On Adolescent Cruelty

By Jeffrey Page

Dear Oliver S. and Stanley A.,

I read the story in The Times about Massachusetts authorities charging nine high school students in the death of a young girl who committed suicide rather than face more of their taunts, bullying and physical attacks. And I thought of you. And I thought of me.

Looking back to the late Fifties, I’m tempted to say that Forest Hills High School was a building full of 4,000 snobs or would-be snobs – young people living up to the sweet cachet of the words “Forest Hills” with its wealth and status. But this wouldn’t be fair. The fact is that there were some really decent kids at that school. You (whose identities I have fudged) were two of them. I wish I’d been one of them.

“Forest Hills” conjured coolness, prestige and privilege, and I – the son of working-class parents – should have known better than to strive to be part of it. Not that it ultimately mattered. I was never accepted by the student elite, those people who basically ran the social life of the school. They set the standards and if they thought your crew cut was goofy or if they saw you in the corridor with one side of your Ivy League button-down collar forgetfully unbuttoned they’d let you and everybody nearby know about it.

I remember the school as a place where a lot of kids wished they could be somewhere higher in the pecking order of adolescence, which was – and probably still is – the pecking order of misery.

Was the staff at Forest Hills aware of the pain and misery the cool kids inflicted on you? I don’t know. But at South Hadley High School, the district attorney says, teachers and administrators knew full well about the physical attacks and verbal abuse being heaped on Phoebe Prince, 15, and did nothing to stop it. Phoebe Prince is the girl who hanged herself in January. The charges against some of the students include statutory rape, and I’m forced to wonder if a staff member’s silence makes him guilty of being an accessory to a felony.

The aristocrats at Forest Hills High School were the student government types, cheerleaders and athletes. They wore great clothes. They got great grades. To believe them, not one of them was still a virgin. Teachers loved them. The principal loved them.

I thought I could edge my way up, but of course could not.

And there were people like you, Oliver and Stanley. You didn’t fit into “Forest Hills.” Your scrawniness was an object of derision in the locker room. Oliver, you were the one who made a noise like a shriek when someone not-quite-playfully punched you in the arm while smirking and asking what you were doing on Friday night, when the cool people would hang out on Continental Avenue. Stanley, you were the one who giggled excitedly, loudly and almost uncontrollably when you won an argument in class or in the hallway.

The two of you could outthink any comer in that damned school. But you weren’t cool and so you were dismissed as weird.

But you were such decent guys. And if I had been a little more decent myself, I wouldn’t have stood there, mute, while the cool kids imitated the way you walked, mocked the way you talked, laughed at the way you dressed, and sneered at your very existence.

I could have said something. I could have stepped in. I could have been your friend. I could have told those assholes to lay off. I could have suggested that we go bowling, see a movie, or just go for a Coke on Continental Avenue.

But I – with my lousy grades, my proletarian background, my acne, my virginity – was a coward who had other business. That was to be accepted by people who despised me as much as they loathed you. But I said nothing in your behalf, for which I’m ashamed.

I just went along, playing the inelegant schlub to the elite, available for errand running. Such as the time a young blond knockout (very cool) said, “If you see Larry, tell him to call me,” which I did, and which assured my continued role as drone and the complete insanity of my even thinking about asking her to go out to a movie.

I haven’t seen you two guys since graduation, but have thought of you many times over five decades. I hope you are alive and well. I hope your lives have been happy and productive. I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you how I wish I had had the courage to be a better friend when they made your lives miserable with their taunts, and when I made your lives miserable with my unforgivable silence.

I am so sorry.

Jeffrey can be reached at jeffrey@zestoforange.com


One Response to “On Adolescent Cruelty”

  1. LeeAgain Says:

    I think about May. Not the month; the girl. That’s not her real name, either. May, who was a freshman in college with me. May, who was sweet and innocent. May, who was legally blind.
    When you looked at May without her glasses, the shocking truth was that her eyes sometimes appeared to have no pupils. She saw only shadows and she had to hire other students to read her the assigned chapters in textbooks. I was one of the hired readers, but also a friend.
    One day we wandered down to P &G’s tavern for a cool beer. Some guys came over to hit on us. They were crude and rude upperclassmen, but we were beginning frosh. What did we know?
    After something that might have been construed as an introduction, one guy blurted out, “Hey, you, April or February, or whatever month your name is, you’re inside now. Why don’t you take off the sunglasses?”
    May hesitated a moment, then replied quietly, “You wouldn’t like what you saw.”
    I wish I’d stood up and slapped the guy. I wish I’d thrown my full glass of lousy Budweiser in his face. Instead I changed the subject and bantered with them a few minutes. They soon wandered off in search for the more scantily clad.
    Later on over the course of that first year my other “friends” began to ask why I hung out with such losers as May. Eventually the two of us drifted apart. Now, 44 years later, I often think of May, but almost never of the other “friends.” Sometime in the intervening years my mind came to grips with who the real losers were.

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