Dr. Evans lowered his rimless readers down his nose a bit so he could get a better look at me. And he waited. He never started the conversation.
I looked around the familiar office, it was a place where I felt safe. There was so much that could easily spill out of me and take our session well past the required hour. But this time I knew exactly what I wanted to discuss.
“I think I made a new friend,” I began.
“You don’t say.” Dr. Evans leaned back, both surprised and pleased at this news.
“There’s a new girl in my grade. Her name is Simone. From Brooklyn, New York. She’s pretty hot, Dr. Evans, with these wild long braids and cool clothes. She plays hoop and she’s fun and nice. I had to show her around school yesterday and today. And yesterday after school we biked all over town.”
“Jonah, this is good news. I’m very happy for you.”
“Yeah, it’s good. It’s really good.” I nodded. “Of course, she hasn’t figured out that I’m being bullied yet. She will though. Eventually. It’s hard to say what will happen then. I’m trying to control the situation as best as I can.”
“Okay, let’s back up here. Tell me more about why she hasn’t figured out that you’re being bullied.”
“Well, I’ve just been lucky enough, and careful enough, to avoid the bullies. Like we planned. We ate lunch the last two days in the art room, where it’s safe. And I’ve avoided my locker. And today I had gym and she changed in the girls’ locker room and I changed in the janitor’s closet, because I always avoid the boys’ locker room. But I knew as soon as gym started, it would be all over. So I went to the nurse and skipped gym.”
Dr. Evans frowned.
“Well...come on Dr. Evans. We’re playing co-ed volleyball right now and Brian Pullman and the other dickheads, they've been shoving me whenever I get the chance to set up a shot, or tripping me, calling me names. Last week, I was serving during a game and Patrick Reilly stood right in front of me and blocked every ball I tried to hit. He did it like six times and kept yelling, ‘In your face!’ All the kids laughed.”
By Dr. Evans’s expression, I could tell he was upset that the school had obviously not been successful in shutting down the abuse. He put his hand up and said, “Okay, hold on, so tell me about the gym teacher, Mr. Slater, how does he normally respond to this?”
“I mean...not like, a commander in chief. The students, they kind of walk all over him. In your terms, I guess you would say he has poor classroom management skills. He does call out the bullies sometimes. He makes them sit on the bench, maybe once in a while he gives them detention. He tries to help me, he checks in with me pretty regularly. But the bullies don’t stop because they don’t respect him.
Dr. Evans frowned again. “So, it sounds like nothing serious has really been done to try to manage the bullying culture at your school. No change in attitude or expectations or actually holding these kids accountable.”
“No, they aren’t like super tough on them…but I’m doing my part, I use all the strategies you’ve taught me.” Then I paused for a few seconds before I added, “But I couldn’t go to gym class with Simone there, everything has been going so well with her. I just can’t let her see me taking that shit.”
“And that’s why you made an excuse to miss gym today.”
“Yeah. Before class started, I told Mr. Slater I had a stomach ache and he sent me to the nurse. I know you’re disappointed in me.” I looked down.
“No, Jonah. I’m not disappointed. There don’t seem to be any boundaries in your gym class. That leaves you completely vulnerable. And you obviously want to hold on to your new friend, that’s understandable.”
“Thank you.” I muttered.
“But,” Dr. Evans began, shifting in his chair, “you can’t skip gym forever. And I imagine Simone will want to sit in the cafeteria at some point. And go outside for recess. Don’t you think she will figure out that you’re avoiding certain areas and certain people? Don’t you think she’ll piece all of this together?”
I looked down again. “I know she will. But right now, I’m happy and I don’t want to ruin it.”
“I can see that. You’re feeling a little lighter and hopeful, you have someone who thinks you’re special.”
“Yes! And it could all end tomorrow or maybe a week. But what if I can just get to the end of the school year. It’s not that much longer. And then I would have the summer away from the bullies…and I would have a friend this summer. I wouldn’t have to worry about anything until the fall. And maybe by then, I’ll grow four or five inches.” I paused. “But if she saw the freak show that I star in during gym and in the lunchroom, she would think I’m just a loser.
“Whoa, whoa…hold on now. First of all, do not talk about yourself like that. Second, you’re not giving her much credit. Alright, let’s think this through. Let’s say that your new friend Simone had actually witnessed you getting bullied in gym today. Would she honestly think you were the loser…or the kids who are treating you badly?”
