Ecclesiastes, 12, 1

A letter arrived inviting me to join a panel of former students addressing a bunch of peers from my old school. Panelists were to discuss a number of questions which all boiled down to If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?

The questions made me think about my schooldays. I loved school. I felt happy. I thought the brutality of our teachers was somehow just the way of things, neither wrong nor right, simply conduct that lay beyond judgement. I didn’t like it – in fact when I witnessed it I’d whinny with the ugly mirth of the unpunished; when I received it I felt I might vomit. But then I didn’t like winter either. Winter and corporal punishment were both unpleasant and both lay beyond lawmaking.

As I reviewed our jungle behaviour my older self felt sad and ashamed. I wished we had been kinder. An instinct revealed to us whoever was the most vulnerable. Arriving as a new boy in mid-term I was conspicuously vulnerable and the hounds duly bayed and pursued me. Being new was a temporary condition; others suffered perpetually. In my turn I identified one or two of these and I teased them with relish.

In time I saw how that fat child, this gay person, that person whose father belted her every day, attracted the crows, and I declined to join in the pecking. In time two of these three were to die by their own hand; the third tried and failed.

I wasn’t fat, or gay. My father didn’t beat me. My schooldays were happy. Inspiring teachers inspired me; loving mentors nurtured me. I suppose I blossomed.

Half a century and more have passed since I lived in that arena of mind-nurture and bloodsport. My eyes, clouded now with cataract, my knees grating, my hearing dimmed, my balance wonky, my farting – ever a reckless delight – now hazardous, what advice would I offer today’s schoolchild? Should I say Rejoice in the days of your youth before the evil days come when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”?

I watch those tender green shoots anxiously as they don school garb and they venture into their jungles. I hold my breath and hope. Will she make her way? Will she find a friend? What wise words might I proffer?

Instead of speaking words I hope I might hold my peace and let her be, and let her become.

Bullying in Fifth Grade

Fifth grade is a long way behind us. The party is full of old faces. The boy I bullied back then walks towards me, his gait uneven, his face smiling. “Good to see you, Howard.”
Good to see me? Really?
“Hello Isaiah, great to see you. Hurt your leg?”
“Car accident, shortly after I got my Driver’s Licence. I was driving on the Hume. I hit a tree, hurt my head. I didn’t know I’d fractured my leg, not until three weeks later, when I came out of the coma.”
Three weeks in a coma! A shock.
“Will your leg heal?”
“They told me at the hospital I’d know after a year how good the leg would be. It’s been eighteen months…”
Isaiah leads me to a table where he takes the weight off his damaged leg.
“A single car accident. You’d know from medical school that a single car accident is usually a sub-suicide.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well it’s true. And I have no doubt that’s what mine was.”
I want to ask: what drove you to it? But the accidental pun will add hurt; and I am pretty sure I know the answer.

***

In grade five in our rural school, Isaiah is a philosopher and I am a social climber. Already taller than most of us by half a head, his hair a thicket of lustrous black, his manner professorial and his elocution like that of a news reader on the ABC, Isaiah is different. He wears glasses with wide black rims. He is an intellectual who is no good at sport; he’s neither rich nor fashionable nor popular. His voice is deeper than ours by a couple of octaves, a voice racing into puberty, but he is hopeless with girls.

It is fun to tease Isaiah for his mannerisms. We all do it from time to time and it raises a laugh. My social rise is based on performance, on raising a laugh. So I persecute Isaiah systematically. I organize a squadron of followers, to stalk Isaiah at recesses and at lunchtimes, and to chant my witticisms at his expense in a loud and public manner.

After one such lunchtime of bloodsport, Isaiah rises in his seat and addresses our teacher: Miss Redfern, allow me to introduce to you the Anti-Isaiah Army, organized and led by Howard Goldenberg.
Isaiah describes the marching and the stalking and the chanting, how the army surprises him in every nook and corner where he tries to hide. He lists the names of my volunteers and conscripts, he details the misery and humiliation, the desperation of his plight. Hearing this testimony the army deserts. Its generalissimo shrinks in shame, looks down, away from that tall figure, that crop of hair, that deep, true voice.

***

Isaiah’s speech marks the end of his persecution. He befriends me, confides in me. In his forgiving he heaps coals of fire upon my head. Neither he nor I speak again of the Army. School year follows year, Isaiah matriculates in unsung distinction and disappears. Three years on, he limps into my life at the party. He is glad to see me again. Really. He speaks and acts towards me as if his forgiving has been superseded by forgetting. As if his brain were injured.

***

The next time we meet we are in our sixties. Once again Isaiah is glad to see me, and I – glad in his gladness – feel relieved and warmed. And a strong need to be absolved. I tell him how sorry I am for my behaviour towards him in Fifth Grade. He searches my face for a joke. Or irony. Or mistaken identity.
Isaiah looks genuinely lost.
I explain, describing events that remain all too clear in my memory. Isaiah shakes his head, still crowned with its thicket: Howard I honestly don’t remember any of this. I do recall your friendship. I was grateful for it. Somewhere at some time over our lost decades someone has mentioned to me how Isaiah was one who suffered violence, real physical abuse, through his childhood years. Enough abuse, it seems, to obliterate the pain of small injuries perpetrated by Howard Goldenberg and his militia.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 4 April, 2013