accomplice doesn’t fully exonerate a person. Our friendship was forever tainted thereafter, for my outsized sense of responsibility just would not fade.
To this day I have a visceral dislike of bullying behaviors, of brash, careless people willing to discard or harm others to maintain narcissistic supremacy.
Still, the adult me wants to know why The Bully was as he was and what happened to him. Peter, I believe, matured successfully. But what of The Bully whose name I forgot long ago, like pain.