“She’s not an idiot, Dr. Evans, she would realize they’re douchebags and I don’t deserve it.”
"I don't like douchebag."
"Why, what's wrong with douchebag?"
"Jonah, do you know what a...alright, never mind, you probably do. Let's just stick with dickhead or prick, asshole. I'm okay with those...so, let's say Simone saw you being bullied in gym today. Who is she going to think is the loser?"
“Right. So, I’m guessing that she will be on your side. Maybe she will even keep you a little closer. She hasn’t really made any other friends yet, right? You are her first friend at school. Maybe she will be loyal. And what are these boys going to do, beat up a girl?”
“I mean…yeah…but she is also risking just having one friend. Me. When she could have lots of friends. Other girls. Kids who look normal.”
“Okay, I get it. And by the way, you look quite normal. But what if a couple more students decide to be friends with Simone, and therefore you, by association. Maybe a few more students befriend her, and you. Then the power of the bullies is diminished.”
I immediately countered with, “Or, what if she does stand by me and also makes some other friends, but those friends convince her to ditch me?”
Dr. Evans rubbed his chin for a minute. “Okay…okay…let’s go in another direction. We’re projecting here. And that can make us unnecessarily anxious, and lead to bad decisions. Let’s go back to your gym class.”
He continued. “I don’t think you should skip gym, Jonah, I think you should go. And if a situation comes up where you feel you’re in real danger, you head it off by going directly to Mr. Slater. Or even the principal. But as far as Simone, let her see what gym is like when you’re there. And if she wants to eat in the cafeteria and go outside for recess, tell her you’ll go with her. But be honest with her and tell her about your situation. Right? There’s a group of boys who are real pricks, they’ve been on your case for a while now because of your size, and it’s left you without allies. And you would understand if she feels intimidated by the situation, but you hope that the two of you can still remain friends. Put the ball in her court. And let’s see what she does.”
I sunk into my chair with the full weight of disappointment. “I don’t like taking uncalculated risks Dr. Evans. It leaves me too…what’s your word…vulnerable.”
“Well, unfortunately, Jonah, we can’t always crunch the numbers and weigh all risks so precisely. People would never leave their homes otherwise.”
“But I’m sure of this one, Dr. Evans. All my friends have decided I’m too risky. They have to look out for themselves. I wouldn’t blame Simone if she did the same. And I’m betting she will. I think that…maybe if I play it safe, just the way I did yesterday and today, I can still hold on to one friend. For a while anyway.”
“Jonah, listen to me. We can’t just say no to all risks. That would be backing away from life. That’s what happens when you always play it safe. I don’t want you to condition yourself to steer clear of any and all situations that could possibly lead to a negative outcome. Outside of the obvious, like playing in traffic or swimming with sharks, or walking into a crack house. But what you’re dealing with at school – I would not throw caution to the wind, I would still weigh each situation, but I would be prepared to take an intelligent risk. One where maybe the upside outweighs the downside. I know you process things logically. Even more logically than a lot of adults. But consider that it may be equally stupid to pass up an intelligent risk where your outcome is positive, and the potential downside is limited.”
I pulled my knees up and rested my chin on them. This was a fair point. I chewed it over carefully for a minute. Dr. Evans never rushed me.
Finally, I said, “This is a strong argument, Dr. Evans, and I’d like to say that you’re really turning me around here, but probability-wise, I think you’re off.”
“No. No, I’m not. Because we are not really free or living our lives with integrity if we avoid all risks. Risk taking is an integral part of life. In science and in business and in art, so many areas Jonah! It’s how we grow and gain confidence. Every underdog who decides to go for it, is taking a risk. Going against the odds and still trying anyway. We are taking a giant leap of faith when we take a chance on ourselves and on others. We are reaffirming our belief in humanity and in God when we decide to take a chance on someone we love, who is flawed, and who may even disappoint us.”
I exhaled loudly. “Okay. I understand that I’m not being honest with Simone. And I get that I’m not really free to live my life if I’m sneaking around in the shadows.”
“And hiding in the janitor’s closet,” he added.
I quickly fired back. “But you said if the situation is dangerous and I may get hurt…”
“Yes. I did. You’re right, Jonah. So, we should still approach situations with some caution and…”
I interrupted him now. “But I can’t run and hide from all of it, I still need to subject myself to some acceptable level of humiliation? A lesser degree of abuse? So that I can say that I’m living a more honest life? That sounds like BS! Isn’t any degree of bullying wrong and unacceptable, Dr. Evans?”
