Our beloved Brew.

Our beloved Brew.
R.I.P. Big guy.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Sinner and Samaritan That I Am

A group of dedicated women spent months preparing for the John Marshall High School (Rochester, NY) 44th Reunion. We hadn't had a reunion since our 20th in 1990, so it seemed an odd year to have one but I've been eager to see long lost friends, some folks with whom I'd reconnected on Facebook and a number of people with whom I wasn't close in high school but curious about nonetheless.

Prior to the event, an eight-hour gathering seemed a little excessive to me but I was game since it was planned as a casual, catered party in a local park. In hindsight, eight hours was far too little time together. I intended to spend extended time with my friends Vern and Kris, Sandy and Mike, as well as Jim and Sandy for whom I stood at their wedding forty years ago. I was sure the other Kris and I would spend lots of time face to face given how we'd sent each other a series of notes over the months via Facebook. I don't think I spent more than five or ten with any of these folks because there were just so many people to see, so many hugs to share, so many memories to relive.

However, the day was defined for me by two polar opposite exchanges that took place about ten minutes apart as I was preparing to leave at the end of the day.

Dan and I were not only schoolmates but I was in his wedding when he married my dear friend and childhood neighbor, Mary Ellen.  Dan and I worked together at two different employers during and following high school. After they married, Dan and Mary Ellen lived in the apartment above my brother and me. (Dan's father owned the apartment building.) We hadn't been in touch in decades and were catching up when a fellow walked up and interrupted our conversation.

After a full day of encounters it was pretty easy to gauge the degree of warmth and sincerity behind each greeting. "Hi, Jim." was said in the most unfriendly tone accompanied by an equally icy look. Before I could respond, the fellow turned to Dan and said in an accusatory tone that sounded like it had been brewing for forty years, "He doesn't have any idea who I am." When I admitted I didn't recognize the man, Dan gave me a single clue, "Peanut."

That nickname was given to a boy who was small in stature and did not resemble in any way the man in front of me with the shaved head, perfectly trimmed gray facial hair and medium but fit build. Even after studying his eyes closely, I didn't see any resemblance. His expression never warmed toward me and he quickly turned his attention toward Dan to discuss dates of some upcoming social events. When they were done he turned and walked away.

As I reflected on my strongest recollection of this fellow it revolved around an incident where someone took his jock strap and lined it with a heat ointment when he wasn't looking. About the time he finished getting dressed in the layers of clothes we wore for wrestling practice he began to feel the burning sensation on his testicles. Most of the team was aware of the prank and we pretended to busy ourselves waiting for the unpleasant effect to kick in. We howled when he went running to the showers. A flood of other incidents rushed to mind and it struck me he was the target of many pranks that today would unmistakably be called bullying. While I never actively participated in any of the pranks, I witnessed many of them, laughed heartily and made no attempt to intervene. Forty years after the fact, I realized I was indirectly guilty of being a bully.

"I'll be right back," I said to Dan.

"Peanut" was sitting alone at a table eating his meal. He never looked at me or stopped eating as I began to explain how sorry I was for witnessing the bullying he endured and doing nothing to stop it. When I finished, he offered me his hand and despite not looking directly at me, I could see the hurt in his eyes. My apology didn't begin to make up for the suffering he endured or the forty years it took someone, anyone to acknowledge and apologize for it. I walked away feeling very ashamed of myself and equally somber recognizing that by my failure to stand up, I was a contributor to his being bullied. I was ready to leave the reunion.

Making the rounds to say my goodbyes I became aware of another fellow who appeared to be waiting for me. Although we had a number of mutual friends in school,  he and I didn't know each other well. He was an outstanding musician and performed with a folk group that I followed regularly so we were familiar with each other but never really spoke. I thought of him as a gentle, quiet and deep, thoughtful person. Unfortunately, those weren't the characteristics that I was always draw to in high school. Prior to the reunion, we friended each other on Facebook and I've come to enjoy his frequent, interesting posts but we haven't communicated directly.

He approached me as I headed to my car in the parking lot and asked if he could walk with me. He began telling me about an evening he was walking home from school and got accosted by a group of guys who were threatening him and who he was certain intended to hurt him. He didn't tell me why they wanted to hurt him but I could hear the fear in his voice and see the hurt in his eyes more than forty years later. "I don't know where you came from but  suddenly you were standing up to these guys, they backed down and never bothered me again. I've always appreciated what you did and I've retold that story every year since, including to the freshmen I meet each year." (He's in higher education at a major university.) As he spoke, I had absolutely no recollection of the encounter.

The contrast of emotions from facing my own failings only minutes earlier and then been informed of my actions to protect someone from bullying and possible physical harm was perplexing and a little overwhelming. I shared with him the general details of my recently extended apology and we agreed we'd both continue to tell the combined stories going forward. For me, the sequence and timing couldn't have been more powerful - from shame to redemption in under ten minutes. It took over forty years for my past to catch up with me in a ten minute flurry. It reminded me each of us has both good and bad in us. Which of those will prevail is as simple as each individual act we choose.