• What Do You Do With the Past?

    May 18, 2023 // 5 Comments »

    That’s me in back row of the photo of the old junior high school football team, with the dorky glasses. In an age of apologies and reparations it begs an answer: what do you do about the past?

    It starts easy. The adult close to me is Mr. Hammer, the wood shop teacher. Yes, Mr. Hammer. His giggly name somehow still remains amusing to me, some 50 years later. He was a good teacher and coach, fair, even tempered, thought all the stuff we were doing mattered but not too much. I just learned from Google he was a Korean War vet (he never mentioned it) and passed away a few years ago after 24 years of teaching. I have no idea who the other coach is.

    My obsession isn’t with the names anyway, it is with what happened to these people and our past. We have not kept in touch, and the last time I spoke with any of them would have been in 1978 when most of us graduated from high school. How many “did well” with life? How many are dead, or in jail, or homeless, or alcoholic? Any of them do something good for the world, maybe as a doctor or teacher? Do any of them ever wonder what happened to me?

    Two boys in the front row were star players. They literally had star decals on their helmets so everyone knew, this being in an age before participation trophies. Google says one of them still lives in town but offers no clues as to what happened to him along the way, nothing on the other one. There’s another boy in the photo near the back I learned from Facebook is gay. I didn’t know him well in junior high school, but I wonder now how many of the other boys were gay. No one “came out” back then. We as a team would today be considered completely homophobic based on the language we used. Anyone who made a bad play or fumbled the ball or was even late to the huddle was a f*ggot. If you’re anywhere nearby our age group you also said that word. Everybody did.

    But despite the language I am not sure we were homophobic, as we had as little idea what being gay was all about as we had then about heterosexual stuff, absent self-entertainment which likely worked the same way for everyone. This is probably the biggest change the internet brought to society. Kids stop being naive at age two now. I’m as certain the gay kid was hurt by what we all said as I am certain that he said those same words along with us. In 7th grade anything that made you stand out made you someone’s target.

    After junior high, trying out for football at my high school meant being bullied by the varsity. If you were lucky they only stole your lunch and made you embarrass yourself singing to the group. Sometimes they took away our water on hot days (water during practice was rationed in this era, to toughen us up.) For others, it was caustic muscle creams smeared in your jock before practice. It went on after the coaches would mysteriously disappear during certain breaks. Adult teachers with clear responsibility to stop it, but who did nothing but encourage it, calling it initiation. I have no idea, some 50 years later, why I voluntarily participated in all this. I believe I was temporarily insane.

    Very few guys quit the team, most just endured, some sought empty relief bullying others. I was in that last group, mercilessly teasing a poor kid weaker than me. I was cruel in a way I wish I hated then the way I hate it now. He was an easy target who I thought years ago was a way for me to feel better. I couldn’t beat up the varsity football team who humiliated me, so that kid was their surrogate. Nothing I have done before or after makes me more ashamed.

    He’s in that picture, the kid who became the target of my bullying. It’s easier to write this if he has a name, so Ron, though of course that is not his real name which I do remember and cannot forget. We got along OK in junior high, friendly if not friends. But the high school football we went on to was struggle, not fun. The upperclassmen players bullied the younger kids like me endlessly, brutally at times.

    I have not been again on that playing field in more than four decades yet I can point now to the exact spot on Google Maps where it all happened. The worst initiation the older kids had was making us fight each other. This usually took the form of whacking each other with tackling dummies, heavy canvas bags. If the big kids did not think we were fighting enthusiastically enough they would step in and continue the assault themselves. It was worse when the bags were wet.

    One pointlessly humid Ohio day I was told to stand up and choose my opponent. Usually you picked a buddy with the unspoken understanding the two of you would take it easy on each other. I chose instead to fight Ron. Ron had stopped growing sooner than most of us, Ron had a good heart but wasn’t much of a fighter, Ron thought I was enough of his friend to take it easy. But I did not. Something broke inside me like a summer thunderstorm. When Ron went down I kept hitting him, right in the face with the bag, with the blood from his nose splattering to the point where even the upper class animals running the initiation stopped me. I was never made to fight again. Ron quit the team.

    I didn’t stop. I said, with great encouragement from teammates, terrible things to Ron everyday at lunch. I made his life dark. He must have felt his stomach twist in horrible anticipation every day heading into the cafeteria. He tried to make peace with me despite I am sure not having a clue as to why I had become his predator but I refused to back down. The semester ended in exhaustion and I never played a team sport or trusted an authority figure again, my apolitical red pill moment. Ron sat somewhere else for lunch after Christmas break. I’ve had no contact with him since until I found him in that photo last night.

    Google found him, too, I think. It looks like he’s a lawyer, made partner in his firm. He’s married. Seems to like to fish. The firm’s website lists a phone number that even now stares at me.

    What do you do with the past? Do I call him, apologize, offer some sort of reparation, donate money to some anti-bullying group? Would he want that, would he accept that? Does he remember me, or was I just another forgettable part of high school that got discarded when he went on to his good college and his good law school? Does he live with what he can’t get past? Facebook says he has sons.

    He must remember me, the efforts I made to hurt him had to have left some mark. What would he say to an apology? Would he, falsely but graciously accept whatever I said and get off the phone to tell his wife “Honey, you’ll never guess the odd call I had today…” over dinner? Would he listen to me a moment and then uncork decades of anger and resentment, telling me how I hurt him not only that day but forever, that these things don’t go away? Am I one of his ghosts as he is one of mine?

    I talked to a psychiatrist friend, who explained the concept of amends used by Alcoholics Anonymous. Making amends is one of the last steps toward recovery, and is premised as “we may stop causing any more harm but that is not the same as repairing the damage we have already caused. We feel a man is unthinking when he says sobriety is enough.” I may have become a better man than I was on that damn football team, but I have done nothing to repair the damage I did.

    You start amends by asking permission of the person you harmed. You acknowledge this is to help yourself, that you alone bear responsibility. My excuse – I bullied because I was bullied – is too easy for this task. Some things are always wrong and I should have known that, whether my society or my coaches said it was OK. It is as weak as my tormentors claiming the initiations were all part of toughening us up for the football season, and about building comradery as they too had once been humiliated as freshmen.

    Amends demands I not elicit sympathy or make any excuses. I should ask for forgiveness, but not say I am sorry, no remorseful mumbling. If Ron is unable to forgive me, it is my burden. Some debts like that take a long, long time to repay, maybe until forever. You can’t rewrite the past.

    The point of amends is asking my victim to help me. It is not about disguising my guilt as an apology. That is what separates amends from something like reparations, where it is the victim who benefits, often monetarily. There may be a place for that, but that place is not part of this old picture and the question about what do you do with the past that it screams at me.

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