I was never bully material. I was the youngest in my family so I never had any one to practice bullying on. Plus, I always carried around a lot of guilt so it was hard for me to be cruel to someone for my own personal satisfaction. Like so many stupid things I have said, I have kept a vivid memory of my hurtful words and actions and have been tormented with a fantasy that someday I could actually apologize to those who I intentionally hurt.
Yet, as twelve year old, there was one summer when I got to pick on someone weaker than me and feel somewhat superior. In a rare event of family unity, it was decided that my two nephews and I would get to go to Junior Life Guard Camp at Folsom Lake. We did daily runs, long swims, learned how to sail and perform CPR over a 4 week period. Some how a car pool was organized in the neighborhood, so my nephews and I got to take a long hot ride out to the lake with other kids we did not know.
One of kids was Chris. Just the name screamed geek, nerd, dufus, weekling. Chris’ body did not disappoint in living up to the imagery. He was tall and skinny with egg shell white skin and large brown freckles. In retrospect, we could have been brothers by our similar appearance, but that irony did not occur to me at the time.
The movie Jaws had just come out the year before so we had a great time either swimming or running away from Chris as we feigned panic that the ‘great white geek’ was going to get us. We only included Chris in any conversation as a means to torment him and to give us a cheap laugh. Chris was an easy target, yet he never got mean or cried. It was like he was used to other kids bullying him, just like I was used to kids making fun of me. With the last name of Knauss, I got a lot of nose, nostril, snot type jokes. I really knew how Chris felt because I had to have been the clumsiest kid in my class.
The ultimate humiliation to Chris came after a particularly long swim. We had all gotten back up to the top of the beach sitting underneath the big oak trees. Even though it must have been 100 degrees outside you still felt the need to dry off with your towel. Since Chris was usually last out of the water, we all started using his towel so ours would not be wet for the ride back to town. As Chris asked for the towel back, some one got the big idea to blow their nose into the towel. We all took turns blowing our noses and then stuffed it into the nearest garbage can, laughing all the way back to the shade.
Chris never said a word. He just got his towel out of the garbage can and went and sat down. It was at that moment that I felt the initial pang of guilt. No one ever said anything about our stupid behavior, no one yelled at us or told us to stop. We never had to apologize for anything we did to Chris.
Of course, no one ever apologized to me for throwing 3 eggs into my locker when I was in 7th grade. I am sure I did or said something to deserve it but I was clueless and totally humiliated. While I can dismiss the bullying that was done to me and carry no ill will towards others, I have carried the burden of guilt around of what I have done to others. I am not sure what triggers the pains of remorse, perhaps it was because I now had a son and I needed to do better. Somehow I needed to make amends for my past sins so that my son would have a ‘good’ father without a lot of secrets in the past. Or maybe it is just my personality to want to make restitution.
Regardless of the cause, I still have ‘like yesterday’ memories that I wish I could atone for. When I was in High School we had a close group kids that were in many of the same classes; Student Government, Advanced English and Science, Year Book , etc. There was one girl that kind of irritated me and we always sort of argued. One day I walked into one of our classes and saw the gang but no Barbara. I was kind of relieved and made a joke out loud, “Hey, where is Barbara the Bitch today?” From behind a desk blocked from my view she replied, “I’m right here Kevin.”
I don’t think in the immediate aftermath of the verbal train wreck known as my mouth, could any apology ever heal the wound that I created with my tongue. The glow of humiliation was too bright for Chris, Barbara or me to ever see any sincerity in an apology.
So years go by and I still replay my stupid acts in my head and harbor fantasies of making grand apologies to the offended with the highest possible contrition. Actually, about 20 years go by when the apology fantasy arises. No longer a skinny, geeky kid, I am now an entrepreneur. I have had a great idea for a new irrigation controller that is going to revolutionize the world. Truly, my modifications and use of wireless technology will take the world by storm, I will become rich and I will have created a legend like the guys that made the first computer in a garage. Of course, I was under capitalized, overly debt burden, short on engineering skills and was a small fish in a really big pond. Consequently, I found myself building many of the components my self, which was fun. Occasionally I would have to go to the local big box electronics stores to get software or printed circuit board parts and that is when I saw Chris, the cashier, at the check out counter.
