Since my kids were very young, we’ve begun each day with the intention to be great (BGR8TM). We remind each other how to be our best selves and to lead our best lives, ones that allow us and those around us to shine bright. At the top of our list is “Do the right thing.”
We’re all born with an innate sense of right and wrong. It can be a whisper or an alarm bell, but this inner voice always points us in the right direction. But, knowing the right thing doesn’t always lead to doing the right thing – the latter takes strength, courage, and sometimes, as I learned the hard way, the searing memory of doing wrong.
When I was 12, I started seventh grade at a new school. Being the new kid is never easy, but middle school is particularly brutal. Most of the kids in my class had known each other since kindergarten, and the established cliques seemed to have a “one in, one out” policy. It didn’t help that I came from a small, progressive school, sheltered from the rigid social hierarchy and inviolable norms of suburban public school.
Outsider though I was, the middle school gods had blessed me with two gifts. First, I lived on a prime bus route. If the Law of the Jungle ruled my school, then the school bus was the watering hole. All the social species gathered here: the nerds, the jocks, the goth kids, the loners, and the highest echelon of middle school society, the popular girls. My bus route happened to have an inordinate concentration of “A-listers,” increasing my odds of favorable social standing by proximity alone.
Second, I had been taken in by some of the lower-ranking popular girls on the bus, including a sweet seventh-grader named “Sarah”. Somehow I had managed to make them laugh, and they became my entrée to the rarefied rows in the back of the bus.
Seizing upon this social foothold, I assumed the role of the class clown. No comment or antic was too disruptive if it was in service of a laugh. I soon learned comedy’s dark truth: a comedian is only as funny as his next joke. For a time, I kept the momentum going with a series of inappropriate t-shirts – mostly fart jokes and sexual innuendos that went over my head – supplied by the local Spencer Gifts. When that well dried up, I shaved my hair into a Mr. T. mohawk for a few more days of hilarity. Until this point, I hadn’t made any jokes or cheap passes at someone else’s expense. In my hunt for the next big laugh, however, this would change.
Like most exclusive societies, the back of the bus generated a constant stream of gossip and inside jokes. One week, the latest victim happened to be Sarah. What had probably originated as a catty observation about her barely perceptible peach fuzz by her so-called friends had metastasized into a full-blown mockery of her purported moustache. As soon as I caught wind of the joke, I saw only a dazzling and irresistible opportunity. That Sarah had always been kind to me and that she did not, in fact, have a moustache were irrelevant to my ambitions.
That Friday morning, I marched down the bus aisle, giddy with anticipation. “Hey, Sarah,” I said, loudly enough to attract the attention of the back half of the bus. “I have a present for you.”
As the curious crowd looked on, I revealed the contents of my clenched fist. The sweet, expectant smile on Sarah’s face crumpled as she registered the so-called gift: a pink disposable razor.
The joke landed perfectly. The bus erupted into raucous laughter. High-fives came at me from all directions. Hands clapped my back. For rest of the ride to school, my “friends” carried on about the cleverness of my joke and the balls I must have had to pull it off.
The reaction was exactly what I had wanted. But, the outpouring of praise and adulation I had desired so fervently meant nothing as I caught sight of Sarah, sinking deep into her seat with her head turned toward the window, desperately trying to ignore the embarrassment. I instantly felt sick to my stomach at the realization of what I had done…and the kind of person I was.
The moment came and went. Because of the weekend, the joke had an even shorter shelf life than usual, and by Monday, the crowd had found a new target. My epic joke didn’t boost my social standing, and it certainly didn’t win me any real friends. At most, it perpetuated my reputation as Jeremy the jokester. In the end, the joke wasn’t even slightly worth the damage it caused.
As for Sarah, our relationship was never the same. I still saw her on the bus, and we might have even had a class together over the next year or two. To her great credit, she was always civil to me, though she had every right to hate me. But our friendship was over. Even as time passed, I still felt the sting of guilt when I saw her or recalled what I had done.
Decades later, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across a familiar face. Sarah’s profile showed a grown woman with her own life and her own family. I hadn’t thought about her in years, but I instantly felt flooded with the shame I felt as an adolescent boy, deepened with an adult awareness of how careless jokes can leave lifetime scars.
I thought about why I did it. The knee-jerk answer is that it was just a dumb joke. A miscalculation of the humor/harm trade-off by a kid desperate to fit in, even at another’s expense. But, the shameful reality is that I knew it was wrong when I did it. I knew it was wrong the night before when I stole the razor from my mom’s bathroom, I knew it was wrong as I made my way down that bus aisle, and I knew it was wrong even as I called out her name. I knew it was wrong every step of the way, and I still did it. The memory of doing something I knew was wrong at the time still burns today.
I sent Sarah a note through Facebook Messenger, apologizing for my actions and acknowledging how hurtful they must have been. She didn’t respond, and I don’t know if she even saw it. To this day, the message still reads Delivered.
A year later, Sarah died. She was only 39. My heart aches at the thought that I caused even a moment of pain in her tragically short life.
I’ll never truly know the impact that day had on Sarah’s life, but I feel acutely its impact on mine. The guilt of hurting someone else and the shame of doing it intentionally are burned into my psyche, demarcating the boundaries of acceptable behavior I have attempted to stay well clear of ever since. While I am grateful for the lesson, I am sorry it came at the expense of a young girl who did nothing wrong.
There are some mistakes we cannot undo and some harms we cannot repair. We must simply hold them as part of us. We can only hope that they serve not only reminders of our failings, but as guideposts on our ongoing journey to do the right thing.
King Jeremy the wicked
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