Don’t kick another man’s dog.
We were in sixth grade, and most of us grew up with Jerry. From preschool, where we rolled pillbugs around in Miss Merna’s carport, to middle school math class, where we rolled numbers around in our heads, he was there in the background. While none of us had ever kicked Jerry or in any other way assaulted him, we certainly talked about him behind his back. My friends and I never laughed at him where he could hear us. We were jerks, but only in private.
Still, in a way he was one of us, and we couldn’t stand by while someone beat him up.
Jerry had it hard from the start. He was a skinny kid, with sharp elbows that flailed in fits of uncoordinated grandeur, and knees that never quite stayed in the center of his gait. Thick black plastic framed his large glasses. His voice, a whiny screech, pierced the eardrum with maddening precision.
Jerry prided himself on giving the right answer in class. His skeleton arm shot into the air as he screeched, “I know.” It was at moments like this that I cringed most, because somewhere deep inside, I hated that he often knew things I didn’t. This led me to a more frightening realization.
Deeper down, I knew I was just like him.
Somehow, though, I had evolved just enough socially to avoid being Jerry. We had not broken into cliques yet, but he was markedly different, and it just couldn’t be ignored. If anyone from my past denies anything, they certainly cannot refute this point — had someone from another school asked who our class nerd was, all fingers would have pointed to Jerry.
Also hurting Jerry’s chances socially were his parents’ positions in life. I don’t mean their rung on the ladder of wealth. I’m talking about where they showed up for work each day. His father was the high school principal, and his mother was a science and math teacher. We were not in high school yet, but in a town where all the grades attended school on the same campus, his reputation filtered down. Legend had it that Jerry’s dad once hid in a tree to catch a couple of habitual truants driving off campus. Jerry had no chance right from the start.
I don’t remember anybody in our town ever physically bullying Jerry. I think one has to have at least some standing socially to be the brunt of a bully’s violent advances. It seems odd to me now that I don’t recall any bullies in our class. They seemed numerous in the grade above us, but Jerry flew below their radar.
At that time in our town, even some kids who later became jocks and cheerleaders loved band. In fact, band was a point of pride throughout much of the town, perhaps owing partly to our football team’s habit of going 1-9 for the season. The high school band had 100-plus members and placed very well at state marching competitions. For a high school with only about 450 students in grades 9-12, that’s big. Sizeable home crowds at football games thinned out noticeably following the halftime show.
This pride in band trickled down to the Beginning and Junior High Bands. Like the rest of my friends and I, Jerry was in band. He played the trombone, his crazy right elbow jutting in and out with the slide’s movements.
The summer following sixth grade, many of us went to Band Camp, including several jocks. We lived in an area where outdoor activities could be found in abundance. Traditional summer camp, which my skewed imagination sees as a bunch of city kids learning to canoe and breathe air without chunks in it, would have been a bit redundant. Our parents had to send us somewhere for a break, so Band Camp it was. That’s not my defense, because I loved every minute of it, but I suspect some of my classmates went reluctantly.
Whatever our reasons for being there, we quickly realized that other schools obviously held band in a different esteem than ours.
Many of the kids started the week walking with their faces pointed at the sidewalk, and had greasy hair. Despite this, they made friends. They still sported greasy hair, but they were social while doing it.
Even amidst this glut of geekery, Jerry stood out as a nerd among nerds.
We all stayed in the college’s dorms freed up by freshmen who had gone home for the summer. Because he was from our town, Jerry roomed near us and hung out with us. That didn’t prove too fruitful for him. One of our guys put valve oil, a clear petroleum-based lubricant meant for trumpets and such, on Jerry’s toothbrush and in his tube of toothpaste.
“He’s in the bathroom right now. I can’t wait to see his reaction,” bragged the culprit, Sean.
A few of the boys laughed.
The hull of our social ship splintered.
I couldn’t let this happen. I did not confront the boy who did it; I was not that highly evolved yet. Instead, I walked quickly and discreetly to the community bathroom down the hall.
“Jerry, don’t use your toothbrush or your toothpaste,” I said.
“Sean put valve oil on it.”
“He thought it would be funny,” I said.
We stood silently for a moment. Jerry held his toothbrush aloft and sniffed it. His face screwed up in disgust.
A few minutes after I returned to my room, Jerry stepped into our open doorway.
“Well, I came up with a way to brush my teeth,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked, secretly wanting as little interaction in front of my roommate as necessary. I could see a division forming in our group, and I wasn’t sure of his allegiance.
Jerry thrust his hand into the air, pointed wildly, and said, “The mighty finger!”
If I were writing a work of fiction, I might say that I walked over and squeezed a dallop of my toothpaste onto Jerry’s outstretched finger. I didn’t, but I can appreciate that it would have been a very touching and potentially life-changing gesture.
Instead, we all laughed and shortly after laid our heads down to sleep. I was relieved at the escape that awaited me. My boy brain was feeling the tug of adult problems, and didn’t like it.
For the rest of the week, I spent little time thinking of Jerry. My attention was on the opposite sex.
Ours was a small town comprised largely of retirees, so there were few girls there, and most had known me since my nose-picking days. No matter how far in the past it might have been, it’s very hard for a girl to shake the image of a grubby little boy with a finger in his nostril. So, among other things, Band Camp provided a wealth of girls who had never seen me at my worst.
For Jerry, unfortunately, it didn’t matter. He was left on the sidelines as our hormones guided us through Band Camp in a blind, girl-drunk stupor.
Near the end of the week, we all hung around waiting for our results. We had auditioned for a spot in one of the bands. Everybody got to play, but not everybody made the top band. Then, there was the order in which the players of each instrument sat. Despite its often nerdy portrayal, band was very competitive.
Jerry stood next to a table, occasionally chatting with other kids waiting anxiously to see whether they had flubbed their tryout as badly as they feared. A bunch of guys we had met earlier crowded near a table where Jerry stood alone. We had spent a lot of time around those guys, and they had made a few verbal jabs at Jerry and his nerdiness. Unlike us, they said mean things to his face.
As a few of us turned to walk toward Jerry, one of the new guys launched himself into the air and spear-tackled him. Jerry fell back onto the table, which collapsed as its folding legs on one end buckled. His glasses landed hard on the floor.
“Hey, what’s going on?” one of our future jocks yelled to our new friends. Already he stood at least a head above the rest of us, so we gladly let him run point as we rushed to help.
I grabbed Jerry’s glasses while another boy helped him scramble to his feet.
These boys were larger and stronger than we were. I had been in only one fight in my life, if that’s the name you want to put on a fourth grader’s being pinned down and repeatedly punched in the face after making fun of the Minnesota Vikings (hey, they lost the “big game” a LOT back in the 70’s). Without the element of surprise that Franklin Spivey so eloquently used on me back then, these guys backed down and walked to the sunlit double-doors at the end of the vinyl-tiled hallway. I saw their silhouettes as hulking harbingers of doom narrowly avoided.
Jerry composed himself quickly as he put on his glasses and his oblivious grin. “Well, guys, how did you do on the tryouts?” His best efforts could not hide his humiliation.
We made sure he was okay before we left.
I did not feel noble for our apparent act of heroism. From that point on, I saw Jerry differently. I would like to say that I never made fun of him again, but I probably did. That week, as he so desperately tried to hold up his head, he showed us patience we did not deserve.