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.