27: Found

27: Found

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

Found

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

~James D. Miles

I’ve spent the last seven years teaching seventh grade. Just between the ages of twelve and thirteen, my students crash land into the most wonderfully awful age — not kids anymore but not teenagers either. They’re constantly tested by one puzzling question on a repeating loop: “Who are we?” No one exemplifies this more than a student I had four years ago....

“Class, please welcome David. He’s new to our school.” The class silently scanned him, trying to decide if he was worth more of their attention.

Paralyzed by fear, David looked down at his shoes, letting his straight brown hair fall in front of one eye. In an attempt to calm his nerves, he reached into his jeans pocket and clenched two smooth pebbles he had found outside on the blacktop that morning.

The one benefit to being the new kid is no matter where you come from, no matter what your past, you get a chance to start over — a clean slate.

“Mrs. Solej, he can sit over here,” Dante said firmly. Dante and his buddies had made a claim on him already. All the girls whispered and straightened up in their seats as they looked in their direction. These boys, wearing their basketball championship jackets, were among the most admired. Dante had just handed David a winning lottery ticket and the prize: instant popularity.

As each forty-two-minute period went by, David had gotten more confident that life here was going to be different. No one here knew what he had gone through at his last school, but at the same time, he didn’t fully realize what he was getting himself into here.

“Dave, meet us after practice,” Dante called out when the bell rang. And he did. An hour and fifteen minutes later the boys were shooting hoops in the driveway of one of the players. “Did you see that scrawny kid on the bench?” Dante asked David. “That’s Tim. He’s such a freak. He didn’t make the team, but he still comes to all the practices and just sits there. It’s pathetic.”

“And he tries to talk to us as if he knows us,” added one of the others. “We laugh in his face and he just doesn’t get it. He keeps coming back around.” David missed the basket but kept moving. He said nothing.

“Yeah, someone needs to put him in his place.” They all laughed.

The next couple of weeks were eye-opening for David. Being suddenly popular definitely had its advantages. He had the attention of girls, and friends to hang out with after school, which made him overlook how mean some of his new friends could be. As they walked down the hall, the guys on the basketball team would knock the books right out of some poor kid’s hands, start humiliating rumors, threaten the smart kids to let them cheat, and draw disgusting pictures of the teachers. David didn’t know how long he could get away with just following along instead of participating in the mean actions.

At 8:15, just before the morning bell rang, Dante caught David’s arm and whispered, “Follow me.” He led him down the cold cement steps to the boys’ locker room. The whole team was there standing in a circle. David stood on his toes in back of the crowd to see what was going on. He saw Tim on the ground crying. “You fool, get up!” one of them taunted. He didn’t move.

Someone from the back shouted, “Go!” and the next horrifying moments were a blur. The new corduroy pants and striped shirt that Tim’s mom bought for him were being stuffed in the toilet, his books and the contents of his lunch bag were flying through the air, the guys ran around turning all the showers on full blast, and Dante showed up with a large mesh gym bag used to hold the sports equipment.

“Get him in there!” Dante commanded, and the others followed. They knotted the strings at the top of the mesh bag with Tim trapped inside and tossed him in the shower stall. Shivering beneath the forceful stream of ice-cold water, Tim lowered his head and hugged his knees.

As the boys laughed, David looked around for help. They had gone too far this time. He noticed a button on the wall that the teachers use to contact the office. He wondered if he should push it.

David hesitated and thought to himself, I don’t want to go back… to how it used to be. Made fun of. Lonely. Tortured. Not good enough… Suddenly David’s mind reeled, and he was back at his old school. He recalled the day his mom had to pick him up at the office after the incident....

Shaking his head back into focus in the locker room, David slowly raised his hand toward the button, fully conscious of all that he was about to lose if anyone saw him, but it was something he had to do. “Yes, may I help you?” the secretary’s voice echoed through the intercom into the damp underground chamber.

In a sea of chaos, the other boys bolted in every direction to avoid capture. All except Dante. He stood there, glaring at David and then at the button, rage shooting from his eyes. “You’re not the kid I thought you were. You’re going to regret this,” Dante threatened as he ran off, too.

David turned his back to Tim, knowing there was nothing more he could do. He turned his back, realizing that he had just lost everything. He turned his back, letting Tim have one moment without anyone staring at him.

Tim rubbed his hands together, raw and blistered from unknotting the mesh that had imprisoned him. He moved in slow motion as his skinny bare legs carried him across the cold cement floor. His head hung low as he noticed yet one more offense: they had gone so far as to use the toilet after his clothes had been cruelly stuffed into it.

Knowing the room would be filled with adults in a matter of minutes, Tim reached down, retrieving his soaked shirt. His beige corduroy pants were as heavy as his heart. As he slipped each leg in, he held his breath, trying to ignore the stench of ammonia. His drenched sleeves clung tight to his clammy skin. He just stood there with arms and legs slightly apart trying not to feel, barefoot, dripping with humiliation. David, his back still turned, whispered something inaudible.

The next day, David walked through the halls hearing chatter of the incident and how sixteen of the most popular boys got suspended, but no one spoke to him directly. Some kids were scared of him; others were disgusted. It was like a giant black cloud had followed him around from that moment on. It was hard to believe that with 108 kids in his class, he was so alone... again.

I often wonder about David and others like him who were made to feel like they were nothing. But in my experience, it is those kids who grow up to be responsible, successful, happy, kind adults. It is my hope that sooner rather than later, they awake to realize what they thought was white is black, and black is now white — that what’s popular isn’t always right, that doing what is right is sometimes difficult and doesn’t always bring immediate reward, and that loneliness doesn’t have to last forever.

~Erin Solej

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