Saturday, June 7, 2008

Lord of the Flies

I wasn't at the absolute bottom of the social ladder when I was in middle school, but I was close. The kid at the bottom, just a rung or two below me, was named Paul Rooney. Paul was a lanky, goofy-looking kid, with dark curly hair and a complete inability to successfully resist the horrors inflicted on him daily by his monstrous peers.

I was among the worst of these monsters, because I was supposedly his friend. When it was convenient, when I needed a friend, I was friendly with him. But I was as nasty to him as anyone else when it meant keeping him down -- you know, so he wouldn't climb past me. So I'd be nice to him one minute -- usually when nobody was looking -- and vicious the next. Paul was bullied, teased, picked on, and continually betrayed.

Thanks in no small part to false friends like me, Paul was utterly bewildered by his world, perfectly conscious of the injustices he faced but unable to rectify them. He tried, it was just that nothing worked. He'd fight back against the bullies, but he was pathetically ineffectual; they brushed him aside with a dark laugh and punched harder. He knew better than to go to the school authorities; we'd have just teased him that much worse for showing weakness, and anyway they might as well have been stone giants for all the help they'd offer a kid like him. Why should they bother? It was just kids picking on each other -- kids do that. They had real problems to worry about, like keeping the football field green.

From what little I saw, his parents were worse. I vividly remember going to Paul's house for his birthday party one year. About half a dozen of us showed up, and we mainly sat around playing his Atari. Paul left the room; we kept playing. In the next room, Paul's dad told him sternly to go back into the den and hang out with us. "Your friends are here!" his dad growled, and Paul replied in high-pitched anguish, more than loud enough for us to hear, "They're not my friends! They're not here for me! They're only here to play my video games!" The thing is, he was right. I think we were making fun of him.

The next year, Paul's parents did absolutely the worst thing, the stupidest possible thing anybody could do to a kid like that: they sent him to a military school. (Admiral Farragut Academy, if you want to know.) I imagine that his dad thought Paul just needed some discipline, or something. Possibly, they thought the environment would be better there, that kids would be protected from teasing. Or they thought it would toughen him up. Who knows.

We didn't hear anything about Paul for a year. I went away that summer to visit my dad and stepmother in North Carolina, and when I came back, there was a newspaper article waiting for me.

Paul Rooney had had enough at last. He shot his dad, his mom, and his younger brother with his dad's revolver. They all died. (Only Paul's younger sister, who was spending the night with relatives, was unharmed.) Then he drove the family van across the causeway from St. Petersburg to Tampa, pulled over, and shot himself in the head.

He left a note in the van. The note read, simply, "I'm sorry."

That was it. That was the end of Paul's torment.

The newspaper called it a suicide. We never talked about it, but we all knew that wasn't the truth. The truth was, we had teased him to death.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


The best fiction-writing teacher I ever had was Luke Whisnant. One day I was in his office, reviewing a story I'd written for his class, and he passed along an old piece of writerly advice: "You can tell a lot about a person by looking at his shoes."

Back then I owned one pair of shoes: black Converse high-tops. They were gradually disintegrating; I'd worn them every day for years, in all kinds of weather, and there were holes in the sides and the fabric was tearing away at the toes. I was ashamed of them; cheap as they were, I couldn't afford a new pair, and mainly I just hoped nobody would notice them.

"I notice you tucked your feet under your chair when I said that," Luke continued, not missing a beat. I blinked in surprise. He was right; unconsciously, I had done exactly that.

I Still Want to Smack Him, Thirty Years Later

I was six when Star Wars came out -- the perfect age, I think. I don't remember much about my childhood, but I'll always remember watching that movie for the first time: from the opening shot of the enormous Star Destroyer bearing down mercilessly on the valiant but hopelessly outgunned little rebel ship, through leaving the theater jumping-up-and-down excited.

And I stayed that excited. I wanted to be Luke Skywalker. (My much more clueful brother wanted to be Han Solo, but I digress.) I am probably personally responsible for the majority of George Lucas's ensuing fortune: my normally not terribly indulgent parents succumbed to my incessant supplications, my endless blandishments, my -- my whatever it took; they bought me the X-Wing toy, the remote-controlled R2-D2, the comic books, the dolls action figures, everything. I replayed the movie in my mind over and over, every day, obsessively.

So just imagine how thrilled I was, three years later, to hear there would be a sequel! I'm not even sure I knew exactly what the concept of a sequel was, I just knew that there was going to be another one of the greatest thing ever. In the intervening years, my parents had divorced, a deeply traumatic experience for me -- and suddenly I didn't care because there was going to be another Star Wars!

The anticipation built for months. We didn't go on opening weekend -- I don't remember why, but maybe because my mom wanted to let the crowds die down -- but at last the big day came. We were going to see Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

I was practically in a frenzy, standing there in line outside the movie theater with my mom and my brother, in the hot Florida sun. As we waited, the previous showing's audience poured out. I could see in their faces as they walked by that they had loved it, that the movie was going to be awesome.

And as one guy walked past me, he said to his friend, "Wow, I can't believe Darth Vader turned out to be Luke Skywalker's father."