“Yes. Of course it is. Alright, Jonah. We’re confusing a couple of things here. Let’s just focus on Simone for the moment. And the fact that you shouldn’t try to control or manipulate your relationship with her. By hiding things from her. By avoiding the truth. By protecting her from what is real. You are lying to her. You have to let her in. Let her really see you. And the other students. As vulnerable an environment as that may be. And then…you let her decide. Just let that sink in for a minute. And let’s do a breathing exercise. We can come back to this topic again. Also, I’m going to have to call the school, so we can address the bullying in your gym class.”
I moaned at hearing this last part. But I knew Dr. Evans was probably right.
Towards the end of the session Dr. Evans asked his standard question. “Is there anything else you want to share with me today or ask me? We still have a few minutes left.”
Simone had consumed most of my thoughts for the last couple of days. I tried to think of other things that had happened since our last session.
“Oh! I almost forgot to tell you, the last week of school is the spring concert for chorus. I’m in the chorus and Simone really likes to sing and wants to be in the chorus next year too. And she wants to audition for a solo part for the final performance. Mrs. Ramirez said she could.”
Dr. Evans nodded with interest.
“But she’s nervous and doesn’t think she’s good enough. She asked me to come hear her sing at her church this Sunday. I hope she doesn’t suck, cuz I really don’t want to encourage her to audition if she sucks.”
Dr. Evans got a big chuckle out of this. “Well, you see, she already values your friendship, Jonah. And she is taking a risk by putting herself in a vulnerable position. She’s trusting you to be honest about her singing voice.”
“Okay, you're right. So that means I have to tell her the truth if she stinks.”
“Well, you can be diplomatic. Be kind.”
“You know, I like to sing too. I actually sing with a group,” Dr. Evans offered.
“Really?” I said with some disbelief. I had a hard time picturing my therapist, who looked more like a quarterback, having anything to do with singing.
“Sure. In college I was in an a cappella group. And then when I was working on my sobriety, I turned to music and joined another a cappella group called Black Voices. We obviously aren’t famous like Brothers in Harmony but we may do some recording and possibly a little touring.
“Wow. That’s pretty cool. What do you guys sing?”
“R & B, some jazz, some pop. We’re pretty tight.”
“How many guys in the group?”
“You just said that you turned to music when you were trying to get sober? Did it help?”
“It saved me, Jonah. Music is my sanctuary.”
“How is music your sanctuary?”
“Well…you know how being in the surf and on the water helps you to feel some peace? I have the same connection with music. Plato said 'Music gives soul to the universe'.”
“Okay…maybe there’s something special about singing in the chorus. Sometimes we sing these complex pieces. One time, we did this medley of Afrobeats for the winter performance and the music had three and four part harmonies. My mom loved it so much, she was practically crying when she heard it at the concert.”
“There, you see, the music touched her. She made a connection.”
“You mean she really appreciated it?”
“No, it’s more than that…have you ever been to a ball game or a concert, and the entire crowd is full of people from all walks of life, but when everyone comes together for this particular purpose, they all feel connected.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. For that moment, everyone is united. And it creates this amazing energy.”
“That’s exactly it, Jonah!” Dr. Evans stood up excitedly and walked to a wall. He pointed to a picture of him singing with a group of guys. “We feel it when we sing. And we help our audience feel it. Call it a vibe or an energy, but it’s a shared feeling or experience. A spirit of unity.”
He smiled. “Music for me is the sound of spirit. And it helps me find an enlightened state. And that helps me stay sober.”
“You kind of lost me.”
“Music helped me to connect to my inner and divine nature, and that is spiritual for me. I don’t expect everyone who enjoys music to experience it the same way. Let me ask you, who is as passionate about surfing and playing in the ocean as much as you are?”
“My parents. My dad especially. All the guys that work in his surf shop.”
“They share your sanctuary. Jonah, it doesn’t matter if Simone is a good singer or if you are a good surfer. It only matters that you are passionate about it. That you feel a positive connection to it. My music is a spiritual experience for me. All of us who sing in my group feel our music. We get lost in it. It’s a therapeutic force for us.”
And as he said this, I was suddenly struck with an episode of déjà vu. I had dreamt this same conversation with Dr. Evans. It somehow felt connected to my reoccurring nightmare and I felt closer to an answer. I could hear that loud thumping and my own heart racing against it. I felt something dangerous was going to happen to me and I was afraid.