How could I not see Chris? He was still pasty white, tall, balding and a little lumpy around the middle. He was a middle aged white man working as a cashier with 5 or 10 other folks that were half his age and all from either India or Pakistan. Where as I could envision the young kids holding down a part time cashier job while they attended college for either computer or electrical engineering degrees, Chris looked liked he was somewhat resigned to the his career path as a cashier.
The light next to his cash register flashed and I was directed by the customer line gate keeper to see Chris to pay for my parts. As I approached I verified that indeed it was Chris Eggly on the name tag. I blurted out, “Hi Chris, remember me, Kevin Knauss, we attended Junior Lifeguards together?” “Oh, yeah.” He commented with a slight smile. “How are you, what have you been up to?” These were questions for which I did not really want a reply. I could see how he was doing, he was a cashier in a dead end job. What possibly could have totally destroyed his self-esteem that at the age of 38 he became a cashier?
While Chris responded to my question about his life, which I did not listen to, my mind was racing about how I could take this one gift from God to redeem my soul. How could I squeeze in recognition of my past sins and apology?
“Gosh, kids can be so cruel, we were real idiots back then, I hope there are no hard feelings?”, I strung together at the first opportunity. A little rambling I thought, but certainly he knew what I was talking about, the dreaded snotty towel episode. “Oh well, kids will be kids.” He muttered. “No”, I thought, “you missed the point of the conversation Chris”. I wanted to talk about the past more in depth but I felt that if I talked too much I might get him fired for goofing off on the job.
Of course, he did acknowledge that 12 year olds say and do things that are equivalent to nuclear bombs on a persons psyche at that age. But I wanted more. I wanted to feel as when Jesus tells the woman who he saves from being stoned to death for adultery that, “…you are forgiven, now go and sin no more.” Instead, I felt like I had somehow contributed to his plateau as a human being. Not only was it my bullying words that destroyed him, it was my lack of intervention. I could have told my nephews not to pick on Chris, you know, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ But the rush of finally being a bully was more intoxicating than reality.
I left the store with a partial victory. When I recounted all that happen to my wife, she could not connect with my angst, either past or present. My next fantasy was to have a long chat with Chris, perhaps over coffee someday, to really explore the actions of 12 year olds and to more properly ask for his forgiveness. But I never saw Chris again at the store. When my therapy session possibility faded I began to concoct alternate scenarios for Chris’ life. In reality, I thought, Chris was not in a mind numbing job of checking out hundreds of pompous idiots like me every day, he was actually the store manager just filling in for a sick team member. That’s why I never saw him again.
Of course the other fantasy was my new business. While I could call myself President and CEO of my own company for about 3 years, it eventually ended with a whimper. Regardless of the outcome, I was very proud that all my vendors got paid, all the customers were serviced through any warranty period and the only really loser was my family’s balance sheet with a non-performing second mortgage. So I went from entrepreneur flying around the state to meet with engineers and make sales calls to another un-employed 40 something. Now I had to go back and get a real job.
When I think back on my apologetic encounter with Chris, I am reminded of the rabbinical argument against gossiping. I paraphrase: Gossip is like a pillow filled with goose down, torn open atop a windy hill. No matter how hard you try you will never be able to track down all the feathers and put them back into the pillow. So perhaps my time as entrepreneur and goose down chaser had come to an end.
Eventually, I went to work for a small company that I had worked for in High School. While I have slightly greater responsibilities than when I used to ride my bike from school to work 25 years earlier, my main responsibility is to be a clerk and cashier at the counter. At 45, I have stopped trying to self-actualize, and started to try and enjoy life. There has been no event or series of events that destroyed my self-esteem. I am relatively happy with a nice family. Maybe it has taken me eight years to learn what Chris already knew, kids will be kids and life will be life. And Barbara if you are listening…I’m sorry.
**Ironically, after I wrote this piece sometime ago, I moved closer to Folsom Lake. Now, virtually every weekend I ride my mountain bike past Granite Beach park, site of junior lifeguard training, at the lake and see lots of young families and kids not acting like bullies.